U.S. Rep. David Rivera — whose tenure was marked by a series of scandals and who remains the target of two federal investigations — was booted out of office Tuesday, becoming the only Miami-Dade congressional incumbent to lose his seat in recent memory.
Rivera, a Republican, lost to Democrat Joe Garcia, who handily picked up the Kendall-to-Key West seat for his party on a night when the GOP kept control of the U.S. House of Representatives. It was Rivera’s first-ever loss at the polls in a political career going back a decade.
With all the precincts reporting, Garcia got nearly 54 percent of the vote to River’s 42.9 percent.
“Thank you, South Florida!” a buoyant Garcia, 49, told more than a hundred supporters who were packed into Casa Vieja, a Colombian restaurant in West Kendall. “Today, our community has spoken. It has decided to turn a new page, move in a new direction.”
In his victory speech, Garcia called for compromise between Democrats and Republicans. In his only reference to his opponent, Garcia said Rivera “ran a hard campaign. We wish him and his family well.”
Another Republican incumbent, Rep. Allen West of Palm Beach Gardens, appeared to lose to Democrat Patrick Murphy by 2,456 votes in the early hours of Wednesday. Murphy got 50.4 percent of the vote to West’s 49.6 percent.
In District 18, there are still hundreds provisional ballots to be counted, but in those cases voters have to provide information to prove their ballots should be counted and it’s unlikely that all of them will, Eric Johnson, Murphy’s campaign consultant, said Wednesday morning. There are also absentee ballots remaining to be counted in Palm Beach.
The state elections website showed that the district which encompasses Palm Beach, St. Lucie and Martin counties gave a 2,456 voter edge to Murphy.
“There is no scenario where the 2,400 [edge that Murphy as] gets overturned,” he said. “Right now we are 700 votes outside the recount measure.”
The West campaign has not conceded, Johnson said. West’s campaign manager didn’t respond to emails Tuesday night or Wednesday morning.
Johnson said that he believes Murphy, age 29, will become the youngest member of the next Congress but not the youngest in history.
Johnson attributed Murphy’s win to voters anger about attack ads.
“Patrick’s message over and over that we have to work together, not be divisive, the name calling has got to stop really sold with voters in the Treasure Coast,” Johnson said.
West was a Tea Party favorite and first-term member of Congress while Murphy is a 29-year-old businessman. In his first political race, Murphy tapped into Democrats’ nationwide distaste for West— a regular on Fox News who drew attention for saying several dozen of Democrats in the House are communists and calling U.S. Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz (D-Weston) “vile.”
West raised about $17 million while Murphy raised more than $3.7 million in one of the most expensive House contests in the nation.
Murphy’s father gave $250,000 to a PAC that created an ad depicting a caricature of West, who is African-American, in boxing gloves punching an old white woman, a younger white woman and grabbing money from a black family. The ad was intended to depict West socking it to constituents over Medicare, health care and tax cuts.
West and his supporters argued the ad was racist; the NAACP disagreed.
West attacked Murphy for a decade-old arrest after a night of drinking when the college freshman swore at police officer — a case that was ultimately dropped.
One West ad claimed “After Murphy’s charges were dropped, Murphy’s father gave the prosecutor a huge campaign donation.” His father Thomas Murphy made a $500 donation to Miami-Dade State Attorney Katherine Fernandez Rundle a few years before his son’s arrest and his companies made $1,500 in donations the year after.
PolitiFact rated the claim Mostly False — the donations were a tiny drop in Fernandez Rundle’s campaign accounts. Plus, there was no proof that they were connected to the case being dropped. Murphy’s father has been a regular donor to national, statewide and local candidates for more than a decade.
Murphy counter attacked by spotlighting an incident when West, a lieutenant colonel in the Army, fired over the head of an Iraqi detainee. A military investigation led to a fine and reprimand.
Two candidates without party affiliation, Angel Fernandez and Jose Peixoto, also competed.
In a third closely watched South Florida congressional contest, former West Palm Beach Mayor Lois Frankel, a Democrat, easily beat former state House Republican Leader Adam Hasner in a race for an open seat that stretches from Fort Lauderdale to Riviera Beach. She got 54.6 percent of the vote.
But the only congressional incumbent to lose in Florida on Tuesday was Rivera, a former state representative and powerful Florida House budget chief who became the first sitting Miami-Dade member of Congress to lose in recent memory.
Rivera, a former state representative and powerful Florida House budget chief, tacitly conceded defeat Tuesday night.
“The results are still incomplete, but they do not appear to be positive,” he said. “I want to thank my friends and family and God for all the blessings I have received from this community. It has been a great honor to serve this community for 10 years.”
