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KEENE: Explaining David Jolly’s win in Florida special election

The Republicans appear back and ready to compete

- The Washington Times - Monday, March 17, 2014

Now that the smoke has cleared, it's time to look at the lessons to be learned from the Republican victory in last week's 13th Congressional District special election in Florida.

David Jolly's victory shocked the political world, which expected his better-known and better-financed Democratic opponent to win.

It was especially shocking to national Democrats, who viewed the race as their Spanish Civil War, testing the themes they plan to use nationwide this fall.

Since the results were announced fairly early last Tuesday evening, we have been told that special elections do or don't matter, that Obamacare was or wasn't a deciding factor in the race, and that Mr. Jolly's victory can or cannot be traced to the role of what Senate Democratic Leader Harry Reid thinks of as evil "outside groups."

Lesson One: Republicans might consider sticking with the candidates the voters of the district select as their nominee — even if they might have preferred someone else. Rally around your nominee and don't try to throw your candidate under the bus in the middle of his or her campaign.

Washington's Republican establishment included few Jolly fans. Republican leaders, including House Speaker John A. Boehner, worked to find another candidate before the filing deadline, but failed, and Mr. Jolly eventually emerged from his party's primary against lesser challengers bloodied and broke.

The National Republican Congressional Committee then jumped in, but at the staff level, the candidate was derided as incompetent and a sure loser.

To outsiders, the Washington "pros" seemed to have a point. The 41-year-old former Hill staffer is a lobbyist who spent most of his time in Washington, was in the midst of a divorce, and was dating a young lady 14 years his junior who had worked for him.

He was also hurt by the quasi-public way in which Washington Republicans who should have been on his team were cutting him up behind his back, making it hard for him to raise money.

Lesson Two: The fact that he won anyway unleashed spinmeisters desperate to explain or explain away the results. Democrats who had optimistically predicted a victory for their candidate, Alex Sink, rushed to explain that the district is not nearly as Democrat-friendly as mistakenly assumed, and that in spite of the final vote, Ms. Sink's support for Obamacare helped rather than hurt her.

Peter Hart, one of the Democrats' most respected pollsters, suggested that the data showed that her support of the party's strategy of arguing in favor of "mending rather than ending" Obamacare was a plus for Ms. Sink, who lost for other reasons.

Maybe. Other factors are always at play, and yes, turnout in midterm elections favor Republicans. In the final days of the campaign, though, Mr. Jolly gained support by focusing on his opposition to the Affordable Care Act.

Anyone who dismisses the damage to Democrats trying to deal with public opposition to Obamacare has spent too much time in marijuana-friendly Colorado and not enough time talking to normal voters in Florida and elsewhere.

The Democrats relied on a strategy that worked at the national level in 2012 as well as in numerous Senate and congressional races.

The first part of that strategy was to demonize the Republican candidate as corrupt, completely out of touch, or in favor of programs and policies that would hurt voters.

The second was to unleash the party's ability to identify and mobilize Democratic base voters and get to them to the polls as they did two years ago.

The first part worked to a degree and may explain why the race seemed winnable. The task was certainly made easier by the unintended help Democrats got from Washington Republicans and the fact that at times, Mr. Jolly actually seemed to be playing into their hands, but it wasn't enough.

Mr. Jolly was a better candidate than his critics had predicted. He didn't curl up into a ball amid the attacks: He pummeled Ms. Sink on Obamacare, then talked about alternatives.

He refused to follow the playbook that called for him to spend his campaign days on the defensive, went on the attack and advanced solutions that seemed more realistic to district voters than those of his opponent.

The crucial question, though, is this: Where was the Democratic turnout machine? It's not enough to dismiss Ms. Sink's defeat as a result of the fact that Democrats turn out in lower numbers in midterm elections when that's exactly what their turnout operation was deployed to overcome.

Architects of the system have been bragging for some time that it would counter Democratic lethargy in the off-years.

This race took place in Florida, where the Democrats had successfully deployed paid workers, the products of computer geniuses and old-fashioned work by a huge volunteer operation to identify, woo and deliver the vote just two years ago.

Turnout in the district fell from 344,000 in 2012, when President Obama's team worked it, to 184,000 this year.

The Obama machine get out the vote operation has morphed into something called the Bannock Street Project, which has budgeted $60 million for 2014 to get out the vote in this fall's Senate races.

The infrastructure had already been built in Florida, and every Democrat in the country knew the importance of this election, but they couldn't deliver the few thousand votes they needed to win it.

Republican National Committee Chairman Reince Priebus, meanwhile, has been building an on-the-ground capability to go toe-to-toe with the Democrats. The Jolly race suggests that he is making progress.

While other Washington Republicans were undermining their own candidate, Mr. Priebus worked quietly but persistently to identify and deliver the votes Mr. Jolly needed.

The RNC still has to prove it can duplicate those results on a larger scale, but the real takeaway from the Jolly victory may be that the Republicans are back and ready to play.

David A. Keene is opinion editor of The Washington Times.

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