With an already narrow balance of power at stake in the Florida Senate — and the political futures of several incumbents on the line — some of Miami-Dade County’s state Senate races have turned increasingly ugly as Election Day draws closer.
In one race, a Democratic incumbent has been accused of consorting with a Middle Eastern terrorist, and in a couple of others, the candidates have sparred passionately over their policies and potential conflicts of interest.
Voters are already casting ballots in the county’s five races, four of which are competitive. Democrats hope an anti-Donald Trump wave will help boost their candidates’ prospects even further, while Republicans have poured millions of dollars into helping their contenders retain — or in one case, gain — seats.
While Democrats hope Senate seats in Tampa and Central Florida could also be pick-ups for them, Miami-Dade County has the highest concentration of consequential races. They are in play this year because of redrawn Senate districts that could affect the Republicans’ 26-14 chamber majority.
Current Republican Sens. Miguel Diaz de la Portilla and Anitere Flores and Democratic Sen. Dwight Bullard all want voters to send them back to Tallahassee, but each is fighting an aggressive opponent angling to unseat them.
The one incumbent who seems safe is Hialeah Republican Sen. Rene Garcia, who even Democratic leaders concede is likely to get re-elected in District 36. Democratic unknown Anabella Grohoski Peralta challenges him on the ballot.
Meanwhile, Diaz de la Portilla and Flores are trying to fend off viable Democratic challengers who hope to capitalize on redrawn districts that now put those Republicans in mostly blue territory. In defense of the incumbents, the Florida Republican Senatorial Campaign Committee has put more than $650,000 into Diaz de la Portilla’s and Flores’ races to keep them in office.
Both lacking primary opponents, Diaz de la Portilla and his Democratic challenger, state Rep. Jose Javier Rodriguez, have been battling in Miami’s District 37 for several months now.
Diaz de la Portilla has raised more than twice as much money as Rodriguez, although Democrats are all-in on their candidate, too. Some outside liberal groups are assisting Rodriguez’s bid, including independent “dark money” organizations that don’t disclose their donors. Miami Gardens state Sen. Oscar Braynon, who will be the Senate Democratic leader after the election, praised Rodriguez again last week as a “superstar candidate for us.”
Diaz de la Portilla — one of the more moderate senators — has fiercely promoted his decision to single-handedly kill controversial gun bills during the last two legislative sessions as a way to raise his appeal to independent and Democratic voters. He says his leadership and influence as Judiciary Committee chairman is something Rodriguez couldn’t match as a newcomer to the Senate because, he said, Rodriguez “hasn’t been effective” in the state House.
Rodriguez, meanwhile, accuses Diaz de la Portilla of being “governed by political calculation rather than political courage,” and liberal groups have also hammered the incumbent for what they view as ties to special interests, such as with Florida Power & Light.
In central Miami-Dade’s District 40, where Republican state Rep. Frank Artiles aims to knock off Bullard, campaign politics have stooped to even more extreme levels.
Republicans supporting Artiles have run a Spanish-language TV ad for several weeks now that features footage of the 9/11 terrorist attacks while accusing Bullard of meeting with a “terrorist” during a trip to the Middle East earlier this year. Bullard dismisses the ad as “a desperation tactic” and called it “a bit far-fetched.”
Republicans stand by it, saying the jarring images are justified because the company Bullard is accused of keeping during his trip to Palestinian areas of Israel was “both offensive and extreme.”
But Braynon and others worry the race has taken on an even darker dynamic than that. Braynon said he sees “racial undertones” in some of the negative ads — including the terrorist one — because they selectively feature an image of Bullard, an African-American, wearing a hoodie. Bullard did that as a state representative in 2012 to show solidarity for Trayvon Martin, the black teen killed by a Neighborhood Watch volunteer.
“I thought that was a low blow,” said Braynon, who is also black. He called the dynamic of the Bullard-Artiles contest “the worse one to me.”
“The rest of them have been pretty much talking about people’s records — the things you would expect people to talk about,” said Braynon, who was re-elected this year after no one challenged him.
Artiles, himself a Cuban-American, said he doesn’t agree “at all” that race has been used as a campaign tactic.
“I, too, am a minority, so to claim that I am making this about race is ridiculous,” Artiles said. “It is true that there are stark differences between Dwight Bullard and myself on policy stances and issues, and he has made some trips and decisions that should cause voters great concern, but to say that we are making this election about race is simply not true.”
$5.7M has been raised across Miami-Dade County’s five state Senate races so far this cycle — 85 percent of it by the Republican candidates.
Overall, both parties are optimistic in District 40, which leans Democratic and is heavily Hispanic. Braynon said they’re seeing the “the best performance” there with Bullard, while Nelson Diaz, executive director of the Miami-Dade Republican Party, said he believes there is a strong opening for Artiles to pick up the seat.
“Frank Artiles’ operation is second to none. I stopped walking the district because his operation was so good,” Diaz said.
Meanwhile, Flores is facing Democratic political newcomer Debbie Mucarsel-Powell in District 39, which includes Florida International University. In separate visits to the Miami Herald’s editorial board recently, the two painted very different pictures of their contest.
Flores said it’s been “positive” with “no attacks.” She, like Diaz de la Portilla, emphasized her ability to have influence in Tallahassee by being among Republican leadership and directly helping her district, such as through funding for K-12 schools and higher education programs.
But Mucarsel-Powell accuses Flores of conflicts of interest because of her connections to charter schools, and she said Flores’ conservative views on issues like abortion aren’t in line with the district, which now leans Democratic.
There’s a bit of drama in District 38, too — a safe Democratic seat that’s up for grabs between current Democratic state Rep. Daphne Campbell and former state Rep. Phillip Brutus. No Republican ran for the seat, which represents a highly diverse, coastal part of Northeast Miami-Dade.
Brutus, still a registered Democrat, is running as a no-party-affiliated candidate — a “tactical decision,” he admits, to bypass the crowded six-person primary field, where Campbell came out the victor.
“I ran as an NPA in case she won [the primary] to have a second chance at blocking her extremist positions,” Brutus said, adding that he hopes to galvanize Democratic primary voters who didn’t choose Campbell in that August election.
“They had a chance to vote for her and rejected her based on the issues,” he said, criticizing Campbell for “voting with extremist Republicans” on LGBT issues and workers’ rights. He also voiced concerns over her “ethical issues” and questions of fraud that have been raised against her and her family members.
Campbell did not return messages seeking comment.
Independent candidates are running in a couple of other races, too, but they’ve had minimal, if any, presence in those contests. Mercedes Christian is running in District 37 and Mario Jimenez is running in District 40.
Herald/Times co-bureau chief Mary Ellen Klas contributed to this story.