Like all special elections, it is possible to overstate the implications of yesterday’s Republican victory in Florida’s 13th Congressional District. Democrats have eight months to figure out how to survive the 2014 midterm elections without suffering a repeat of their landslide loss in 2010. But there’s no way for Democrats to spin the Florida 13 results as anything but a portent of disaster. Democrats had a much better candidate who raised more money running against a weak and apparently disorganized Republican effort in a genuine swing district that Barack Obama won in 2008 and 2012. More importantly the Democrat, Alex Sink, won the district in her unsuccessful run for governor in 2010. In other words, if Democrats can’t win this sort of competitive district under these favorable circumstances, it begs the question of how they can hope to win anywhere else outside of deep blue strongholds.
The explanation for this is the obvious dissatisfaction with President Obama and ObamaCare that is being expressed across the country. As a new NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll reveals, the president is at his all-time low in terms of approval. Even worse, voters say they are far more unlikely to vote for a candidate who is endorsed by President Obama than if they did not back the administration. While Republicans and the Tea Party are also unpopular, these midterms stack up, as has every previous off-year election, as a referendum on the president with his signature health-care plan looking to be the key issue much as it was in 2010. But while we pundits can debate just how much these factors will impact what happens in November, what isn’t debatable is that the Sink candidacy was a test case for a specific Democratic approach to the ObamaCare problem.
Sink ran as a moderate Democrat who promised to work across party lines, characteristics that polls show voters like. Knowing that ObamaCare is deeply disliked by the public, she attempted to finesse the issue by acknowledging its problems but urging that it be fixed rather than thrown out. This seems like the most sensible poll-tested method for Democrats to deal with health care, but it failed miserably. If we learned anything last night it is that ObamaCare is so toxic that any attempt by Democrats to maneuver around it is bound to fail.
The “fix it” strategy seems to be the stance that many Democrats are trying across the country this year. The conceit of the approach is that while voters may not like the idea of the misnamed Affordable Care Act, they will probably be uncertain of the impact of a full repeal. If Democrats can focus on the improvements that can be made to the tottering scheme, much like the controversial repaired website healthcare.gov, it is hoped that they can find an electoral sweet spot that will enable them to evade responsibility for its passage.
There are two fundamental flaws to this approach. One is tactical and the other is strategic.
The tactical problem is that the “fix it” spin on ObamaCare compels Democrats to play on Republican territory. While it is only common sense for candidates to concede that the ObamaCare rollout was a disaster and that the disruptions it will cause will hurt a lot of people, taking that as your main position on the most important issue of the day is conceding that the GOP’s stance is basically correct. Like moderate Republicans who for decades seemed to adopt Democratic positions on the welfare state and entitlements with the caveat that they would administer them in a manner that was more fiscally sound, “fix it” is a political loser. While a full-throated defense of ObamaCare would probably be suicidal in a swing district where most voters oppose the measure, trying to have it both ways on health care puts Democrats in a weak position that only the most brilliant candidates can possible pull off.
The strategic problem is that Democrats were sure that public opinion on ObamaCare would turn once it was implemented. Bur rather than become as popular as Social Security or Medicare, as they though it would, right now it looks to be every bit as unpopular as it was in 2010. That puts in place the possibility that 2014 will be another wave election in which swing districts and states will turn on that issue rather than be decided principally by local personalities and issues. Though President Obama’s decision to postpone the imposition of the law’s mandate on many employers and individual insurance customers will lessen the blow for Democrats, they can’t evade the fact that in contrast to Social Security and Medicare, there are as many if not more voters who will be negatively affected by ObamaCare as those who are helped by it. That is something that the “fix it” approach won’t change.
Like Alex Sink, endangered Democratic Senate incumbents like Mary Landrieu, Mark Begich, Kay Hagan, and Mark Pryor will try the “fix it” approach and hope to do better in November. But unlike Sink, they are also burdened by their votes for ObamaCare. Looked at from that perspective, the Florida 13th special makes it look as if anger at the president and his signature health-care law will create a tide that no amount of clever Democratic tactics or fundraising advantages will overcome.