Last night, as the Democrats tried to rationalize their defeat in a swing-district House election by serving up with all kinds of absurd spin, I was reminded of a scene in the classic film Citizen Kane.
Media mogul Charles Foster Kane had just lost a gubernatorial race. His newspaper editors had hoped to run the blazing headline KANE WINS, and it was ready to go to press. But they had also prepared for defeat, so that headline was the one they used. Basically, they spun the results: FRAUD AT POLLS.
And so it went in Florida last night, when the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee (the party’s House election arm) sought to minimize the loss of an eminently winnable House race. The DCCC had been jonesing to spin a victory as a thumbs-up referendum on Obamacare. Instead, the two-point loss has inspired the Democratic spinmeisters to essentially say, “Nah, this election doesn’t really mean much of anything.”
In the fight to fill the seat left vacant by the death of veteran Republican Bill Young, Democrats had a well-funded female candidate with statewide name ID (Alex Sink) facing off against a Washington lobbyist with scant name ID (David Jolly) who wanted to privatize Social Security and repeal Obamacare. But Jolly prevailed, 48-46 percent, with the rest going to a libertarian candidate.
From the DCCC’s spin sheet: “Despite Republicans spending millions to salvage a district they held for six decades, Republicans underperformed because the only message the offered voters – repealing (Obamacare) – is out of touch and failed to bring them close to their historically wide margins….The (district’s) electorate doesn’t reflect the general election landscape Democrats will face in November….Sink proved that even in this challenging environment, Democrats can not only put the race in play but can compete…” Yes, folks, for Democrats it was a virtual triumph in “a heavily Republican district.”
What a crock. Republicans didn’t “underperform” last night. David Jolly, a rookie candidate with lobbyist baggage, was never going to match Bill Young’s “historically wide margins.” It’s ludicrous to retroactively insist that Jolly should have mirrored the winning margins of a predecessor who was reelected 20 times dating back to 1970. A win is a win. Jolly performed pretty darn well for a guy widely dissed by his own party as a mediocre candidate (newly divorced, stumping with a girlfriend 14 years his junior).
And last fall, the DCCC wasn’t spinning the district as a “challenging environment.” Quite the contrary, it spun in the other direction, previewing this special House race as a juicy Democratic pickup opportunity. It painted this St. Petersburg area district as “competitive.” It ballyhooed the fact that Barack Obama had carried it twice in the presidential voting, and that House candidate Alex Sink had carried it in 2010 as the Democratic gubernatorial candidate.
Democrats deemed it so winnable this winter that they pumped nearly $4 million of outside money into Sink’s bid, and they sent Bill Clinton and Joe Biden to help out. Sink’s campaign out-raised Jolly’s campaign by a roughly 2-1 margin. And while it’s true that outside Republican and conservative groups, including the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, pounded Sink over Obamacare, Democrats were primed to believe that Sink had found a winning message when she declared in a TV ad, “Instead of repealing the health care law, we need to keep what’s right and fix what’s wrong.”
Some Democrats are also essentially saying, “Special elections are traditionally low-turnout affairs, and Republicans traditionally dominate that kind of turnout. This Florida race was no different. Only 180,000 voters showed up and they tilted Republican. No wonder Sink lost.” But, by all accounts, Sink had a robust, well-financed turnout operation. How come Democratic voters weren’t sufficiently motivated to show up?
Granted, we should resist overinterpretation of a contest where the gap between winning and losing was only 3400 votes. The GOP’s campaign arm, the National Republican Congressional Committee, crowed last night that Sink was “ultimately brought down because of her unwavering support for Obamacare,” but the NRCC is spinning as well. By all accounts, voters had various beefs with Sink. She’s a banker (lots of people don’t like bankers), she didn’t live in the district, and when she served as Florida’s chief financial officer, she used a state-owned plane to fly one leg of a vacation trip to the Bahamas (the GOP ran a TV ad about that). As Tip O’Neill used to say, “All politics is local.”
But in the end, what matters most is the takeaway. Regardless of how Democrats try to rationalize this loss, the sinking of Sink has to be a blow to party morale. If a well-known, well-funded Democrat – who never had to vote for Obamacare – couldn’t beat a Washington lobbyist in an open-seat swing district race, what does this portend for Democrats in the the autumn midterms? There’s no way to spin away that rhetorical question.
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