A Not-So-Very Special Election


I'm with The Fix.Yesterday's special election in Florida's heavily Democratic 19th Congressional District does not amount to a referendum on health care politics, post passage. It's a very heavily Dem district, House races are fundamentally different from Senate races, Democrats had a good candidate and made sure not to repeat the tactical mistakes that led them to miss the rise of Scott Brown, and ... well, maybe there is SOMETHING to be said about health care here.

The latest polling after health care's passage shows that very little has changed, except that Democrats are more enthusiastic about the midterms than they were. The salience of health care as an issue may be declining, though, even as the numbers stay the same. That means that Republicans can't assume that they can coast on a message of repealing health care.

(BTW: it's true of course that health care is not popular among seniors, and the FL 19 district had more than its share of seniors, but health care IS popular among Democrats, and these seniors tend to be Democrats. If anything, it's a wash.)

Democrats have won 10 of the past 10 special House elections since 2008. That streak might be broken next month, when Democrats have to fend off credible challenges to the districts held by Neal Abercrombie (HI-01) and John Murtha (PA-12). Hawaii's proving a headache for the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee; they want to clear the field for former Rep. Ed Case, whom they think will be in a better position to win re-election than State Senate President Colleen Hanabusa.  

As you might imagine -- since this is the Democratic Party we're talking about -- Asian-American Democrats don't like the idea of white guys in Washington deciding that an Asian-American running in a 54% Asian-American district in Hawaii isn't good enough, particularly because she's been endorsed by the state's two senators. Labor is on the side of Hanabusa, too.

The disarray in the Democratic Party is counter-balanced by unity on the Republican side: Republicans from across the country are falling over themselves to help elect Charles Djou. This is a district that Democrats should have no trouble winning; it's where President Obama grew up and has only once been represented by Republicans since it was first created in 1971. If Republicans win this one, it'll be a function of a party discipline problem, not an ideological referendum. If Democrats lose John Murtha's seat, it's more of a reflection of the political environment -- and it will be contested right when the Senate is debating an energy bill that would probably increase costs for the coal interests that dominate the district.  It's definitely swing-y, regardless of the issues: PA 12 voters chose John Kerry in 2004 but picked John McCain (by a shred) in 2008, perhaps fulfilling Murtha's prophecy that folks in his district were disinclined to vote for a black man.

Hawaii votes on May 22; Pennsylvania votes on May 18.
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Marc Ambinder is an Atlantic contributing editor. He is also a senior contributor at Defense One, a contributing editor at GQ, and a regular contributor at The Week.

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