“In or out, I will keep fighting — that will never change,” he added. “We must make sure that this district returns to a Republican congressman in 2014.”
Rivera easily defeated Garcia in 2010. But this time around, in a newly redrawn district less favorable to the Republican, Garcia won by double digits, according to unofficial state results. The two men differ on Cuba — a key issue for older, Cuban-American voters in the district — with Rivera taking the hard line and Garcia favoring family travel and remittances to the island.
In his only term in Congress, Rivera came under three criminal investigations. He was recently charged with violating 11 state ethics laws. Ultimately, the bad headlines caught up with him.
A consummate politician known for his gamesmanship and hard work, Rivera, 47, stumped Tuesday at the South Kendall Community Church, talking to voters who were in line for about five hours.
Rivera had the backing of his longtime friend, Sen. Marco Rubio, who recorded robocalls and a Spanish-language radio ad for Rivera. Rubio’s wife wore a Rivera campaign T-shirt and volunteered at the church precinct Tuesday afternoon.
But Rivera was plagued by federal and state investigations into his personal and campaign finances, stemming from a secret, $500,000 payment he received from the Flagler Dog Track — now the Magic City Casino — in 2008 to run a successful slots campaign. State prosecutors dropped their investigation earlier this year without filing any of the 52 charges they had drafted against the congressman, blaming the statute of limitations and ambiguous state finance laws. The FBI and IRS are investigating whether Rivera should have paid taxes on the Magic City money.
Separately, Rivera faces a federal investigation into his involvement in financing the race of one of Garcia’s Democratic primary challengers, Justin Lamar Sternad. Rivera has denied any role in Sternad’s campaign, but campaign vendors who have since given statements and evidence to the FBI have said Rivera ran Sternad’s sophisticated operation. Sternad has filed blank campaign finance reports, invoking his constitutional right to remain silent to avoid incriminating himself.
Last month, the state ethics commission charged Rivera with concealing the slots consulting money, misusing campaign funds, and filing bogus financial disclosure forms. Rivera claimed for several years that he worked as a contractor for the U.S. Agency for International Development, but USAID told state investigators that the agency never hired Rivera.
Rivera tried to paint Garcia as corrupt, citing federal elections filings pointing out financial reporting incidents and suggesting Garcia benefited from a U.S. Department of Energy contract subcontracted to a Puerto Rican firm that later hired Garcia. Garcia briefly worked as director of the energy department’s office of minority economic impact and diversity, which said it was not involved in the contract referenced by Rivera.
Garcia had previously run unsuccessfully against Republican Rep. Mario Diaz-Balart in 2008, and for the Miami-Dade County Commission in 1993.
On Tuesday, voters in the district weren’t particularly happy about their choices.
“Which of the two evils?” first-grade teacher Brenda Faust, 39, asked Tuesday at her Homestead precinct. She ended up casting her ballot for Garcia.
“I don’t trust David Rivera as far as I can spit,” she concluded. “I can’t wait till he gets out of office. I don’t think he’s a nice person, and I think he’s sneaky.”
Elsewhere, Diaz-Balart and Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, both Miami Republicans, coasted to reelection, as did Democratic Reps. Debbie Wasserman Schultz of Weston, Alcee Hastings of Miramar, and Ted Deutch of Boca Raton.
In West Palm Beach, a beaming Frankel, 64, spoke to supporters at the Embassy Suites hotel, where a crowd on stage surrounded her with campaign signs and American flag balloons. Frankel said Hasner, whom she called a “formidable challenger,” had called to congratulate her.
“I’m going to be there to make sure you are going to get that Medicare check every day, and there are going to be good jobs for young people like my son ...,” she said, standing next to her son Ben. “My run for Congress has been about making sure women of our country are going to be allowed to make their own personal healthcare decisions.”
In the new Democratic district, Hasner — who dropped his lagging U.S. Senate bid to run for Congress instead — put up a spirited fight against Frankel, a former state legislator. Hasner matched Frankel’s $3 million in donations and attacked her West Palm Beach record, including taking a 40 percent pay raise while mayor. Frankel hammered Hasner as a conservative who supported U.S. Rep. Paul Ryan’s budget plan and opposed abortion rights.
El Nuevo Herald staff writers Alfonso Chardy and Juan Carlos Chávez, and Miami Herald writers Paradise Afshar, Bill Coppinger, Elizabeth deArmas, Lidia Dinkova, Scott Hiaasen, Alexandra Leon, Stephanie Parra, and Christina Veiga contributed to this report.