By Barbara Liston
ORLANDO, Florida (Reuters) - The Republican Party's leadership was quick to claim their win in Tuesday's special congressional election on Florida's west coast as a landmark victory over President Barack Obama's Affordable Care Act, according to political analysts.
But local Florida analysts say the narrow result was more likely a reflection of the district's voter make-up, low turnout, and a Democratic challenger lacking in charisma, than public opposition to the president's signature healthcare legislation, popularly known as Obamacare.
"In the end, it looked just like the divided country, and the (Republican) district that it is," said Susan MacManus, a political analyst and professor at the University of South Florida in Tampa.
Republican David Jolly, 41, defeated Democrat Alex Sink, 65, by 3,500 votes, or a 1.9 percent margin - 48.4 percent to 46.5 percent, according to the Pinellas County Supervisor of Elections website. The gap closely mirrors the Republicans' 2.4 percent margin over Democrats in the district's total registered voters.
Republican House Speaker John Boehner, on Wednesday declared the result a repudiation of Obamacare, and projected it as the gravy train the party could ride to November's midterm elections.
"More people are going to lose their policies over the next couple years, people are going to pay a lot more for the policies they're going to have to buy at the exchanges, it's going to get a lot worse before it gets better," Boehner said.
Jolly's victory "shows that voters are looking for representatives who will fight to end the disaster of Obamacare," Republican National Committee Chairman Reince Priebus said in a statement.
But Daniel Smith, political analyst and professor at the University of Florida, said the party would do so at its own peril.
"I don't think people are up in arms in Pinellas County about Obamacare. If Republicans run with that, they'll be sorely mistaken," Smith said.
Smith said the result was to be expected from a district with a decades-long history of voting for Republicans.
The Tampa area Gulf Coast district was easily held for more than 40 years by Jolly's former boss, U.S. Representative C.W. Bill Young, a Republican who died in October aged 82. Young held the seat comfortably in 2012 with 57 percent of the vote.
Jolly avoided the subject of Obamacare in his victory speech on Tuesday evening, noting that his margin of victory was too slim to "take a mandate from this."
MacManus said Obamacare became more of a symbol than a policy preference. "Obamacare is a surrogate to how Washington is working and how the president is doing," she said.
National parties and partisan groups poured more than $10 million into the race, which Smith said worked out to about $50 per vote, making the election an unreliable forecast of what to expect in November.
"If they're going to be able to spend $50 a vote in the general (mid-term) election to flip other competitive or vulnerable Democratic seats, it would be mind-boggling to spend that kind of money ... But who knows, the floodgates are open," Smith said.
MacManus said the real lesson of Tuesday's vote going into the midterm election in November is that Sink's challenge failed to refocus the campaign away from Obamacare and onto Republican attempts to privatize in various ways Social Security and Medicare.
All 435 congressional seats, including Jolly's, will be up for grabs in the November mid-term election.
Some national Democrats are urging Sink to try again, arguing that low Democratic turn-out was what sank her. Turn-out was only 39 percent overall, with Jolly getting a total of 89,000 votes, way below the 189,000 votes Young got in 2012.
Smith said Democrats led in early and absentee voting, but failed to get their voters to the polls in large enough numbers on election day. But Smith added that turn-out wasn't Sink's only problem.
"Frankly I think it boils down to a candidate who is not terribly effective connecting with voters, and that's Alex Sink ... Just doesn't have a real gift for retail politics and that's needed in these small elections," Smith said.
(Additional reporting/editing By David Adams and Gunna Dickson)