With just days to go in the smash-mouth special election on Florida's Gulf Coast, both parties are managing expectations ahead of what could be a narrow margin of victory.
The race to replace the late Rep. C.W. Bill Young, R-Fla., is the most competitive special election of the 2014 cycle. Neither party is exuding confidence about the contest for the swingy 13th District, and nearly anyone who claims to have seen an internal poll says this tossup race will go down to the wire.
While the results of House specials are often viewed through a national lens, there is possibly no word that makes national operatives involved in this race cringe more than "bellwether." Republicans are expected to keep control of the House regardless of the results of Tuesday's election, but with midterm primaries kicking off this week, the Florida contest does provide a prime opportunity to test messaging and tactics before the fall.
The Democrat in the race, Alex Sink, started with an advantage. Party insiders cleared the path to her nomination, she boasted high name identification thanks to prior statewide runs for office and she's proved to have golden fundraising skills.
Republican David Jolly spent the first half of this campaign mired in a primary race and lagged far behind in fundraising. Still, Republicans say they're pleasantly surprised he is still competitive — while Democrats are quick to remind the world that they anticipated a narrowed margin all along.
So while the race's national implications are debatable, the more pressing topic among Washington party insiders is what operatives have already learned about the 2014 cycle from this race.
Candidates (And Their Fundraising) Still Matter
Sink, in some ways, is the ideal special election candidate for one reason: She can raise money hand over fist.
The latest fundraising reports showed Sink raised $2.5 million in less than four months, while Jolly brought in $1 million. Much of Jolly's money came from dozens of Republican members, through campaign and leadership PAC contributions.
Republican sources on Capitol Hill said the National Republican Congressional Committee made a major push to members for the donations, underscoring to the conference how important holding this seat is for the party.
To be sure, outside groups are spending millions on this race, but the onus remains on the candidates to fund their own share of TV ads. Outside groups look to the candidates' advertising to glean a tone for the campaign. Also, it is logistically difficult for an outside group to cut a positive ad for a candidate because coordination is prohibited.
The only ads that feature flattering b-roll video or a direct-to-camera pleas for votes are the candidate-sponsored spots. Sink was able to go on TV earlier than Jolly and make that positive case for herself.
Beyond that, federal law dictates that candidates receive a lower price for advertising, further enhancing Sink's financial advantage.
Candidates (And Their Flaws) Still Matter
Both candidates have long records for opposition researchers to mine — Jolly as a lobbyist and Sink as a banking executive and Florida's chief financial officer.
Democrats assailed Jolly for his background as a lobbyist, while Republicans say one of the party's most effective attacks on Sink involved use of a state plane.
Don't Just Throw Out a Charge Against an Opponent; Explain Why It Matters to the Voter
It took Democrats a few tries to hone their attack on Jolly. One Democrat involved in the race said the lobbyist tag had little effect on polling, but the numbers began to move in their favor when Democrats tied Jolly's lobbying to issues that mattered to the voters, such as Social Security.
Narrow The Negative Attacks
Republicans say the embarrassment of opposition research riches on Sink proved problematic. Group after group hit her with charge after charge, tying her to President Barack Obama and his health care law, House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi and Medicare cuts. They went after her political baggage and made puns with Sink's last name.
There was so much spaghetti on the wall, one operative worried, that it all cluttered the field and hindered a specific, memorable attack from breaking through. Given the opportunity to redo, this Republican would have narrowed to one or two lines of attack.
Watch the Voting Start Date
Pinellas County has a reputation for exceptionally strong early voting via mail-in ballots. Overseas and military mail-in ballots went out Jan. 24 and domestic-voter ballots were mailed on Feb. 7.
The Republican fear is that Sink and the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee were able to build a positive first impression, while a negative impression of Jolly went unanswered for far too long.
After the Jan. 14 primary, Republican outside groups waited until early February to begin an onslaught of negative advertising against Sink. The NRCC was up by late January. But from mid-January to early February, Jolly and his Republican allies were heavily outspent by Sink and the Democrats.