As if the week weren’t strange enough politics-wise, what with President Obama going from leader of the Free World to straight man for a hipster comic in hopes of selling his health plan to Gen Y, we’ve now discovered the key to tipping the balance in battleground Florida.

Unleash Bob Barker.

It was Barker, the 80-year-old former host of The Price Is Right, the long-running game show and staple of daytime television, who cut this ad urging voters in Florida’s 13th Congressional District special election to vote for his pal, Republican David Jolly, the narrow winner in Tuesday night’s vote.

Not that Alex Sink, the Democrat in the race and slight favorite going into election day, didn’t tap into her own tv star of yesterday. Her choice: Jon “Bowzer” Bauman, of Sha-Na-Na fame, who recorded a robo-call for the candidate attacking Jolly over wanting to lay waste to the senior safety net.

The net result: elderly game show host trumped elderly greaser, with Jolly winning by enough to avoid a recount (like that could ever happen in Florida).

Some thoughts as to this election’s significance:

1)  Don’t Buy All the Hype. Jolly ran on repealing Obamacare; Sink said she’s amend it, not end it. Republicans will tout this as proof that the President and his plan are albatrosses even in a district that Mr. Obama twice carried (52% in 2008; 50% in 2012). Then again, it wasn’t a regularly scheduled election – and that usually means a lower Democratic turnout. And it’s a swing district, with the two parties evenly dividing voter registration (37% Republican, 35% Democratic, 24% independent). As for Florida’s 13th CD being a preview of coming attractions: it’s true that a House special election in California in June 2006 was a precursor of troubles for the GOP that fall. Then again, in 2010 the Democrats won a springtime special election in Pennsylvania, only to lose 63 seats that fall – the biggest shift in over 70 years.

2)  But Buy Some of It. On paper, Sink was the stronger of the two candidates – banker, Florida’s CFO (it’s an elected post) and runner-up in Florida’s 2010 governor’s race (she carried the district by 2% in that race), a famous great-grandfather. Add to biography, history: women have done well in congressional special elections. Jolly, on the other hand was a lobbyist and former congressional aide, not exactly an outsider persona. Nor was he his party’s consensus choice. Thus Sink had two advantages: deeper ties to her home state; the ability to lash her opponent to dysfunctional Washington She also had a third edge: an early money lead. Jolly had little of it, making his campaign more dependent on outside organizations like Karl Rove’s American Crossroads super-PAC. That these advantages didn’t deliver for Sink suggests a branding problem – for her party.

3)  Still Scary? Democrats used their dollars in part to demonize the Republican candidate over Social Security and Medicare (seniors account for 22% of Florida’s 13th CD, with a higher percentage taking part in the special election). But Jolly didn’t play into the conservative stereotype: he’s pro-life but thinks states should be allowed to legalize same-sex marriage; he’d vote for the House Republican budget and to raise the debt ceiling. That the fright-messaging didn’t work – it’s been a winner, going back to the “Mediscare” campaign of 1996 – should worry Democrats who presently are grasping for any campaign straw that changes the conversation from Obamacare (entitlements, climate change, income inequality all having been taken for a test drive by the President and his supporters).

4)  Nancy, Not With the Laughing Face. The failure to pick up the Florida seat makes it that much tougher for Nancy Pelosi to regain control of the House. According to The Rothenberg Political Report’s latest numbers, only 52 of the House’s 435 seats are “in play”. Of those, just 14 fall into the “toss up” category – 7 Republican, 7 Democratic. To pick up the requisite 17 seats, Pelosi would need to sweep the 7 GOP toss-ups, then find another 10 seats via a combination of the 11 “lean Republican” and 9 “Republican favored” districts – all of that, while tending to her party’s 13 “lean Democratic” seats. Going back to Harry Truman’s days, the party of president in his second midterm referendum averages a loss of 29 House seats – the so-called “sixth-year itch”.  The former Speaker raised $27 million for the Democratic Congressional Committee in 2013, to win back the House in 2014. At what point does the smart money shift to keeping the Senate in Democratic hands, or pick up gubernatorial seats?


Follow Bill Whalen on Twitter: @hooverwhalen   

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