Poll: Absentee-ballot scandal makes Miami Congressman Joe Garcia vulnerable in potential matchup

06/17/2013 6:38 PM

06/17/2013 6:39 PM

A leading rival of U.S. Rep. Joe Garcia released a new poll Monday that shows the incumbent has a double-digit lead but a major vulnerability: the absentee-ballot fraud scandal haunting his campaign.

The poll shows Garcia, a Miami Democrat, leading 46 percent to 34 percent in a potential 2014 matchup against Republican Carlos Curbelo, the Miami-Dade School Board member who commissioned the survey.

But among those who had heard about the Garcia campaign’s involvement in the fraudulent absentee-ballot requests scheme, the race is a “dead heat,” the poll says, with Curbelo leading Garcia 40 percent to 39 percent.

Garcia’s office said he is not worried about poll numbers but rather about building a track record as a first-year congressman.

“Even in a skewed partisan poll the Congressman remains very strong and likely to be re-elected,” Raul Martinez Jr., Garcia’s district director and political advisor, said in a statement. “Congressman Garcia is not focused on partisan politics. Congressman Garcia remains focused on serving the community by dealing with immigration reform, getting the country’s fiscal house in order and fueling the economic recovery.”

Garcia has been in damage control since May 31, when Miami-Dade state attorney’s office investigators raided three locations associated with his campaign manager and a former campaign worker who also served as his congressional spokesman.

John Estes and Giancarlo Sopo are suspected of participating in a scheme to fraudulently request the ballots of nearly 500 unsuspecting voters in the Aug. 14 Democratic primary.

Garcia’s top political advisor and congressional chief of staff, Jeffrey Garcia, no relation, took responsibility for the incident and was fired. Spokesman Sopo was later placed on administrative leave.

The pollster who conducted the survey for Curbelo, Jim McLaughlin, said the survey indicates the scandal is toxic for the Democrat — the more people hear of it, the more they like his opponent.

“There’s great potential here” for a challenger like Curbelo, he said. “What’s happened is Garcia has really no intensity to his support.”

McLaughlin — whose McLaughlin & Associates firm accurately predicted the race last year in Garcia’s favor — said the poll indicates Curbelo has a better chance than Garcia of picking up the 20 percent of the district voters who were undecided.

Though Curbelo is not as well known as Garcia, Garcia trailed Curbelo, 38 percent to 56 percent, among poll respondents who had a “firm opinion” on both candidates.

“The poll and the conversations we’ve had with voters and community leaders over the last few weeks are very encouraging,” Curbelo said. “People seem to be anxious to turn the page on the dirty politics and win-at-all-cost mentality of the incumbent.”

The poll, which has a margin of error of 5.7 percent, was conducted just after news of the election scandal was first reported by The Miami Herald.

McLaughlin polled 300 likely voters in English and Spanish and surveyed slightly more Democrats than Republicans, mirroring the battleground district’s demographic make-up.

The poll included a so-called “message testing” lead-up to a question: “Joe Garcia’s top political advisor was forced to resign because he was accused of election fraud during last year’s elections where he submitted fake absentee ballots in an effort to try and steal the election.”

The question might not be accurate. Jeffrey Garcia hasn’t been formally accused, and the scam never resulted in actual fraudulent votes. Joe Garcia won the primary by a margin far bigger than the phony absentee-ballot requests.

But the question has value because it’s a preview of the line of attack that Curbelo and his consultants could use to help their candidate or hurt their opponent.

When asked this question, 54 percent of voters said they were less likely to support Garcia, compared with 40 percent who said they would stick by him. The numbers were even more striking with undecided voters: 64-51 percent.

Congressional District 26, which spans Kendall to Key West, is one of the most competitive in the state, with registered Democrats slightly outnumbering Republicans. President Obama carried the district by about 7 percentage points last year, while Garcia won by even more against Republican Rep. David Rivera.

On Monday, the National Republican Congressional Committee released a new web ad — a precursor to a TV spot — taking Garcia to task for the scandal. The NRCC is also running Spanish-language radio ads about the issue.

Garcia has acknowledged the scandal will become a central campaign issue. But Monday’s poll shows he’s still tough to beat in an evenly split district that leans slightly Democratic.

Also, raised Garcia about $550,000 in his first full quarter of fundraising — one of the largest cash hauls in the nation for a congressional freshman.

A GOP poll taken before the scandal also indicated Garcia’s support was soft.

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