With the most-competitive legislative races in the state being fought in Miami-Dade and Broward counties, the heat from the fireworks in the presidential race could spark some down-ballot drama.
In Miami-Dade, the county’s voter registration rolls are swelling, with more than 23,000 new registrants since 2014 — 6,272 new Democrats, 2,646 Republicans, and 14,709 no party affiliation. The numbers have tightened the margins in many seats traditionally held by Republican legislators and potentially strengthened the chances of an upset.
Democrats are counting on a wave election, driven by dissatisfaction with Donald Trump among Republican and independents in Miami-Dade. They say one or two upsets in the state House is now possible.
“Our internal polling is showing the Republican brand is taking a hit,” said Christian Ulvert, a Democratic political consultant in Miami. “You are seeing gaps building with Republicans who are questioning the message coming from the top.”
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The Democrats’ strategy is to use Hillary Clinton’s get-out-the-vote effort “which is working on all cylinders” to deliver voters to candidates down the line who “don’t like the Republicans’ tone,” he said.
But Republicans are confident that voters won’t bolt, and they expect independents will gravitate to GOP veterans and incumbents no matter what happens at the top of the ticket.
“I don’t see Republicans punishing other Republicans because of Trump,” said Nelson Diaz, executive director of the Miami-Dade Republican Party. “Where Republicans might get hurt is if they decide not to vote.”
“But, based on our polling,” he added. “I don’t see any surprises.”
Depending on who shows up and who stays home on Election Day, both sides concede anything can happen.
The most dramatic race to watch is House District 118, an open seat with 32,314 registered Republicans, 28,331 registered Democrats and 28,362 registered independents that is being vacated by Rep. Frank Artiles, R-Miami, who is running for the state Senate.
Former Congressman David Rivera, a Republican, is attempting a political comeback in the Hispanic-dominated district against a Democratic newcomer, retired Miami-Dade schools police officer Robert Asencio.
Rivera’s brand has been marred by scandal and investigations since he was last in the state House, where he rose to budget chief under former House Speaker Marco Rubio. Rivera’s negatives have created an opening for Asencio, who led 45-40 in a poll done by the Florida Democratic Party in September, and Republicans concede their candidate is in trouble.
Rivera has been fined $58,000 by the Florida Commission on Ethics for accepting illicit campaign contributions. He remains under federal criminal investigation regarding an unlawful 2012 campaign-finance scheme to run a ringer candidate against former U.S. Congressman Joe Garcia. Rivera lost bids for re-election in 2012 and 2014, and this year he barely defeated political rookie Anthony Rodriguez in the Republican primary, winning by only 174 votes.
Asencio, a military veteran, retired in 2015 after 26 years on the Miami-Dade Schools police force. He is a founder of the Florida Public Employees Partnership, a nonprofit, nonpartisan state employee advocacy organization, and told the Miami Herald editorial board that he had been asked by both Republicans and Democrats to consider running for the state House in the past, “but I wanted to wait until I had retired.”
Rivera has out-raised Asencio nearly six to one, collecting $194,000 in contributions to Asencio’s $34,000. The Florida Democratic Party has targeted Rivera and began running television ads for Asencio on Friday. Rivera also launched an ad on Thursday on Spanish-language television.
The race has already had its share of mud-slinging, with a Rivera-backed political committee launching robo calls accusing Asenio of being a “child abuser,” based on an unsubstantiated complaint from 2003 that was dismissed by the school district.
“He must win over swing voters and soft Republicans,” Ulvert said of Asencio. “What Donald Trump has done will positively impact these races.”
Another race Democrats hope will benefit from a surge of pro-Democrat voters — or from Republicans who stay home — is the District 103 race to unseat Republican incumbent state Rep. Manny Diaz Jr., of Hialeah, by Ivette Gonzalez Petkovich, a Miami attorney.
Diaz, an administrator at Doral College, has been influential on education issues in his four years in Tallahassee. He supports the program that rewards teachers based on their evaluations and results of college entrance exams, and wants to bring back the school financing differential that compensated for the higher cost of living in Miami-Dade. Diaz opposes a sales-tax option to finance projects at Miami Dade College, and he rejects Medicaid expansion.
