So, what just happened in Florida? The special election for the District 13 House seat in Congress Tuesday was supposed to go to the Democratic candidate Alex Sink, according to political experts, but somehow her Republican opponent Dave Jolly was able to edge her by less than 4,000 votes. Jolly raised just half of the funds Sink was able to net for the race. Over $12 million was collectively spent between the candidates and their political allies, which is an unusually large amount for a special election (this race was to fill the seat vacated when Rep. Bill Young died last fall). A huge chunk of that money — about $3.7 million — came from Democratic PACs, who saw this as a make-or-break election for their party. It was a seat previously held by a Republican, and for a long time, but Obama carried the district in both 2008 and 2012. Sink also won the district when she ran for governor in 2010. She even led Jolly in early voting and absentee ballot returns.
So what happened?
There’s a lot of conjecture floating around about why Sink lost in what was supposed to be a must-win campaign. The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee is spinning it as proof they can compete in a regularly Repubican field. In an email blast from the committee they note that Florida’s 13th District "could not be further from a typical battleground district" because "it’s less diverse than any other comparable district." To back that up they point out that white voters made up 77 percnt of the national electorate in 2010, but white voters made up 90 percent of Florida’s 13th District electorate in 2012. Yeah, but that didn’t stop Obama from winning there in his re-election campaign.
I wrote back in January that this race would be a referendum on whether Sink could motivate voters of color to the polls. She failed to do this when she ran for governor in 2010, which she also lost by a slim margin, and this may be why she failed in Tuesday’s race.
Examining the election returns for yesterday’s race, it appears that she failed again to get black and brown voters out. The two maps below (from the Pinella County Supervisor of Elections website) are Exhibits A and B. In the first map on the left, the red areas are precincts that went to Jolly, and the blue areas for Sink. The second map on the right shows voter turnout. The yellower the area, the higher the turnout — 40 to 60 percent — while the browner areas shows turnout between 20 and 40 percent. The lower turnout areas overlap with the areas that went to Sink, while the high turnout areas mostly went to Jolly.
Those precincts that went to Jolly running up the left bank of the district are all coastal areas where beaches like Clearwater are. This is where your whiter and wealthier voters are, many of whom live in beachfront properties. Sink’s precincts in that huge blue section in the southeastern region is mostly St. Petersburg, which is the most urban part of the district. Clearwater is 80 percent white compared to St. Pete, which is 68.7 percent white. Black people make up almost a quarter of St. Pete compared to 10 percent for Clearwater.
And while the Latino population is larger in Clearwater, a lot of them are immigrants who arrived there only in recent years, meaning many of them probably can’t vote, or don’t due to language barriers. It’s not out of the range of possibility that the increased voter turnout there is not itself a reaction from white voters to the growing Latino immigrant population. A huge part of Jolly’s campaign platform was for strict immigration policies.
Then again, Sink may have sunk herself by turning off Latinos who do vote due to her own bigoted remarks about immigrants. During a February debate she said this:
"Immigration reform is important in our country. It’s one of the main agenda items of the beaches chamber of commerce, for obvious reasons. Because we have a lot of employers over on the beaches that rely upon workers and especially in this high-growth environment, where are you going to get people to work to clean our hotel rooms or do our landscaping? And we don’t need to put those employers in the position of hiring undocumented and illegal workers."
That couldn’t have helped her.
The Washington Post’s "The Fix" said in January that "If Democrats can’t win here with their dream candidate, they are in for a long 2014." That’s because this race was supposed to take the political temperature to determine if the Democratic Party would be able to gain more control of the House of Representatives in the upcoming midterm elections. If this race is any indication, it doesn’t look good for them, which means it will remain tough to get immigration reform through Congress along with any other laws that might help people of color.
As political expert Larry Sabato said: "The special election result does strengthen our belief, as expressed in this space for months, that Republicans are in position not only to hold the House but to add some seats to their House majority in November. This was one of the GOP’s most vulnerable seats, and they held it."