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March 9 2014 11:30 PM

Obamacare’s Ground Zero

Florida’s 13th congressional district may be where Democrats learn to live or die with the Affordable Care Act.

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Florida Democratic congressional candidate Alex Sink has not run away from Obamacare. In Tuesday’s special election, she will find out if it worked.

Photo by Joe Raedle/Getty Images

CLEARWATER, Fla.—They sat in their chairs, smiling politely, and strained to hear what the heck Alex Sink was talking about.

Her fault, not theirs. Sink is the Democratic candidate for the March 11 congressional election in Florida’s 13th district, which covers most of the sun-bleached and peninsular Pinellas County. On Feb. 25, she was in Clearwater for a local Chamber of Commerce forum. Her chief rival, Republican lobbyist David Jolly, had given an agreeable statement about “what’s wrong in Washington” and “how to fix it,” without specifying the what or how. Lucas Overby, a 27-year-old Libertarian whom Sink is counting on to split votes, had done the same. Sink’s turn came, and she forgot to grab her microphone. Only those sitting in the first few rows of the Capitol Theatre could hear her boast about her four years as state CFO and her 30 years as “a Chamber leader.”

The moderator tossed Sink a question. She started to answer, still unamplified. “Your microphone,” said a voice in the crowd. “Turn your microphone on.”

David Weigel David Weigel

David Weigel is a Slate political reporter. 

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“I’m sorry!” said Sink. She found her footing. When her turn came, she sarcastically thanked Jolly for changing his positions. Jolly, a far more adroit speaker than Sink, passionately accused her of lying. Neither candidate talked much about the Affordable Care Act. The moderator, a college professor who had brought her class to the debate, asked one question about the law. “We have employees who are on the lower side of the wage gap who are having their hours reduced under 40 hours because of Obamacare,” said Jolly.

Sink ignored that. She talked about Medicare and Social Security. So it is, every day of this campaign—Republicans reminding voters how much they hate the health care law, Sink reminding them of how much they like, want, and need the Great Society. Florida’s 13th is bluer than the rest of Florida, and much bluer than the states—Arkansas, Louisiana, North Carolina—that will decide control of the Senate. But it’s grayer than any of those states, too. Nearly 1-in-4 FL-13 residents is over 65. The electorate, which started returning absentee ballots weeks ago, is even older. In 2010, the senior vote broke for the GOP by 21 points. In 2012, it fell back to a 12-point gap. Right there—that was the difference between a narrow Republican loss and a historic Republican victory. If Obamacare could break Sink, it could break anyone. If she can defend the law, Democrats in tougher races will start to believe they can, too.

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David Jolly and Alex Sink at the Clearwater Chamber of Commerce forum.

Photo by David Weigel

The debate didn’t test this, but reporters in the room could try. Sink and Jolly retreated to the VIP rooms of the theater for one-by-one interviews with the assembled hacks. Sink came out first, telling a local reporter that “people in Pinellas County don’t know David Jolly” just as the Republican candidate strolled in behind her. I started to talk to him. A helpful but insistent handler intervened, explaining he’d be “talking to local press first.”

And so would Sink. So she thought. After she’d talked to two local stations and to a reporter from the Tampa Bay Times, Sink found herself in front of Fox News reporter John Roberts.

“Hey, John!” said Sink. “Good to have you here in my district. Haven’t seen you lot ever here.”

“Well,” said Roberts, “we come down when it’s important.”

“Oh, you’re national,” said Sink. “You’re not the local Fox station. I apologize.”

Sink hadn’t recognized the Fox team. She swigged from a bottle of water. Roberts wasn’t there to banter or ask how the debate went.

“There are many Democrats across the country who are running away from Obamacare,” he said. “You see negative ads. But you have taken a different tack. You have embraced it, to a degree. What do you know about Obamacare that other Democrats in other places don’t?”

“Well,” said Sink. “I wouldn’t describe my position as having embraced Obamacare.” The talking points flowed like oil from a new well. “This is what I’ve said about it, and it’s reflected from what I’m hearing from the majority of people in my district here. My—my opponent’s position is that we should outright repeal Obamacare. I totally disagree with that, because we can’t go back to what we had before, where people were being denied for pre-existing conditions, seniors were being exposed to donut holes ... For small businesses, health care insurance premiums were rising, year after year. The system was broken!”