Gonzalez Petkovich supports tighter financial controls on charter schools and other privatization efforts. She considers Diaz’s role working for a company that benefits from state subsidies to charter schools “a conflict of interest.” She supports expanding the use of medical marijuana and defends her work for a company that promotes cannabis-infused bath products.
Democrats are also hoping for a November surprise in the open District 114 seat vacated by state Rep. Erik Fresen, R-Miami, who is leaving because of term limits. The southeastern Miami district includes Cutler Bay and West Miami and is composed of one-third each of Democrats, Republican and no-party-affiliation voters.
The Democratic candidate is Daisy Baez, whom Fresen narrowly defeated in 2014. The Republican is John Couriel, who has also run for office before, losing to outgoing Democratic state Sen. Gwen Margolis in state Senate District 35.
Baez, born in the Dominican Repubican, emigrated to the U.S. at age 17 and served in the U.S. Army, where she received numerous medals of achievement. She now is director of the Dominican Health Care Association of Florida and supports a living wage, equal pay and more money for public education. She opposes steering taxpayer money to private, for-profit institutes and wants to restore cuts to Bright Futures scholarships.
Couriel, a lawyer and former federal prosecutor, is the son of Cuban “Pedro Pan” immigrants. He believes the legislature’s highest priority should be “increasing economic mobility” for people. He wants to promote entrepreneurs, invest in infrastructure, provide assistance to manufacturers and reduce regulation for small businesses. He supports healthcare pricing transparency and wants to see more investment in environmental sustainable programs.
The toss-up race has Democrats assisting Baez and the Republican State Leadership Committee, a national Republican-backed political committee, steering money into Couriel’s campaign.
The other tightly contested state House races in Miami-Dade to watch:
Two newcomers: Republican Rosy Palomino, a Miami business owner and community activist, is battling Democrat Nick Duran, director of the Florida Association of Free and Charitable Clinics, in the seat being vacated by Rep. Jose Javier Rodriguez, D-Miami, in District 112.
Palomino supports cutting the commercial lease tax, investing in more public transit, dedicating Amendment 1 funding for new urban parks and promoting a clean Biscayne Bay. Duran supports more funding for education, expanding healthcare access through expanding Medicaid, and restrictions on certain assault weapons.
Incumbent Rep. Michael Bileca, a Miami Republican, faces Democrat Jeffrey Solomon, a chiropractor from Pinecrest who is challenging him for the second time. Bileca is the wealthiest member of the state House. As the co-founder of Towncare Dental Partnership, Bileca has a net worth of $18.4 million and is considered a reliable soldier for the leadership team of incoming House Speaker Richard Corcoran.
Bileca, for example, advocated for Corcoran’s pet project: giving bonuses to teachers based on their scores on standardized college entrance exams. Bileca and Corcoran were the only two votes in the House last session against a bill requiring mandatory recess in public schools. He also spoke out against a bill to create a pilot program in Miami-Dade County to allow drug addicts to exchange their dirty needles for free clean ones.
Solomon’s platform includes more support for K-12 and higher education and money for community policing. He supports an assault-weapons ban and more mental-health background checks. He wants to “decriminalize marijuana” and supports its use for medical purposes. He supports abortion rights and a living wage.
Republican incumbent Holly Raschein is being challenged by Democrat Daniel Horton in District 120, a district that leans Democratic. Raschein, a former top aide to Democratic Rep. Ron Saunders, however, is popular in the Keys-based district because of her moderate stands on water, the environment and healthcare.
Horton, a Florida International University law school graduate and former president of the law student body, supports strengthening the state’s water quality laws, requiring Florida Power & Light to pay the cost of cleaning up the saltwater plume polluting Florida Bay and build cooling towers to replaces its cooling canals. He also supports the purchase of sugar lands south of Lake Okeechobee for Everglades restoration, closing corporate tax loopholes to raise state revenues, and enacting a $15 state minimum wage.