Sabato's Crystal Ball

The Limited Meaning of Florida’s Special House Election

Larry J. Sabato and Kyle Kondik, U.Va Center for Politics March 12th, 2014

Rep.-elect David Jolly (R, FL-13) overcame money, some internal division among Republicans, and a name recognition and prestige deficit to defeat Alex Sink (D) in a much-watched special election in Florida’s Tampa-area 13th Congressional District Tuesday night.

Republicans are of course gleeful about the results, and Democrats, despite immediately pledging to fight for the district again come November, have to be disappointed. The district, held by the late former Rep. Bill Young (R) for decades, narrowly supported President Obama twice. It’s the kind of suburban swing district that Democrats are going to have to increasingly target to eventually win back the House now that the party’s old redoubts in conservative Appalachian and Southern districts have largely eroded away.

The result came as something of a surprise to us and to other election watchers — many, including us, thought Sink would win, albeit narrowly. We decided after the special election primary back in January to switch the race from Toss-up to Leans Democratic. While the race was close throughout, we decided to keep that rating, based on early voting figures, an overall Democratic money advantage, the opinions of some of our sources and a real pessimism from Republicans about Jolly, which was reflected in the press in the closing days of the campaign. So without strong evidence to switch our call to Jolly and Leans Republican, we stuck with Sink, who lost a close race for governor in 2010 and carried this district in that election.

We feel we owe it to our readers to make calls in all the races we cover, which separates the Crystal Ball from some other election handicappers. There aren’t any Toss-ups on Election Day, and we try to reflect that in our ratings. Invariably, since we call even the tightest contests, we get some wrong. This was a special election, and that type of race can be very difficult to call. In the end, Jolly won by less than two points.

The special election result does strengthen our belief, as expressed in this space for months, that Republicans are in position not only to hold the House but to add some seats to their House majority in November. This was one of the GOP’s most vulnerable seats, and they held it.

But it’s March, and this single result occurs too early to be an unmistakable indication of a November Republican wave. Naturally, partisans are inclined to believe the rosiest possible forecast for their side, but at the Crystal Ball, we rely on as much hard data as we can accumulate. The data so far suggest a Republican year, but they do not tell us how Republican.

In addition, special elections are not necessarily bellwethers — for every case you can cite of one predicting the November outcome, you can cite one that didn’t. No question, the special election shows the arrow is pointing up for Republicans in the fall, but there are better arguments that were available well before FL-13: Namely, the GOP benefits from the president’s poor approval rating and the Obamacare controversy; the historical trend of midterms being a backlash against the president’s party; and a highly favorable Senate map where Democrats are exposed.

Looking ahead to November, we’re going to start FL-13’s general election rating at Leans Republican. Jolly, a former lobbyist, remains an imperfect candidate, but the Democrats are now behind the eight-ball in a district they might well have grabbed. Jolly is now in the catbird’s seat for November.