First Thoughts: Why Florida's Special Election Matters

Dr. Susan MacManus (L) moderates a candidate forum with (from 2nd L) Democrat Alex Sink, Libertarian Lucas Overby and Republican David Jolly, all candidates for Florida's congressional District 13, in Clearwater, Florida, February 25, 2014. Sink and Jolly are in a race for a special election to be held on March 11, 2014 to elect a member of the United States House of Representatives to replace the seat of the late Republican Congressman Bill Young. REUTERS/Brian Blanco (UNITED STATES - Tags: POLITICS ELECTIONS) BRIAN BLANCO / Reuters

Why tomorrow’s FL-13 special election matters: It will measure if anti-health-care/anti-Obama messaging resonates in areas Obama carried in 2012… More than $11 million spent in this special congressional election so far… Merkel holds the key to serious sanctions against Russia and Putin… On Rand Paul’s straw poll win and on the increasingly libertarian-leaning CPAC… Cruz distances himself from Paul’s foreign policy… And the action on the Hill this week -- climate change and Ukraine.

Why FL-13 matters: While it’s important never to overstate the importance of a single special congressional election, tomorrow’s race in Florida will tell us a lot about the power of the Republican Party’s health-care attacks on Democrats could have in 2014. The contest to replace the late Rep. Bill Young (R-FL), who represented the 13th Congressional District (St. Pete/Clearwater) pits Democrat Alex Sink against Republican David Jolly (along with Libertarian candidate Lucas Overby). A Sink win on Tuesday would represent the Democrats’ second-straight victory in a competitive district or state -- Virginia’s gubernatorial contest last November being the other -- where Republicans tried to make the race a referendum on health care but still lost. That could suggest that the overall political environment for Democrat isn’t as bad as many might think. Yes, President Obama and the health-care law are albatrosses for Democrats in red states like Arkansas, Alaska, and Louisiana, where Obama was never an asset for his party in those states, even on his best day. And Republicans could very well win the Senate in November by just running the table in those red states. But a Dem win in Florida might indicate that an all-Obama, all-the-time strategy -- see these GOP ads in this special here and here -- has its limits in the states and districts Obama won in 2008 and 2012.


Does the anti-health-care messaging resonate in districts and states Obama carried in 2012? Conversely, a Jolly win on Tuesday would signal that it’s open hunting season on Democrats -- even in places where Obama has been a strength for Democrats in past elections; Obama won FL-13, 50%-49% in 2012. Indeed, there are two tiers of Senate races to watch in November. The first tier is the red states: Arkansas, Alaska, Louisiana, Montana, North Carolina, South Dakota and West Virginia, all of which Obama lost in 2012. The second tier is the blue/purple states: Colorado, Iowa, Michigan, Minnesota, New Hampshire, and Oregon, all of which Obama won two years ago. The difference between a good night and a GREAT night for the GOP -- and also a bad night and TERRIBLE night for Democrats -- is if Republicans are able to pick off a seat or two in this Tier 2 category.

Spending big bucks on just one special election: The other big FL-13 story is all of the spending, especially from the outside. According to the nonpartisan Center for Responsive Politics, the parties and outside groups have combined to spend nearly $9 million, including $2.2 million by the National Republican Congressional Committee, $2.1 million by the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, $1.2 million by the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, $1 million by House Majority PAC, and $470,000 by American Crossroads. And when you add that $9 million to the $1.6 million Sink has spent (as of Feb. 19) and $860,000 Jolly has spent, the special election’s price tag jumps to more than $11 million. To put that figure into perspective, it’s MORE than the amount of money that Sherrod Brown spent in his winning 2006 Senate race in Ohio.

Merkel holds the key to serious sanctions against Russia and Putin: Meanwhile, the situation in Ukraine remains at a stalemate, and German Chancellor Merkel appears to hold the key to whether there will be serious sanctions on Russia. She -- more than anyone else -- can unite the Europeans on this. By the way, NBC’s Andy Eckhardt reports that German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier confirmed in a ZDF interview last night that Merkel talked to Vladimir Putin again on Sunday, but Putin's position was described as “relentless.” This is a third time in a week that Merkel and Putin talked. Eckhardt adds that it became quite clear in the ZDF interview with Steinmeier that Germany is becoming increasingly frustrated with the Russian position and seems to see sanctions as an unavoidable next step, though Steinmeier said "that on this road, there must always be an exit.”

Cheney vs. Gates: By the way, don’t miss these contrasting viewpoints on Ukraine from two former top Bush administration officials. First, here’s former Vice President Dick Cheney to CBS: "There's no question” Putin believes Obama is weak, Cheney said. "We have created an image around the world, not just to the Russians, of weakness and indecisiveness. The Syrian situation is a classic. We got all ready to do something, a lot of the allies signed on, at the last minute Obama backed off." And then here’s former Defense Secretary Robert Gates (who also served as Obama’s first Defense secretary): "Well all I would say is what I was saying earlier in the week was simply that I thought that in the middle of a major international crisis that some of the criticism - domestic criticism of the President ought to be toned down while he's trying to handle this crisis. My own view is, after all, Putin invaded Georgia when George W. Bush was president. Nobody ever accused George W. Bush of being weak or unwilling to use military force." We are all well aware that the whole “politics stops at the water’s edge” rule has essentially been deleted from the Washington rule book. But that doesn’t mean it should have been.

On Rand Paul’s straw poll win and on the increasingly libertarian CPAC: Not surprisingly, Rand Paul easily won last weekend’s CPAC straw poll, getting 31% of the vote -- followed by Ted Cruz at 11%, Ben Carson at 9%, Chris Christie at 8%, and Rick Santorum and Scott Walker tied at 7%. Also not surprisingly given the results above is how libertarian-leaning CPAC has become. Just check out these other numbers from the CPAC straw poll, per the New York Times’ Jonathan Martin: “A plurality, 41%, backed legalizing marijuana and another 21% said that it should be legalized for medicinal purposes. And 78% of those who participated in the poll said they disapproved of the N.S.A.’s ‘use of data collection.’”

Cruz distances himself from Paul’s foreign policy: Speaking of GOP presidential politics and libertarianism, don’t miss Ted Cruz distancing himself a little from Rand Paul’s foreign-policy views (even though he participated in that Paul filibuster on drones). "I'm a big fan of Rand Paul. He and I are good friends. But I don't agree with him on foreign policy,” Cruz said on ABC. “I think U.S. leadership is critical in the world. And I agree with him that we should be very reluctant to deploy military force abroad. But I think there is a vital role, just as Ronald Reagan did... The United States has a responsibility to defend our values."

On the Hill this week: Senate Democrats will open this week on Capitol Hill with an all-night talkathon aimed at urging action on climate change, NBC’s Kasie Hunt reports. Twenty-eight Democratic senators will hit the Senate floor this evening to talk all night to urge action on climate change. The session is expected to go well into Tuesday morning. Noticeably absent from the group of Democrats participating: Senators from red states who are running for reelection, such as Sens. Mark Pryor and Mary Landrieu. Meanwhile, Hunt adds that senators on the Foreign Relations Committee are still writing a bill that will offer a package of economic assistance to Ukraine, with possible action expected later this week. There's still some discussion over how to balance any possible sanctions with the aid, but for the most part, senators in both parties are united in wanting to move forward.

Click here to sign up for First Read emails. Text FIRST to 622639, to sign up for First Read alerts to your mobile phone. Check us out on Facebook and also on Twitter. Follow us @chucktodd, @mmurraypolitics