Reading The Special Election Tea Leaves

Political reporters love special elections for congressional seats. Because the elections are one-off affairs held at odd times, they command far more attention than normal congressional races do. And the question always is: is there a lesson to be learned from the results that tells us how the national political winds are blowing?

Yesterday one of those special elections was held in Florida’s 13th House district. Democrat Alex Sink and Republican David Jolly were vying to replace a longtime Republican incumbent who died of cancer in October. Both sides poured money into the race, with Sink and her allies slightly outspending the Republican side.

The Republicans tried to make the race a referendum on Obamacare. Jolly favors outright repeal; Sink says the law should be “fixed” without saying much about how, precisely, to do that. Her position is the one that Democrats are being urged to voice in November, on the theory that voters are pragmatic and would rather see repair than repeal.

Jolly won by a 2% margin. Does that tell us that Obamacare will be political poison for Democrats nationally in November, or does it just mean that, on this occasion in one district in Florida, voters narrowly opted for one candidate over another? Already Democrats are noting that Sink got a larger percentage of the vote than had Democratic challengers to the longtime Republican incumbent — which seems like pretty meaningless spin to me.

I’m not inclined to read too much into the results, because I think many voters vote on the basis of candidates rather than issues. I also think, however, that Democrats need to sharpen their message and give voters some details on what, precisely, they propose to do with this law that has affected so many people. There are a lot of credibility issues swirling around Obamacare, and in that atmosphere vague promises of future fixes aren’t going to have much resonance with voters.