Late July is hardly peak election season in Miami-Dade County. But the polls in some parts of town will nevertheless open Tuesday for voters to cast ballots in a pair of special primary elections featuring campaigns as heated as the season.
Republicans will pick among Rep. Jose Felix Diaz, former Sen. Alex Diaz de la Portilla and attorney Lorenzo Palomares to represent Senate District 40, a competitive Southwest Miami-Dade district where Democrats will choose between former Rep. Ana Rivas Logan and businesswoman Annette Taddeo. The winners will face off in the Sept. 26 general election.
Diaz, the only sitting lawmaker of the bunch, had to resign to seek the seat — requiring another election for the Republican-leaning House District 116, also in Southwest Dade. GOP voters there will select between brewery owner Jose Mallea and attorney Daniel Perez. There is no Democratic primary because only one candidate, Gabriela Mayaudón, qualified to run. She and either Perez or Mallea will take each other on in September. Both districts are majority Hispanic.
The elections stemmed from the April resignation of Sen. Frank Artiles, a Republican forced to step down after making offensive comments to a pair of legislators. He was also dogged by revelations that he hired questionable political consultants, including a former Hooters “calendar girl” ahead of last year’s election.
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Last November, Artiles bested Democratic Sen. Dwight Bullard. Democrats hope to win back the seat to get a better shot at blocking legislation in the GOP-controlled Capitol. Republicans outnumber Democrats 24-15 in the 40-member Senate.
Special elections draw notoriously few voters, forcing candidates to spend serious money just to get a few of their base voters to the polls. As a result, absentee ballots are expected to have outsize importance, since older, more reliable primary voters targeted by the campaigns tend to vote by mail.
The Republican Senate primary in particular has attracted major cash, with Diaz, an attorney and lobbyist who is a favorite of Tallahassee Republicans, and his political committee, Rebuild Florida, spending more than $2 million from June 9 through Thursday. In that same period, Diaz de la Portilla, one of three brothers in a local political dynasty whose name is more widely known than Diaz’s, loaned himself nearly $400,000, a huge amount given the relatively few liquid assets he declared in a May 30 financial disclosure form.
The three GOP Senate contenders have bragged of their connections to President Donald Trump: Palomares as an early supporter and volunteer, Diaz as a former contestant on “The Apprentice” and finalist for Miami’s top federal prosecutor job, and Diaz de la Portilla as an admirer and fellow bucker of the party establishment. Tuesday’s election will be the first local legislative race since Trump’s victory; Trump remains very popular among base GOP voters.
The Senate Democratic candidates, who were vastly outraised compared to the Republicans, have used Trump as an attack. Taddeo noted Rivas Logan, a former Miami-Dade School Board member, was a Republican until 2014. And a political committee backing Rivas Logan, Floridians for Accountability, compared a family trust fund for Taddeo’s 11-year-old daughter to the president’s complex financial web. Taddeo, who has run four times for office and lost, including as Charlie Crist’s running mate for governor in 2014, remains the likely favorite, given she’s spent nearly $60,000 compared to Rivas Logan’s nearly $11,000.
The House district leans so heavily Republican that Tuesday’s primary winner will most likely emerge victorious in September — which is why rivals Perez and Mallea have gone after each other in such aggressive and personal terms. Mallea has accused Perez of backing former President Barack Obama’s increased ties with Cuba because Perez and his fiancée took wedding engagement photos in Havana while visiting the island earlier this year. Perez has countered that Mallea, the son of an Ecuadorian mother and Cuban father, is less Cuban.
Mallea, a former aide to Jeb Bush and 2010 U.S. Senate campaign manager for Marco Rubio, has campaigned on the sort of GOP bona fides that in the pre-Trump era might have seemed key to a primary win. But Perez has cast Mallea as a Rubio traitor for backing Bush during the 2016 presidential race — and Rubio himself disapproved of Mallea using him in campaign ads.
Read our recent coverage of each of the three primaries:
Senate District 40
House District 116