A matchup between a rookie candidate and a veteran lawmaker from a prominent political family wouldn’t normally draw much attention.
But the state House race between Jose Javier Rodriguez and Alex Diaz de la Portilla is quickly becoming among this season’s most watched.
The Democratic Party has pinned its hopes on newcomer Rodriguez to keep the Miami district in Democratic hands. And the results come Nov. 6 could be a bellwether for how Democrats perform across the state.
Rodriguez, a Harvard-educated lawyer, has raised more than $175,000, including $27,000 in in-kind contributions from the party. Florida Democrats have also bankrolled a flurry of campaign mailers touting Rodriguez and attacking Diaz de la Portilla.
“We’ve got a fresh-faced newcomer versus a Republican retread with a history of siding with special interests,” Democratic Party spokeswoman Brannon Jordan said. “This race is in play and we’re going to play hard.”
Still, Rodriguez, 34, has an uphill climb.
Diaz de la Portilla is a savvy political strategist who served six years in the state House and 10 years in the state Senate. He hasn’t raised as much campaign money as Rodriguez, but he has built-in name recognition and an established base of voters from his years in office. It doesn’t hurt that his older brother, Miguel, is a state senator and his younger brother, Renier, is a Miami-Dade School Board member who was on the primary ballot in August.
Diaz de la Portilla, 48, said he wants the job because he was born and raised in the district.
“I’m not a guy who comes from some Ivy League school and then comes to Little Havana and pretends to represent,” he said. “I know the community. I was born and raised there. I walked those streets. I played in those parks.”
Only three other state House races are contested in Miami-Dade:
• Former community newspaper publisher Ross Hancock, a Democrat, is running against Republican Rep. Erik Fresen in District 114.
• Incumbent Rep. Michael Bileca, a Republican, faces Democratic newcomer Jeffrey Solomon, a chiropractor, in District 115.
• Democrat Ian Whitney and Republican Holly Raschein are battling to represent House District 120, an open seat that stretches from south Miami-Dade to Key West. Raschein was formerly the top aide to Democratic Rep. Ron Saunders, the lawmaker who last held the seat. Whitney is president of the Key West Innkeepers Association.
Diaz de la Portilla and Rodriguez are vying for the seat currently held by state Rep. Luis Garcia, a Democrat.
The recently redrawn district still includes portions of Little Havana, a longtime Republican stronghold. But it now includes Coconut Grove and parts of Coral Gables, neighborhoods where a Democratic candidate could have the edge.
Dario Moreno, a political consultant who has conducted polling for Diaz de la Portilla, predicts the outcome of the race will likely be tied to the presidential election.
“Mitt Romney’s resurgence could play a big role in [state House] races,” Moreno said, noting that the renewed enthusiasm among Republicans would likely drive more conservatives to the polls.
But Democrats aren’t ready to concede the seat — especially if Rodriguez is able to galvanize young professionals who are both Cuban-American and liberal.