Are Miami Democrats snatching defeat from the jaws of victory?
It’s been nearly 17 months after the 2016 election and a day after Republicans appear to have lost a Pennsylvania U.S. House seat in a district Donald Trump won by 20 percentage points — and Democrats have yet to put up a serious challenger for a Miami-area seat Trump won by less than two percentage points.
Republican Rep. Mario Diaz-Balart’s only Democratic opponent doesn’t have enough money on hand to host one catered fundraising dinner. And yet, a few miles away, seven Democratic candidates are raising serious cash in an effort to replace retiring Republican Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen.
Diaz-Balart’s Hialeah-based seat was, and still is, the most Republican-leaning congressional seat in Miami-Dade County. But a Democratic wave in 2018 could put Diaz-Balart’s seat in play if the party can find a credible candidate, making it possible for Democrats to win all three Republican-held seats in South Florida.
“It is more challenging because we haven’t had a strong challenger since 2007,” said Miami-Dade Democratic Party chairman Juan Cuba. “If any community leaders are thinking about running... this is going to be the year to do it.”
There are 10 other Republican-held districts around the country that are as lightly Republican-leaning as Diaz-Balart’s district. Nine of those 10 districts have at least one — and in one case as many as seven — Democrats running who have raised at least $100,000 so far.
Members of Congress don’t have to live in their district, which means anyone who lives in Florida can challenge Diaz-Balart. Cuba said one reason why so many Democrats are staying to run in Ros-Lehtinen’s district is because they live there, making it harder to mount a credible candidacy in places like Hialeah and Doral within Diaz-Balart’s district.
Ian Russell, who served as the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee’s political director during the 2016 cycle, said the lack of a credible candidate to challenge Diaz-Balart at this point in the election cycle is a hole in the national map, though there is still time to mount a credible challenge thanks to Florida’s late filing deadlines and primary elections. He noted that current Rep. Stephanie Murphy, D-Orlando, announced her bid against former Republican Rep. John Mica at the last second in 2016, and ultimately won the race.
“At the DCCC we got Stephanie Murphy to file on the day of the filing deadline,” Russell said. “I’m sure the DCCC and Democratic groups are recruiting somebody strong [in Diaz-Balart’s district] if not it’s a massive missed opportunity.”
The National Republican Congressional Committee, a fundraising and political organization that seeks to elect Republicans to the House of Representatives, said the lack of a serious candidate in Diaz-Balart’s district speaks for itself.
“If the Democrats are planning on competing against Mario Diaz-Balart — then they need to actually recruit a viable candidate,” NRCC spokeswoman Maddie Anderson said.
The DCCC is recruiting heavily to find a credible challenger for Diaz-Balart, spokesperson Cole Leiter said.
Diaz-Balart said he runs every race under the assumption that he’ll face a serious threat, and he has nearly $1 million on hand to defeat a potential challenger in November.
“Nothing infuriates people more than candidates who show up election season and then we don’t see them for a year and a half,” Diaz-Balart said. “So I always do what I do and that’s it.”
But while Diaz-Balart’s seat will be the hardest to win, Miami Republican Rep. Carlos Curbelo is also appearing to benefit from a crowded Democratic primary in Ros-Lehtinen’s district. He’s drawn only one serious challenger so far, Democrat Debbie Mucarsel-Powell, and he has a substantial advantage in fundraising and name recognition, even though Hillary Clinton won the district by over 16 percentage points in 2016.
In contrast, Treasure Coast Republican Rep. Brian Mast, whose district went for Trump by 11 percentage points, has two Democratic challengers who have raised at least $250,000.
“Since arriving in Congress three years ago, Carlos has always put our South Florida community first — no matter who has been in the White House or leading Congress,” Curbelo spokesperson Joanna Rodriguez said in an email, adding that she has “no idea” whether Mucarsel-Powell is a serious candidate or not. “That's why he was reelected overwhelmingly in a district that voted heavily for Hillary Clinton and narrowly for Marco Rubio. He doesn't need to do anything to distinguish himself. He'll just continue being Carlos.”
Curbelo first won election in 2014, a good year for Republicans, over Democratic Rep. Joe Garcia. He successfully defended his seat against a scandal-weakened Garcia in 2016, outperforming Trump by about 28 percentage points.
Diaz-Balart also downplayed the argument that Curbelo could be in trouble after Democrat Conor Lamb appeared to beat Republican Rick Saccone by a hair’s breadth in southwestern Pennsylvania on Tuesday, in an area of the country that supported Trump by a much wider margin than South Florida. He said Saccone was a poor candidate and Curbelo is a good candidate with a message.
“The assumption that you can win elections with less than ideal candidates is just not something that happens a lot,” Diaz-Balart said. “Does this result or the Alabama one before that, does that affect the race in Carlos Curbelo’s district? Absolutely not, no. It’s race by race, but clearly you know you have to have candidates that are good candidates with a message, and if you don’t its going to be a long day.”
But Mucarsel-Powell said Curbelo’s votes in favor of repealing Obamacare and stance on immigration, combined with the national climate in which Republicans have lost seemingly safe races, will cause Democrats, independents and some Republicans to switch their vote in 2018.
“What we saw last night in Pennsylvania is that when politicians don't represent their communities’ values, their days are numbered,” Mucarsel-Powell said in an email. “We have been building a strong coalition of support both locally and nationally to flip this seat in November, and [Pennsylvania] is a reflection of just how energized Democrats are in Florida and across the country.”