By Hastings Wyman | Southern Political Report
A discernible, though not massive, trend toward the Democratic Party among South Florida voters has also been evident among the state’s Hispanic voters and has led the Democrats to mount significant challenges to the state’s three Republican Cuban-American members of Congress, Lincoln Diaz-Balart, Mario Diaz-Balart and Ileana Ros-Lehtinen.
All three challengers, like the incumbents, are Latino. Alejandro Miyar, a spokesman for the Florida Democratic Party, says South Florida “is becoming more Democratic by the seconds. The voting record shows that, even in the Hispanic precincts.” He adds that 2008 “might be a year where, from the turn-out perspective, the Democratic challengers have to be taken seriously.”
But Al Cardenas, a former chair of the state GOP, says “These are three entrenched incumbents in districts that have historically voted Republican strongly for president, governor and senator as well as congress… It would be difficult to place any of them in the vulnerable category.” And a Republican consultant long active in the state says, “I’d be shocked to see any of them lose.” He also notes that all three backed John McCain in Florida’s recent presidential primary and he ran strongly in their districts.
All three Cuban lawmakers have voted against the conservative line on several key issues in the 109th Congress. For example, they consistently support gay rights, including opposing a ban on same-sex marriage. And on immigration, they opposed building a fence on the US border with Mexico. On Cuba-specific issues, the incumbents and the challengers support the continuation of the US embargo on Cuba in the face of Fidel Castro’s handing over power to his brother Raul Castro, though some GOPers are suggesting otherwise. Unlike the incumbents, however, the challengers favor a relaxation of current rules on Americans visiting their family members in Cuba.
21st District (Broward County, Miami/Dade)
The most competitive contest is expected to be Raul Martinez’s (D) spirited challenge to Lincoln Diaz-Balart (R), currently serving his eighth term in the US House. Diaz-Balart won re-election in 2006 with 59% of the vote, down from his 73% in 2004. He has not, however, faced an opponent as popular and flamboyant as Martinez, who served as the popular mayor of heavily Republican Hialeah for some 30 years. Hialeah, which accounts for about 40% of the district, is 80% Republican, indicating that Martinez may be able to attract support from some Republican voters; indeed, several local Republican officeholders were present when he announced his candidacy for Congress. “It’s a battle of the titans,” says Miyar, “and some people think that Raul is more of a titan than Lincoln.”....
25th District (Naples, Miami/Dade)
Third-termer Mario Diaz-Balart (R), 46, Lincoln’s younger brother, also faces a Democratic opponent with significant credentials. Joe Garcia is chairman of the Miami/Dade Democratic Party (he will resign for this campaign) and is known for his political acumen. “He’s a brilliant strategist and all pumped up” for the race, says Miyar. Perhaps more importantly, Garcia is the former director of the Cuban American National Foundation, an influential group of Cuban-Americans concerned about Havana’s Communist regime. In 1993, Garcia lost a race for Miami-Dade Commissioner. While he is expected to mount a substantial campaign, he does not have the name identification nor experience holding elective office that help make Martinez a strong challenger against Lincoln. However, Garcia is pushing some major issues, including the war in Iraq, the economy, and high homeowner insurance rates in hurricane-prone Florida. On the down side, Garcia will have to move from Miami Beach outside of the district into the boundaries of the 25th District.
18th District (Miami, etc.)
Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R), 55, is serving her ninth term in Congress. She was in the state senate prior to her election to Congress and was an educator. Like the Diaz-Balart brothers, she represents a district highly favorable to a Latino Republican—it’s population is 63% Hispanic, 30% white and only 6% black. There are 126,152 registered Republicans in the 18th District, according to the Miami Herald, to 105,400 Democrats, with the GOP losing some 2,400 in the past two years and the Democrats gaining some 2,000. Ros-Lehtinen was re-elected with 65% in 2004, 62% in 2006.