(Bloomberg) — Republican David Jolly won a special election in Florida’s 13th Congressional District Tuesday.
Jolly upset a Democratic rival in a race that drew at least $8.8 million in spending from outside groups.
Both parties cast the race as a political test for the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act (PPACA) and November’s midterm elections.
Jolly led Democrat Alex Sink 48.5 percent to 46.6 percent, with 100 percent of precincts in the Tampa Bay-area district reporting, according to the Associated Press, which called the election.
Libertarian Lucas Overby attracted 4.8 percent of the vote.
With less than eight months remaining before midterm elections, strategists, political committees and elected officials poured resources into this district, buying ads that tested messaging on the PPACA, Social Security and abortion.
In a swing district where President Barack Obama won by 1.5 percentage points in 2012, Republicans see Jolly’s victory as an early harbinger for a wave election similar to 2010. In 2010, voter backlash over PPACA cost Democrats their majority in the U.S. House.
Jolly’s won in a district represented for four decades by the late Republican Rep. C.W. “Bill” Young. When Jolly takes office, Republicans will hold 233 congressional seats to the Democrats’ 199. There are three vacant seats in the 435-member House.
Jolly, a 41-year-old former lobbyist who raised less than half of Sink’s $2.5 million through Feb. 19, got help from outside groups that spent more than $5 million. Most of the ads from the outside groups slammed Sink over her support for PPACA.
The U.S. Chamber of Commerce’s political committee spent at least $1.2 million on television and online ads that touted Jolly and attacked Sink over PPACA.
“Canceled health plans, higher premiums, Medicare cuts, people losing their doctors,” the narrator of one Chamber ad said. “A disaster for families and seniors. With Alex Sink, the priority is PPACA, not us.”
This was among the ads running as often as about 275 times daily in the district, with outside groups like the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee and the National Republican Congressional Committee testing which kinds of messages might work best with persuadable voters.
The ads aired throughout the Tampa Bay media market, home to one out of every four registered voters in Florida, said Susan MacManus, who teaches political science at the University of South Florida in Tampa. Ads ran more than 1,900 times in the final seven days before the election, according to New York- based Kantar Media’s CMAG, which tracks advertising.
“The campaigns and the parties and consultants are going to be testing how well the messages resonated with this particular market,” MacManus said. “I’m expecting that the post-analysis will be a careful focus-group-type look at how the ads played.”
Groups aiding Jolly spent at least $5 million and groups favoring Sink spent at least $3.8 million, according to the Washington-based Center for Responsive Politics.
Sink, 65, who unsuccessfully ran for governor in 2010, lost another race in a year when Obama’s approval ratings in Florida were negatively affected by opposition to the health-care law. Sink criticized the Obama administration after her loss in the governor’s race by about 1 percent.
With Jolly’s win, Republicans keep control of a seat they’ve held for four decades in a beachside district dominated by retirees and Baby Boomers. Young died in October during his 22nd term. Jolly served as one of Young’s aides before joining a lobbying firm.
Republicans will likely ratchet up attacks on vulnerable Democrats by honing in on the health-care law, MacManus said.
“If she were to lose, I think there would be some questioning about the PPACA issue, certainly,” MacManus said before the results were finalized.
Former state Sen. Mike Fasano, a Republican, said Jolly’s ability to overcome attacks over his career as a lobbyist highlights the level of voter angst over PPACA.
“Considering the fact that he’s a Washington lobbyist, he has held in pretty strong, which tells me that a lot of it has to do with the PPACA issue,” Fasano said before the election was called. He pointed to Sink’s name recognition as a former state chief financial officer and candidate for governor in 2010. Jolly was a first-time candidate.
Sink moved from a neighboring county to run unopposed for the Democratic nomination. She raised $1.1 million in the first two months as Jolly faced primary challengers.
Sink and Democratic groups supporting her spent more than $5 million as they blanketed the district with television ads, mail pieces and radio spots painting Jolly as a Washington lobbyist with extreme views. Democrats seized on Jolly’s support for restricting abortion, rejecting immigration reform and advocating for U.S. military intervention in Syria.
“Jolly’s backed by a group that even opposes abortion in cases of rape and incest,” one ad by the DCCC ads stated. “Jolly lobbied for a special interest that wanted to privatize Social Security,” an ad from The House Majority PAC read. The super-political action committee said it spent $770,000 on ads attacking Jolly over Social Security.
Jolly said he never lobbied to privatize Social Security and denounced proposals by fellow Republicans that would cut benefits for seniors. Yet the ads helped shift voters’ focus from PPACA to Social Security and Medicare, MacManus said.