By Ian Swanson | TheHill.com
For decades, Miami Cuban-Americans have been a reliable Republican voting bloc and three GOP incumbents who represent that community in the House have rarely faced significant opposition.
Now Florida Democrats are trying to mount a meaningful challenge, in part by convincing Raul Martinez, the colorful former Democratic mayor of Hialeah, to take on Rep. Lincoln Diaz-Balart (R), an eight-term incumbent and scion of a powerful Cuban émigré family.
Martinez is exactly the kind of candidate Democrats would need to seriously challenge Diaz-Balart because their battle would take place in a district where cultural ties matter more than party affiliation, according to David Wasserman, U.S. House editor for The Cook Political Report.
“Democrats are looking more for a name than a moneyed or well-funded campaign,” he said.
Martinez, who like Diaz-Balart is a Cuban émigré, fits that bill after 25 years as mayor of Hialeah, which is the fifth-largest city in Florida, boasts a huge Cuban population and is 90 percent Hispanic.
A battle between the two well-known Miami politicians would also test the claim by Florida Democrats that the political climate in Miami’s Cuban-American community is changing.
National Democrats this week began running Spanish-language radio ads against all three members criticizing their votes against the expansion of the State Children’s Health Insurance Program. This is the first time the national Democratic Party has targeted advertising toward those districts, another indication that Democrats believe the seats are in play.
Miami-Dade County Democratic Party Chairman Joe Garcia and other Miami Democrats insist the hard-line approach to Cuba taken by Diaz-Balart is wearing thin, while GOP strategists say those policies remain popular.
Garcia is seeking candidates who are well-respected in the Cuban community but who disagree with the hard-line approach taken by the three Republican incumbents on key issues related to Cuba, such as their support for travel restrictions imposed by the Bush administration that allow Cuban-Americans to visit close relatives in Cuba once every three years.
Martinez, Garcia and some other Democrats portray these rules as preventing Cuban-Americans from visiting sick relatives on the island. Democratic candidates would be expected to use the matter against the trio of GOP incumbents.
Besides Lincoln Diaz-Balart, Garcia is also recruiting for races against Rep. Mario Diaz-Balart (R-Fla.), Lincoln’s brother, and Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-Fla.), a third Havana-born Cuban émigré. Garcia himself is thought to be a potential candidate, and in an interview said he’d consider a race if his party asks him.
“I think a lot of people are very dissatisfied within the community,” Garcia said.
Others, however, question how much of an issue the travel restrictions really are in Miami. Robert Muse, a Washington attorney who has navigated the rules of Cuba visits, doubts the restrictions have had a meaningful impact. “There is no record of a single action taken against a Cuban-American traveling to Cuba in violation of these regulations,” he said.
Lincoln Diaz-Balart supporters, for their part, think Martinez’s support for lifting travel restrictions on Cuba would hamper his candidacy. Carlos Curbelo, who has managed Diaz-Balart’s campaign for the last seven years, said Cuba policy continues to be an issue that will drive Diaz-Balart voters to the polls to defend hard-line policies.