Democrat leading in Florida race eyed as test of Obamacare

Democrat leading in Florida race eyed as test of Obamacare
Florida Democrat Alex Sink, seen in November, is leading in a hotly contested congressional race, a new poll says. (Steve Nesius / Associated Press)

A Democratic candidate who has explicitly defended Obamacare holds a slight lead in a special congressional election in Florida that both parties are eyeing as a test of the political impact of the healthcare law.

A poll released Thursday by the Tampa Bay Times shows Democrat Alex Sink leading her Republican opponent, David Jolly, 42% to 35% among people considered likely to vote in the March 11 special election. Another 14% of respondents said they were undecided in the poll, which has a margin of error of plus or minus 4 percentage points.


The district is one of the country's few true tossups. It had been held for more than four decades by Republican C.W. "Bill" Young, who died in the fall, but the district, in the St. Petersburg area along the Gulf Coast, has trended Democratic in recent years. President Obama carried the district by 1 point in the 2012 election.

Both parties and allied groups have spent millions of dollars on ads in the race, many focused on the healthcare law. The poll found likely voters in the district were closely divided on the subject, with 47% saying they oppose the law, 43% supporting it and 10% expressing no opinion.

Ads by Republicans and outside groups supporting Jolly have echoed the GOP's main lines of attack on Obamacare, focusing particularly on people who were notified last fall that their health insurance policies would not be renewed because the plans failed to meet the new law's consumer standards. The cancellations violated Obama's promise that if people liked their existing health insurance, "you can keep it."

How to respond to such attacks is an issue that has bedeviled Democrats in closely contested races ever since the law passed in 2010. In that year's midterm elections, many Democrats, particularly in conservative areas, tried to change the subject. Supporters of the law have argued that the avoidance strategy backfired and have urged a more robust defense.

Sink appears to have adopted that approach. Last week, her campaign unveiled an ad on the topic using a message that, if she wins, voters in many other parts of the country are likely to see this fall.

The ad accuses Jolly, who says he favors repeal of the Affordable Care Act, of wanting to "go back to letting insurance companies deny coverage." In a nod to the area's large senior citizen population, it also says the GOP proposed repeal would "force seniors to pay thousands more for prescription drugs." One provision of the healthcare law ended the so-called doughnut hole in Medicare's prescription drug coverage, reducing costs for some seniors.

"We can't go back to letting insurance companies do whatever they want," Sink says in the ad. "Instead of repealing the healthcare law, we need to keep what's right and fix what's wrong."

That approach contrasts with the strategy being employed by several Democratic senators running for reelection in states that have a more Republican tilt than the Florida congressional district. They have been more wary about directly embracing the law.

In Louisiana, for example, Sen. Mary Landrieu ran an ad in which she took credit for pushing the White House to allow people who had received cancellation notices to renew their existing health plans.

In North Carolina, Sen. Kay Hagan has been the target of millions of dollars in ads from Americans for Prosperity, the group funded by conservative billionaires Charles and David Koch. One recent ad refers to her and Obama as "best friends" and says that more than 473,000 people in North Carolina had insurance policies canceled because of Obamacare.

Hagan's campaign and its Democratic allies have responded by attacking GOP healthcare positions, but have generally avoided specific mention of the healthcare law itself.

On Twitter @DavidLauter