GOP, Beware Of Tuesday's Victory

David Jolly's Florida win shows that opposition to ObamaCare alone won't be enough in November.

To Republicans, a word of caution over the special election in Florida's 13th congressional district: Don't uncork the champagne.

David Jolly's victory on Tuesday over Democrat Alex Sink by 48.4%-46.6% is significant. President Obama won the district twice, and its changing political demographics make it Democratic-leaning—despite being held for 42 years by C.W. "Bill" Young, a popular Republican, until his death last fall. Still, special elections don't always dictate how midterms turn out.

There were 10 special congressional elections in the two years leading up to the 2010 midterms: The GOP flipped one Democratic seat, Democrats took away one Republican seat, and the remaining eight seats retained the status quo. In the four special elections held in the two years leading up to the 2006 midterms, both parties retained their seats. Yet Democrats took the House in 2006, and Republicans took it back in 2010's epic sweep.

Tuesday's special election does provide lessons for both parties. For Republicans, it shows ObamaCare is a potent issue that hurts Democrats badly but isn't sufficient by itself. For example, a Feb. 18 poll conducted by independent political groups (including American Crossroads, which I helped organize) in Florida's 13th district found 41% supported ObamaCare while 52% opposed it. Opposition was centered among Republicans: Attacking ObamaCare motivated them more than supporting it energized Democrats. Independents opposed ObamaCare but by a narrower margin.

Democrats mitigated some of ObamaCare's negative effects. Their candidate was not in Congress when ObamaCare passed and so didn't vote for it. Ms. Sink pummeled Mr. Jolly as wanting to "totally repeal ObamaCare instead of working in a bipartisan way to fix it," to cite the language tested by her pollster. She also tried changing the subject by accusing him of wanting to privatize Social Security and gut Medicare.

Mr. Jolly wisely refused to defend the status quo before ObamaCare and emphasized replacing, not just repealing, the deeply flawed program. He met the Social Security and Medicare lies aimed at him head-on, diminishing their impact.

Republicans will see these tactics again this fall. Democrats seem convinced ObamaCare is an opportunity, in the words of Ms. Sink's pollster Geoff Garin, "to play offense, and not just defense," with criticism "at least as potent, if not more potent, than the attacks." However, unlike Ms. Sink, Democratic incumbents voted for ObamaCare and made promises that turned out to be untrue, making them far more vulnerable than she was.

Mr. Jolly put ObamaCare in a larger frame, urging voters to elect someone to be a check and balance for Mr. Obama, rather than blindly support him. This cut well with independents, according to some private polls by outside groups. Mr. Jolly's success depended upon convincing them he would go to Washington to make things work, not to blow it up.

The Republican campaign also understood that Ms. Sink's record mattered. GOP ads pointed out that as president of NationsBank (now Bank of America ) in Florida, she collected $8 million in salary and bonuses while thousands of bank jobs were cut. Ads also noted that as Florida's chief financial officer Ms. Sink approved lucrative contracts with her former bank, and that Florida's pension funds lost billions between 2007 and 2010.

Her record made voters even less likely to support her than did her backing of ObamaCare. Expanding the debate and exploiting multiple, not just a single, vulnerability helped Mr. Jolly win swing voters.

Republicans also substantially erased the Democratic edge in get-out-the-vote. Ms. Sink had Team Obama and its Florida ground game, which delivered a 2,988 edge among the 131,713 voters who cast an early ballot. But Mr. Jolly crushed her by 6,445 of the 52,565 who turned on Election Day. Mr. Jolly, the Republican National Committee and the Florida Republican Party took on the volunteer-intensive portions of the ground game; outside groups took on the expensive, mechanical parts.

One final lesson: While Ms. Sink's campaign outraised Mr. Jolly's 2-to-1 and outspent it 4-to-1 on TV, outside conservative groups evened things up. Democrats ended up spending $6.4 million and Republicans $6.3 million.

Republicans are buoyed by Tuesday's election. But only if they apply its lessons in dozens of other contests for the House and Senate can they turn a good midterm into a great one.

A version of this article appeared March 13, 2014, in the U.S. edition of The Wall Street Journal, with the headline GOP, Beware Of Tuesday's Victory and online at WSJ.com.