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The Race Democrats Can’t Afford to Lose

It’s rare in politics that anything other than a presidential contest is viewed as a “must win” — but the special election in Florida’s 13th District falls into that category for Democrats.

A loss in the competitive March 11 contest would almost certainly be regarded by dispassionate observers as a sign that President Barack Obama could constitute an albatross around the neck of his party’s nominees in November. And that could make it more difficult for Democratic candidates, campaign committees and interest groups to raise money and energize the grass roots.

Fundamentally, the district, left vacant by the death of longtime Republican Rep. C.W. Bill Young, looks competitive but has a slight Democratic tinge. Barack Obama carried it 52 percent to 48 percent in 2008, but he had a more narrow victory four years later, when he won 50 percent to 49 percent.

(See also: Jolly Wins Special, Florida’s 13th Starts as Lean Republican for Midterm)

But fundamentals are only a small part of the Democratic advantage in the district this year. Campaign-related factors should strongly benefit the Democrats, as well.

Alex Sink is certain to win the Democratic nomination in the Jan. 14 primary. Sink, whose late husband, Bill McBride, was the unsuccessful Democratic nominee for governor in 2002, was elected Florida’s chief financial officer in 2006.

Four years later, she was her party’s gubernatorial nominee. In that toxic political environment for Democrats, Sink lost to multimillionaire GOP businessman Rick Scott by a mere 61,550 votes out of more than 5.3 million cast – a margin of just more than 1 point. In that contest, Scott spent $73 million of his own money (including money from his wife’s revocable trust), according to the Orlando Sentinel. But Sink carried the 13th District by 2 points in that race.

Democrats have rallied behind Sink’s congressional bid so completely that 2012 Democratic nominee Jessica Ehrlich, who wanted to run in the special election, was forced out of the contest.

Republicans, on the other hand, won’t choose their nominee until next week. The GOP primary seems to boil down to David Jolly, a longtime aide to Young who left his staff to become a Washington, D.C., lobbyist in 2007, and state Rep. Kathleen Peters, who is serving her first term in the Florida Legislature.

The Republican primary has not been without rancor (it has even divided members of the late congressman’s family), and the eventual nominee will have to unite his or her party quickly, raise funds for the special election and immediately start to engage Sink.

Money could be a significant problem for the GOP.

In her Dec. 25 online fundraising report, Sink showed total contributions of $1.43 million, with just more than $1 million in the bank. In his late December report, Jolly showed just under $142,000 on hand, while Peters reported less than $18,000 in the bank.

The calendar also favors the former Florida CFO, who is clearly more prepared to launch a top-tier campaign after the polls close next week than her eventual Republican opponent will be. While a mere eight weeks separate the special primary and the special election, the window is even narrower than that, because absentee ballots for domestic voters are tentatively scheduled to be mailed on Feb. 4 and early voting begins March 1, according to the website of the Pinellas County supervisor of elections.

Given all of the advantages that Sink has — the district, her experience and proven electoral success, her money in the bank and her united party — and the problems the GOP nominee will face, shouldn’t the likely Democratic nominee be a clear favorite to win the special election, getting her party one seat closer to the majority in November?

The answer is “yes,” and if this seat had become open in 2006 or 2007, there is little doubt that Democrats would have been solid favorites to win.

But the president’s weak poll numbers nationally and the problems associated with the launch of the health care law could undermine Sink’s obvious advantages, particularly in this Central Florida district, where 22 percent of residents are 65 or older. (Republican strategists believe that voters 65 and older could constitute close to 30 percent of the special-election electorate.)

If swing voters decide to use the special election as an opportunity to register their displeasure with the president or punish Sink because she is a member of Obama’s party, the eventual Republican nominee’s prospects could rise.

And Democrats are worried that the composition of the special-election electorate will make the contest more challenging for their nominee than it would be in a regularly scheduled election.

Still, all things being equal, Sink has enough advantages to produce a narrow but clear victory. So, while a victory would constitute a takeover and give her party’s talking heads an opportunity to demonize the Republicans in Congress once again, it would not be surprising.

On the other hand, since most nonpartisan handicappers and analysts have for years expected this seat to go Democratic when it became open, a Republican victory in March would likely say something about the national political environment and the inclination of district voters to send a message of dissatisfaction about the president. And that possibility should worry the White House.

The National Republican Congressional Committee would love to keep this Florida seat in the special election. The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee cannot afford to lose it. Those are two very different perspectives that reflect the relative importance of this election to the two parties.

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