Republican David Jolly on March 11, 2014 in Clearwater Beach, Fla., after defeating Democrat Alex Sink in an election to the U.S. House. Photographer: Chris Zuppa/The Tampa Bay Times/AP Photo
Republican David Jolly on March 11, 2014 in Clearwater Beach, Fla., after defeating Democrat Alex Sink in an election to the U.S. House. Photographer: Chris Zuppa/The Tampa Bay Times/AP Photo

The Democrats' loss in a special election for Florida's 13th congressional district yesterday is devastating. Not because it's a harbinger of other races this fall, but because it will encourage other Democratic candidates to distance themselves from the Affordable Care Act -- a move that will probably prove counterproductive.

President Barack Obama carried the district in 2008 and 2012, and hours before the polls closed, top Democrats in the state, as well as national strategists, thought they would win the seat vacated when Republican Congressman C.W. Bill Young died last year. But David Jolly, a Republican lobbyist-turned-candidate, won the race by two points.

Republicans attributed Jolly's victory to the unpopularity of Obamacare. Democratic polls disputed that contention, but psychologically the message that the health-care law is a political loser will likely resonate with nervous Democrats, and the message will be clear: Run away from Obamacare.

That strategy is almost invariably a bad one. Picking up few converts and alienating some of the base won't win elections.

A smarter approach would be a variation of former President Bill Clinton's "mend it don't end it" (he was talking about affirmative action). Namely, Democrats should argue for modification, but not repeal, of the Affordable Care Act. That's also the position of most American voters.

Yet that was the strategy of Alex Sink, the Democratic candidate in the Florida race, regarded by many Republicans, as well as Democrats, as the better of the two candidates. And in this case the strategy fell short. Private Democratic polls for the contest showed Sink's loss was due to a Republican registration advantage in that part of the Tampa-St. Petersburg metro area. However, Democrats facing tight races this fall are likely to pay less attention to the details of the electorate and focus more on distancing themselves from President Obama and his signature domestic achievement.

Jolly will have to defend his seat in a November election, but will start off as a favorite.

(Albert R. Hunt is a Bloomberg View columnist. Follow him on Twitter at @AlHuntDC.)

To contact the writer of this article: Al Hunt at ahunt1@bloomberg.net.

To contact the editor responsible for this article: Alex Bruns at abruns@bloomberg.net.