There's a congressional election in Florida on Tuesday that's worth watching — even if you don't live in the Tampa Bay-area district where it's taking place.
It's not because the winner of the neck-and-neck special election between Democrat Alex Sink and Republican David Jolly will affect the GOP's stranglehold on the U.S. House this cycle. It won't.
Rather, the contest to succeed the late longtime Republican Rep. Bill Young is taking on exaggerated importance as both national parties and their deep-pocketed donors frame it as a proxy for how President Obama and his signature health care legislation will play at the polls in November.
All of it is playing out in one of the few remaining competitive congressional districts.
"The Democrats have to shake things up to prove they are not a permanent minority in the House," says David Wasserman of the nonpartisan Cook Political Report. "Winning this race would go a long way to show that."
Recent polls suggest that Sink has been holding on to a slight lead over Jolly, with Libertarian candidate Lucas Overby capturing the support of around 4 or 5 percent. A poll released Monday by Democratic-oriented pollster Public Policy Polling gave Sink a 48 percent to 45 percent advantage, with Overby at 6 percent.
Tuesday's winner will only savor temporary victory: She or he will have to run again in November's regular midterm election.
The race, awash in money that has funded an avalanche of ads, pits two on-paper party moderates against each other in a district that Young had held since 1972. He was the longest-serving GOP member of Congress when he died in October.
Republicans enjoy a voter registration advantage of about 11,000. But the 13th district, largely white and skewing old, voted for Obama narrowly in 2008 and again in 2012.
Jolly came to the race hobbled by a competitive GOP primary battle in January that put him behind in raising money, and in raising his profile.
In Sink, 65, the Democrats have a well-known candidate who had a nearly three-decades-long career as a banker before winning statewide office in 2006, becoming Florida's chief financial officer.
The first Democrat elected to the state Cabinet since 1998, Sink subsequently came up short in a run for governor in 2010, losing to Republican Rick Scott by 1 percentage point.
Sink, whose late husband, Bill McBride, was the Democrats' unsuccessful nominee for governor in 2002, supports the Affordable Care Act but has said she would like to see it improved.
Republican candidate Jolly, 41, is a lawyer and lobbyist who came to Washington straight out of college and went to work for Young. He left the congressman's office in 2007 for the world of lobbying, opening his own firm, Three Bridges Advisors, three years ago.
Jolly has called for repeal of the Affordable Care Act and says he supports overturning Roe v. Wade. He's seen as a more polished campaigner than Sink, who was described as an "awkward orator, often stiff on the stump" in a 2010 profile in the Tampa Bay Times.
Wasserman, of the Cook Political Report, cautions that the national media are overstating, at least to some degree, the singular importance of Obamacare in the Florida race.
Immigration and flood insurance are huge local issues, he said, and will play a role in the outcome. Sink supports comprehensive immigration reform; Jolly opposes a pathway to citizenship for immigrants in the country illegally.
"The national parties seem to be ignoring these issues in favor of test-driving their big-ticket national interests," Wasserman says. "In the district, voter interests seem much more varied."
The Money Race
Given Sink's advantage in not having a contested primary, she's been better positioned to raise money and to get a jump on early voting, including — and especially — absentee ballots.
She has outraised Jolly, $2.54 million to $1.04 million as of Feb. 19, but outside groups have also invested heavily in the race, with some estimates suggesting that in excess of $10 million per campaign will be spent.
A running tally of early voting shows that 42 percent of the 122,314 votes cast, according to the Pinellas County Supervisor of Elections office, have come from Republican voters, 39 percent from Democrats and 19 percent from others.
But, Wasserman says, "most private polling suggests Sink is winning about twice as many Republicans as Jolly is winning Democrats."
While one national party or the other will quickly claim their victory is a validation, the vagaries of this special election suggest otherwise. That makes it likely that the true litmus test on Obama and the Affordable Care Act won't come until November.