Roberts dug in. “Do you acknowledge or not acknowledge that the Affordable Care Act, when it comes to small business, is reducing people’s hours?” he asked. “Has it had negative impacts on small businesses?”

“Well, I’m not sure about that. I don’t necessarily agree with that. One of the things we have seen, not in Florida but in other states where they expanded Medicaid, is that more and more people are qualifying for Medicaid benefits.”

“Do you think that Obamacare will be a deciding issue in this race?” asked Roberts. “In many races, it’s going to be a deciding issue. Senate races: Louisiana, Arkansas, North Carolina, Alaska.”

“I really do not,” said Sink. “I’m out and about extensively, and have been for months now, and that is not the first issue on some people’s minds. In fact, sometimes—in fact, quite often—just the other day I was at a senior center and someone pulled me aside and said, ‘Please don’t let them repeal Obamacare.’ People are beginning to see the benefits, people who’ve never had insurance in their entire lives. A 39-year-old man who’s never had health insurance. That’s more of what I’m hearing of when I’m out and about.”

“I’m sorry,” said Sink’s handler, one of those people paid to create a realistic simulation of friendliness when the candidate no longer could. “We need to head out now. Thank you.”

Alex Sink did not ask to be Obamacare’s representative in Florida. It just happened a few months ago, after Republican Rep. Bill Young passed away. He’d spent 53 of his 82 years in politics, most of them representing what became Florida’s 13th district, which he shaped and built with federal money. In 2011, the state shrunk the district to fit most of Pinellas County, a peninsula resting between the Gulf of Mexico and Tampa Bay. Republicans watched the county go for George W. Bush, then for Barack Obama, then for Barack Obama again. They watched it vote for Alex Sink, in 2010, when she ran for governor.

“This district was trending Democratic,” explained Jonathan Collegio, a spokesman for the conservative 527 American Crossroads. “I worked at the National Republican Congressional Committee in 2006, and I remember looking at maps and thinking: If Bill Young ever retires, this seat is gone.”

But it’s not “gone.” American Crossroads, like basically every big-spending political organization in the country, has bought airtime, sent mail, and attempted to test its theories. Outside groups have burned $8.2 million in the Sink–Jolly race, with Democrats outspending Republicans by almost $1 million. In the week after the Chamber of Commerce forum, American Crossroads spent another $200,000. Democrats still hold the advantage, and they’ve apparently outplayed the Republicans in early voting, but they’re nervous, the way Democrats usually find a way to be.

“It was surprising to us, a month ago, when a couple of the groups polled this race a month or so ago and saw it deadlocked,” said Collegio. “It may demonstrate the severity with which the Obamacare law has the potential of defeating Dems this cycle.”

A drive through the district, which covers all but the most urban parts of Pinellas, doubles as a tour of an Obamacare panic zone. There are a dozen hospitals, more than a dozen diabetes management centers, plenty of health care centers where people can meet Affordable Care Act navigators—or, if they miss them, pick up brochures with pictures of a man whose confusion is giving way to anger. Confused About the Affordable Care Act? You can read this on the way into the district’s countless radiology centers where you can listen to eloquent groans about the cost of the Affordable Care Act’s medical device tax.

Medical student Carie Jackson stands in front of her school in Pinellas Park.
Medical student Carie Jackson in front of her school in Pinellas Park.

Photo by David Weigel

You can find the people whose plans were canceled last year, right when this special election started, because they didn’t gibe with the law’s new requirements. The day of the Sink–Jolly forum I drove half an hour south of Clearwater and parked near the campus of the St. Petersburg College health education center. Carie Jackson, a 28-year-old student there, had spent most of a decade on an Aetna plan that covered her dental insurance and doctor’s visits: $78 a month, $2,000 deductible, $45 copays.

“I got a letter by the middle of November, telling me that plan was canceled,” said Jackson. “I’m like, OK, great. I guess this is because of the new requirements. They told me, ‘You don’t have prescription coverage,’ and I’m like—I don’t want that. They tell me I can pay to extend the plan but only for 12 months. I don’t want that. I certainly don’t want to pay even more than I’m paying now for stuff that I don’t need.”