A special election in Florida will present House Democrats with their best test case yet this cycle to see if they can put a dent in the GOP's majority — or perhaps even take the speaker's gavel.
Later this week, Floridians will lay to rest the dean of their congressional delegation, Republican Rep. C.W. Bill Young. Even as respects are being paid, both parties will be gearing up to elect his successor in the 13th District.
In recent cycles, Young's political dominance papered over the competitive nature of the district. He never won re-election with less than 56 percent of the vote, but President Barack Obama carried the district in both of his national campaigns.
As the first truly competitive special election of the cycle, the 13th District presents an ideal stage for the national parties to test messaging and strategy before 2014. Timing remains an open question because Florida law gives Republican Gov. Rick Scott significant leeway on scheduling a special election, but local operatives expect a contest in the next several months.
Some operatives warn it is premature to characterize the race as a harbinger for next fall. They caution not that many true tossup seats remain on the House battlefield map, so different tactics and strategies will be deployed elsewhere in the country.
But before the either party can win the seat, they must choose a nominee. Both primary fields will remain in flux — at least until after Young's funeral on Thursday.
For Democrats, the highest-profile contender is Alex Sink, their 2010 gubernatorial nominee. Sink has not entered the race, but most Florida Democratic insiders assume she will run.
Sink would join a Democratic field that already includes attorney Jessica Ehrlich, who was in the midst of her second campaign for the seat in as many cycles when Young died. Ehrlich had mediocre fundraising, bringing in low six-figure hauls. Plus, the DCCC did not include her in its Jumpstart program, a designation for its top tier candidates.
Even after Young announced his retirement two weeks ago, Florida Democratic sources insisted that Ehrlich would not have an easy path to the nomination. That became even more clear when Sink emerged as a candidate, even though she does not currently live in the district.
Sink is "rumored to run and I think she would be a strong candidate because she's from the Tampa market," Florida Democratic pollster David Beattie said. "While this isn't part of the district where she lives, she's a known entity."
Beattie is not aligned with Sink, but he indicated that some of Ehrlich's early backers might retreat if Sink runs.
And one of Ehrlich's strongest political assets could well be in jeopardy as well if Sink runs. In May, Ehrlich picked up the "On the List" designation from EMILY’s List. It marked an early signal of support from the group that supports female Democratic candidates who back abortion rights.
But EMILY's List also backed Sink's gubernatorial bid. If past is precedent, EMILY’s List avoids picking sides when there's more than one strong female candidate who supports abortion rights in the field.
An EMILY's List spokeswoman declined to comment. Similarly, an Ehrlich aide declined to comment on the state of the race, citing an unwillingness to engage in politics so soon after Young’s death.
Republicans are holding off on politicking until after Young's funeral — mostly.
GOP consultant Nick Zoller staked his claim on the GOP nomination in the window between Young’s retirement announcement and his death.
Republicans view former St. Petersburg Mayor Rick Baker as the front-runner if he gets in. But local insiders also mention ex-Pinellas County Sheriff Everett Rice, Young's son Bill Young II, and former Congressional aide David Jolly as potential candidates.
But in general, GOP consultant Rick Wilson said there is little overt positioning in the GOP field — at least until after Young's funeral.
"That's the mystery that everyone's trying to solve," Wilson said of his party's field.