Republicans have a huge advantage in 2014 — but it's not ObamaCare
Reading too much into the result of one special election is problematic, and it misses the GOP's inherent structural advantage in the upcoming midterms
Republican David Jolly on Tuesday won the special election to fill a vacant House seat in Florida's 13th District, and the snap reaction from many observers was that Jolly capitalized on ObamaCare's unpopularity to eke out a victory over Democrat Alex Sink.
The contest was "a test run for how ObamaCare would affect Democrats in the upcoming elections, and whether it would be as problematic as the GOP hoped," said The Daily Caller.
The outcome "shows that voters are looking for representatives who will fight to end the disaster of ObamaCare," claimed RNC Chairman Reince Priebus.
Indeed, Democrats are facing a potentially disastrous election year. But there are a lot of problems with the narrative emerging from Florida.
Extrapolating broad conclusions about the national electorate from one outcome, in one district, in one state, is inherently problematic. As Steve Benen points out over at MSNBC, other recent special elections haven't been terribly predictive of future contests. That's because it entails stripping away the necessary context for understanding each race at a local level. Put simply, the nation is not Florida's 13th District.
Sink was a pretty lousy candidate, and she wasn't even from the district she was vying to represent. (Slate's Dave Weigel, who spent time on the ground covering the race, has a thorough rundown of her foibles.) Turnout was also barely half what it was in 2012 when Obama narrowly carried the district. And even House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) pegged Jolly's win not on ObamaCare, but on the economy.
Even if ObamaCare were the driving force behind Sink's loss, polling doesn't suggest that link would necessarily be replicated elsewhere. Despite voters' general distaste for ObamaCare, surveys have shown that opposition doesn't translate into support for Republican repeal efforts. So while 47 percent of respondents in the latest Wall Street Journal/NBC News poll say they'd vote for a Republican who opposes ObamaCare, 48 percent say they'd back a Democrat who wants to keep and fix the health care law.
To be sure, Republicans are still poised to clean up in November. But that's primarily because of the confluence of other factors, including a significant structural advantage, a bum economy, and an unpopular president.
The 2014 electoral map is much in the GOP's favor. Democrats made huge gains in 2008, so they have more seats to defend this year, some of them in red or purple states, including North Carolina, Alaska, and Louisiana. All told, Democrats are trying to defend seven Senate seats in states carried by Mitt Romney two years ago.
The party in the White House has historically lost big in sixth-year midterm elections, too, and Obama's unpopularity could ensure the same phenomenon plays out again this year. Obama's approval rating, an uninspiring 41 percent, is as low as it's ever been in the WSJ/NBC poll. Worse, 42 percent of respondents say they'll be less likely to vote for a candidate if he or she is endorsed by Obama; only 22 percent say an Obama endorsement would make them more likely to back a candidate.
Then there's the struggling economy. The unemployment rate ticked up to 6.7 percent last month, giving the GOP more ammunition to claim Democrats' policies have failed to create jobs. And just as most voters think Obama is doing a bad job overall in the White House, a wide majority think he's failing on economic issues as well.
Of course, the midterm elections aren't for another eight months, so much can change between now and then. But at the moment, Democrats are hampered by an unpopular president and a sluggish economy. And even if the economy improves, and Obama somehow resurrects his approval rating, Democrats will still face an unfavorable playing field. Even in an ObamaCare-less vacuum, Republicans would likely be favored to come out ahead in November on that last point alone.