A 2014 GOP Election Model

Republican David Jolly won a hotly contested special House election by going on offense against Democratic campaign themes—not just by opposing ObamaCare.

By Kimberley A. Strassel, March 13, 2014

March 13, 2014 6:50 p.m. ET

Republicans celebrating this week's victory in a Florida special House election are right to take the race as proof that they've got a potent midterm weapon in ObamaCare. Those looking to mimic the model this fall would be even wiser to view David Jolly's win in its broader context: This was a victory of offense.

Democrats should have won. President Obama won this district twice. Democratic candidate Alex Sink carried Pinellas County four years ago when she narrowly lost a gubernatorial bid against Rick Scott. She outspent her opponent at least 3 to 1 on television ads, while outside Democratic groups outspent Republicans. Mr. Jolly entered the race an unknown.

He evened the odds by hitting hard, day in and day out, on the miseries of ObamaCare. This message resonated in particular with Republican base voters, who reliably turned out to vote on Tuesday. This matters. It was big conservative turnout, fueled by anger over ObamaCare, that drove Republicans' sweeping House gains in 2010. The Florida race suggests renewed conservative frustration over the law could prove as powerful a turnout tool this fall.

David Jolly and Alex Sink at a candidate forum in Clearwater, Fla., Feb. 25. Reuters

Yet Mr. Jolly didn't win with conservatives alone. Nearly 30% of voters in the 13th district are unaffiliated with a party, and some polls have shown independents are disinclined to "repeal" the health law. This is the basis of the Democrats' "fix-it" argument, which Ms. Sink flogged.

But the Republican never ran on repeal alone. Many of the conservative ads against Ms. Sink in fact never mentioned "repeal." As Mr. Jolly's website noted, he was in favor of replacing ObamaCare with "private sector solutions that address very specific problems in the health insurance industry." He spoke about some of these reforms, including allowing Americans to decouple their health care from their employer. He noted that the GOP "simply cannot be the party of 'no.'" This helped blunt the Sink argument that Republicans are only interested in rolling back the country to the pre-ObamaCare days.

Equally important, the Republican side went on offense against the growing roster of Democratic campaign themes. The party has used them to great effect in any number of recent elections, including most recently in the Virginia governor's race. The difference this time is that the GOP had answers.

Ms. Sink, for instance, rolled out the GOP-Wants-To-Throw-Granny-Off-The-Cliff line. Democrats beat on Mr. Jolly on seniors' issues, claiming he wanted to privatize Social Security and cut Medicare. Rather than run from that debate, the Republican reassured voters that he supported honoring current benefits for those in, at or remotely near retirement.

Yet he also made the case for long-term reforms to entitlement programs—insisting that, yes, Social Security privatization needs to be among the options considered. He pointed out that the only folks who have done serious recent damage to Medicare are Democrats who robbed the program to pay for ObamaCare. The district's large senior-citizen voting population knew this to be true.

Democrats also unfurled the "war against women" theme, claiming that Mr. Jolly opposed "equal pay for equal work" for women and abortion rights. He responded that wage discrimination based on gender should be illegal, and in fact already is. He laid out a straightforward pro-life position, highlighting standard exceptions for rape, incest, life of the mother—and didn't waver from it. The Democrats couldn't get much traction.

Democrats simultaneously worked the "class warfare" theme, highlighting Mr. Jolly's lobbyist past and claiming he was in the race to reward special interests and fleece the middle class. Outside conservative groups ran ads and flyers pointing out the billions the state's pension fund lost when Ms. Sink sat on a panel overseeing it, and also noting the $8.8 million in compensation she made as a bank executive. Turns out voters are a bit skeptical of wealthy ex-bankers posing as populists.

The left even tried a Conservative-Special-Interests-Are-Buying-The-Election approach, with the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee putting out a memo that warned that the billionaire "Koch Brothers" would "prop up" Mr. Jolly to ensure that they have "more power in Washington than Pinellas families." It was hard for voters to take this claim seriously when the airwaves were blanketed with Sink ads—many paid for by liberal "special interests" such as House Majority PAC. Harry Reid, recall your strategist.

Speaking of outside groups, one other race highlight was how pro-Jolly groups—American Crossroads, American Action Network, YG Network, Chamber of Commerce—came together to support him and key themes in the campaign. This teamwork is in vivid contrast to the feuding spats roiling some conservative primaries.

The Republicans who win this fall will be those who have serious answers to the attacks leveled on them—about ObamaCare, the economy, women's and seniors' issues. That's the bigger lesson of Florida.

Write to kim@wsj.com

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