WASHINGTON (AP) — Republicans have a new calling card for the midterm elections, same as the old one.
It's Obamacare all the way to Nov. 4 after the party's triumph Tuesday in the race for a House seat in Florida. Soon it will be time for rank-and-file Democrats in both houses of Congress to decide how closely to stick to the controversial health care program as their own races develop.
"One of Nancy Pelosi's most prized candidates was ultimately brought down because of her unwavering support for Obamacare," said Rep. Greg Walden of Oregon, head of the House GOP campaign committee. "And that should be a loud warning for other Democrats running coast to coast." Pelosi is the leader of House Democrats.
To hear Democrats say it, there won't be much change at all from the fix-it-don't-nix-it approach that their candidate, Alex Sink, took in her losing race against Rep.-elect David Jolly in the area around St. Petersburg.
"There is no evidence that the incessant and obsessive focus on repeal is a winning hand for Republicans," pollster Geoff Garin told reporters on Wednesday as Republicans celebrated their victory in a race widely watched by lawmakers in both houses and both parties.
Garin conceded that the drive to repeal President Barack Obama's health care law motivates Republicans to go to the polls, but said that when Democrats and independents are taken into account, "it was at worst a level playing field for" Sink in terms of health care.
To reinforce the message, Rep. Steve Israel of New York, who chairs the House Democratic campaign committee, said Sink would have won had the race been held in November, when the presence of a statewide gubernatorial race on the ballot will result almost certainly in higher turnout.
So much for the talking points.
When it comes to the House, there was little reason to believe before Tuesday's voting that the Democrats might win control. There is less now, and most of the focus next fall will be on the Republicans' drive to gain the six seats they need to capture the Senate.
At least one Senate Democrat said during the day the result of the race would not alter her plans.
"I'm not going to vote to repeal" the law, said Sen. Mary Landrieu, D-La., who faces a strong challenge in her bid for a new term. "I'm going to try to improve it, and it already has been improved," she said. In her state, Landrieu said 45,000 individuals have signed up to receive health care under the law. Voting for the repeal that Republicans want "is a losing strategy and it will not work."
If Israel and Walden agree on anything, it is that special elections are historically unreliable indicators of national trends, given the demographic quirks of a single House district, the candidates on the ballot, the presence of local issues and more.
In this case, the area around St. Petersburg is older, whiter and poorer than the country on average. It was represented by a Republican for four decades, although it became more competitive after the post-2010 redistricting. Obama won it narrowly both times he ran, and Sink won it in a losing 2010 gubernatorial campaign.
Both candidates and outside groups poured millions of dollars into television ads, many of which mentioned Medicare and Social Security as well as Obamacare. Then, too, a looming rise in flood insurance premiums is a source of discontent that transcends political party in a district along Tampa Bay.
Trying to factor those characteristics in with the overall importance of the health care law is difficult, and impossible without a non-existent survey that might show who voted and why.
At the same time, the two political parties are keenly aware of the political damage that could be done by an impression that falls short of widely held public expectations.
That explains the extraordinary sight in the days leading up to the election of Republicans and Democrats rushing out explanations for why their side might lose.
Republicans whispered loudly that Jolly was an exceptionally weak candidate, an ex-lobbyist who had raised little money on his own behalf.
Democrats, equally fearful of losing, emphasized that outside groups in Jolly's corner spent more than those aligned with Sink.
There's some truth and some political spin in all of that. And they are more reasons the election defies the easy analysis that Republicans and Democrats offered during the day.
"Listen, I've stood here after losing some special elections. I tried to put lipstick on a pig, and it was still a pig," House Speaker John Boehner told reporters in one of the more pungent comments. "So you can bet they'll try to put lipstick on it today, but we all know what the facts are."
The facts are that history and the current political environment are against the Democrats as they try to gain seats in the House, and against them even more in their campaign to win control.
Historically, the party in power in the White House has lost an average of about 27 seats in midterm elections. In a president's second midterm, the number rises to about 30 seats.
There's more sour news for the Democrats as they try to compete in the House and hold onto the Senate.
Substantial majorities of the public say the country is headed in the wrong direction, and Obama's approval rating is generally below 50 percent.
If the same environment prevails in November, Republicans will celebrate then too. And the two sides can resume their argument over the role Obamacare played in the outcome.
EDITOR'S NOTE — David Espo is chief congressional correspondent for The Associated Press.
An AP News Analysis