The latest twist in the bizarre Republican race for Florida’s 26th congressional district came last week when some voters received automated phone calls from the candidate who’s supposedly no longer campaigning for the seat.
David Rivera’s recorded voice, older Hispanic voters reported, urged them to pick him and ignore “lies” in the news media.
Rivera emailed supporters last month to say he was suspending his campaign. But he never withdrew his candidacy, so his name still appears on the Aug. 26 primary ballot, along with those of Carlos Curbelo, Ed MacDougall, Joe Martinez and Lorenzo Palomares-Starbuck.
That raises the odd possibility that Rivera, 48, could win after running a stealth campaign — avoiding questions about the ongoing federal criminal investigation into his alleged involvement in an illegal 2012 campaign-finance scheme.
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Rivera, who has denied wrongdoing, did not respond Friday to a request for comment.
His foray into the race was fitting for the Kendall-to-Key West district, which has been fertile ground for controversy.
GOP candidates lined up to challenge Congressman Joe Garcia after his office became embroiled last year in an absentee-ballot scandal that landed the Miami Democrat’s former chief of staff in jail. Jeffrey Garcia, no relation, remains under federal criminal investigation into an apparent 2010 ringer candidate. Joe Garcia has denied involvement.
Voter registration in the swing district favors Democrats, but more Republicans tend to go to the polls in mid-term elections.
The GOP establishment has backed Curbelo, 34, a Miami-Dade School Board member who has spent more time talking about Garcia’s ethics than about his primary opponents. Democrats, too, have focused on Curbelo, ignoring the others.
He has raised almost three times as much his rivals combined, though still less than Garcia.
“For many years, we had three Republican seats in the U.S. House from South Florida, and I think it’s important to put back together that team,” Curbelo said, referring to Reps. Mario Diaz-Balart and Ileana Ros-Lehtinen. “That’s what I’m focused on.”
Curbelo says he’s part of a new generation of moderate, pragmatist Republicans able to attract younger voters. Democrats have derided him as a one-time lobbyist who represented gambling interests. Malaysian giant Genting was a client of Curbelo’s public-relations firm; he says he’s registered to lobby only twice.
In the primary, Curbelo has been called too moderate by MacDougall, who in an appeal to the most conservative voters has said Curbelo is practically a Democrat — a suggestion that drew a rebuke from the chairman of the Miami-Dade Republican Party, Nelson Diaz.
“I strongly encourage all Republican candidates to abide by [Ronald] Reagan’s 11th commandment by avoiding personal attacks on each other,” Diaz said.
MacDougall touts that he has spent mostly his own money on the race, which has given him independence from party leaders.
“I don’t rely on their endorsements. I’ve sought none,” he told the Miami Herald editorial board last month. MacDougall is the Cutler Bay mayor who drew attention last year when he rallied other cities to oppose a proposed renovation to the Miami Dolphins’ stadium. He doesn’t live in the district — neither does Rivera — and is not required to by law.
Last month, he ruffled feathers when he identified his opponents in a flier as being of Cuban descent. They accused MacDougall, 65, of trying to shore up the non-Hispanic white vote — especially in the Florida Keys, where the electorate is far less Hispanic than in Miami-Dade.
That could benefit MacDougall, longtime lobbyist and political consultant Bob Levy said back in May, when the candidates qualified to run.
“With so many Hispanic candidates dividing the Hispanic vote, the Anglo could win,” Levy said at the time.
Martinez, a former Miami-Dade commissioner, and Palomares-Starbuck, an attorney and rookie candidate, have made less noise. But at the end of June, Martinez, 56, had more money left to spend than MacDougall. And Martinez is well-known in Kendall and West Kendall, which he represented for 12 years before running unsuccessfully for county mayor in 2012.
“I help people, regardless of what party they’re in,” he said at a candidate forum two weeks ago. “You know what you’re getting with me.”
Palomares-Starbuck, 60, promotes himself as an outsider with enough experience to know how to write and understand legislation.
“I consider myself midde-of-the-road. I’m not extremist,” he told the Herald’s editorial board. “I think the voters are tired with this recycling of politicians.”
The four candidates differ — sometimes widely — on a few issues.
On immigration, they agree that unaccompanied Central American children should generally be returned home. Curbelo supports the Dream Act, which would allow people brought into the country illegally as children to stay. Palomares-Starbuck says all immigrants in the country illegally should be given “parole” — a legal status that would allow them to pay taxes but not to automatically become residents or citizens.
On healthcare, all oppose Obamacare. Curbelo would like to replace it with an alternative that would keep measures like not denying coverage based on pre-existing conditions. Martinez wants to expand on a pilot affordable-healthcare program he helped create at the county. Palomares-Starbuck proposes raising the Medicare-payroll tax and having the government-run program cover working adults.
On education, all but Curbelo oppose the Common Core education standards. Curbelo backs them — as does one of his big-name endorsers, former Gov. Jeb Bush — though Curbelo has called it a state issue.
Other standout ideas: MacDougall supports a flat tax. Palomares-Starbuck wants to give give “amnesty” to people whose credit was damaged by a bad loan or foreclosure during the recession. Martinez would reduce federal student loans for college graduates who work in science, technology, engineering and math.
Miami Herald political writer Marc Caputo contributed to this report.