The murky stakes of a special congressional election
CLEARWATER, Fla. — Because it is this year's first federal election, attention must be paid to the March 11 voting to fill the congressional seat vacated by the death in October of Florida Republican C.W. "Bill" Young, who served in Congress 43 years. If Democrat Alex Sink wins, the significance will be minimal because she enjoys multiple advantages. Hence if Republican David Jolly prevails, Republicans will construe this as evidence that Barack Obama has become an anvil in the saddle of every Democratic candidate.
Matters are, however, murky. Tip O'Neill's axiom that "all politics is local" has been rendered anachronistic by the national government that liberals such as O'Neill created. Today's administrative state touches everyone everywhere, so all politics is partly national. Politics in Florida's 13th Congressional District today concerns the National Flood Insurance Program (NFIP).
Obama carried this Gulf Coast district, a one-county constituency near Tampa, by 8.2 points in 2008 and 5.6 in 2012. Although Sink never lived in the district until very recently, she has almost 100 percent name recognition here because she has run statewide, almost winning the governorship in 2010 when she carried the county by 5.7 points. Between 2007 and 2011, she was Florida's chief financial officer.
After Young died, the national and state Democratic parties moved with more dispatch than seemliness. With a robust disregard for traditional niceties, they moved Sink into the 13th District. Her real home in another county is, Jolly says — he exaggerates — closer to Disney World than to this district's beaches. They also prevented a primary challenge from anyone who really lives here, thereby allowing Jolly to say national Democrats decided no local Democrat was qualified to represent the locals.
While she rented an apartment and began raising money, Jolly fought a nine-week primary race, from which he emerged on Jan. 14 financially depleted. He worked for Young for many years, which helps his resume, but then became a Washington lobbyist, which does not. He thinks it should, saying mordantly that politics "is the one industry in which experience and qualifications count against you." He notes that whoever wins next month will have to run again in November and if he is running then, the Republican House leadership will want to give him some plums beneficial to his district — perhaps assignment to committees to protect seniors and veterans.
This is a purple but not a polarized district, with 37 percent Democrats and 36 percent Republicans. Although the district gave the world the first Hooters restaurant, the district is unusually elderly, white and disapproving of Obamacare. It also is smoldering about the flood insurance program.
The NFIP is yet another entitlement program that is proving to be more durable, and more emblematic of modern America, than Mount Rushmore. The federal government has long subsidized insurance for homeowners who live in coastal areas or flood plains. This entitlement, covering about 5.5 million of America's 122 million housing units, is necessary because otherwise people would be required to pay the costs of the risks they choose to run for living where they are pleased to live. The NFIP enables the disproportionately wealthy people who own beach properties to socialize their storm losses while keeping private the pleasures of their real estate. The NFIP is another illustration of the entitlement state's upward distribution of benefits.
Recent attempts to reform the NFIP — to end subsidized rates for 1.1 million properties and to change rates based on improved risk assessments — threaten to raise by thousands of dollars the annual insurance costs of some property owners here. Both Sink and Jolly are competitively indignant. But the U.S. Senate, an unsleeping defender of entitlements benefiting the privileged (witness the new farm bill), has recently derailed reform.
Sink will benefit from the national trend allowing early voting to obliterate Election Day. Any Floridian who has ever requested an absentee ballot henceforth gets one automatically. Seventy-seven percent of the Republican primary votes here were cast by mail in the Jan. 14 primary, and absentee ballots will be mailed on Feb. 7. Furthermore, early voting at polling places begins March 1, so many — perhaps most — votes will be cast before Jolly has raised much of the money necessary to communicate his message.
Instead of a community deliberation culminating in a shared day of decision, an election like the one here is diffuse and inferior. If Sink wins, Republicans nationally can shrug; if Jolly wins, Democrats should tremble. But no matter who wins, the district loses because it has lost Election Day.
George Will is a syndicated columnist in Washington, D.C. Email him at email@example.com.