The chess board is set for the remainder of the 2016 campaign season in Florida, and South Florida is solidifying its status as an epicenter to watch.
In Miami-Dade County’s closely watched state Senate races, several candidates entered contests at the last minute — preventing incumbents from running unopposed or adding to already contentious party primaries. The impact of redistricting means all Senate seats are up for election this year.
In contrast to the Senate contests, there were few last-minute surprises in South Florida’s congressional and state House races.
Candidates for state and federal office had to file paperwork by noon Friday to qualify for the Aug. 30 primary and Nov. 8 general election ballots.
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State Sen. Oscar Braynon, D-Miami Gardens, will be the only sitting senator in Miami-Dade who will be elected without opposition. He represents District 35 — in northern Miami-Dade and southern Broward counties — and is on track to be the Senate Democratic leader in November. No Republican, independent or write-in candidate filed to run against him.
In District 36 in north-central Miami-Dade, state Sen. Rene Garcia, R-Hialeah, had been on a similar path for unopposed re-election until Democrat Anabella Grohoski Peralta qualified early Friday to challenge him.
Meanwhile, after some reshuffling this week that put Democrats under pressure to find a candidate to challenge Republican state Sen. Anitere Flores in District 39, Debbie Mucarsel-Powell stepped forward late Thursday.
Mucarsel-Powell, of Pinecrest, fills the void left by Miami Democrat Andrew Korge — who left the District 39 race Wednesday for what he viewed as better prospects in District 40, which is in central Miami-Dade County.
Korge set up a three-way Democratic primary there between sitting state Sen. Dwight Bullard and former state legislator Ana Rivas Logan. A fourth Democrat entered that race Thursday: Missalys Perez, of Hialeah.
The winner of that four-way race will take on Miami Republican state Rep. Frank Artiles in the fall. Independent Mario Jimenez also qualified for the November election.
In heavily Democratic District 38, a crowd of candidates grew larger with one prominent former elected official entering the mix Friday: former Miami Beach Commissioner Michael Góngora.
He joins state Rep. Daphne Campbell of Miami Shores, businessman Anis Blémur, former North Miami Mayor Kevin Burns, high school teacher Don Festge and attorney Jason Pizzo on the August primary ballot for the Democrats. They all hope to replace retiring state Sen. Gwen Margolis, D-Miami.
Former state Rep. Phillip Brutus broke away from the Democratic field by qualifying this week as an independent candidate, instead.
Republican Allen Markelson — a new entry into the race this week — will challenge the Democratic primary victor in November, along with Brutus.
The only Miami-Dade state Senate race that didn’t have any last-minute candidates was District 37, where a general election showdown will pit state Sen. Miguel Diaz de la Portilla, R-Miami, against state Rep. Jose Javier Rodriguez, D-Miami. Mercedes Christian will also be on the ballot as an independent.
Democrats aggressively want to hold on to District 40 and to win in Districts 37, 39 and 36, too, now that they have a challenger to Garcia.
Braynon, who is also chairman of Democrats’ Senate Victory effort, wants his party to retake the Senate majority by 2020 and he said this fall’s elections — particularly in Miami-Dade and a couple other contested districts in Florida — could “build a foundation for that.” Democrats’ hopes are buoyed by recent redistricting of the state’s 40 Senate seats, which yielded more favorable demographics for party candidates.
“Everywhere that there is a chance, we have candidates — many of which are very strong candidates,” Braynon said. “With that being the case, let the election season begin.”
Republicans — who currently have a 26-14 majority in the state Senate — traditionally outspend Democrats in legislative races three-to-one in Florida. They’re already using that firepower to pour financial resources and other assistance into contested districts to deter any Democratic advantage. For instance, such help is already coming to Flores in District 39 and Diaz de la Portilla in District 37.
State Senate President-designate Joe Negron, the Stuart Republican who is chairman of the Florida Republican Senatorial Campaign Committee, said he’s “on offense.”
He predicts the Democrats will actually lose ground in Miami-Dade, because he intends to see to it that Flores, Diaz de la Portilla and Garcia get re-elected, and he thinks Artiles will add a Republican seat in the county delegation.
“We have great candidates and are going to have all the resources necessary to get our message out,” Negron said. “They’ve tried for many years to turn the Senate, but in the end, they’ll achieve the opposite.”
Incoming House Speaker Richard Corcoran, R-Land O’ Lakes, acknowledged the importance of winning South Florida legislative seats for moving the Republican agenda forward.
“Miami-Dade is definitely one of the competitive areas, I agree,” Corcoran said, adding that incumbent U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio’s decision to seek re-election after all is “a game changer” for Republicans in down-ballot races.
In the contests for South Florida’s state House seats, several Democratic incumbents in Broward and Miami-Dade counties were essentially re-elected Friday because no one filed to oppose them.
Those are: Democratic Reps. Bobby DuBose of Fort Lauderdale (District 94), Kristin Jacobs of Coconut Creek (District 96), Jared Moskowitz of Coral Springs (District 97), Katie Edwards of Plantation (District 98), Evan Jenne of Dania Beach (District 99), Joe Geller of Aventura (District 100), Shevrin Jones of West Park (District 101), Sharon Pritchett of Miami Gardens (District 102), Cynthia Stafford of Miami (District 109) and Kionne McGhee of Cutler Bay (District 117).
Some of the open seats — including Districts 106, 112, 114 and District 118 — drew a handful of challengers each. Rep. Daphne Campbell’s seat in District 108 had eight Democrats and one independent vying to replace her.
Incumbent Democratic Rep. Barbara Watson of Miami Gardens has a primary challenger in District 107: Mary Estime-Irvin of North Miami.
And incumbent Rep. David Richardson, D-Miami Beach, also faces a contested August primary in District 113 against Rey Valdes of Miami. The primary winner will face Republican Jonathan Parker of Miami Beach in November.
On the federal level, 126 candidates across Florida filed to run for Congress in the state’s 27 districts, and all five Miami-Dade seats will be contested in November. Congressional districts across the state were redrawn in December in a court-ordered process that could result in Democrats picking up seats.
The most competitive South Florida race will be District 26 — where Republican Carlos Curbelo faces a tough and expensive reelection battle against former Democratic U.S. Rep. Joe Garcia, Miami-Dade Democratic Party chief Annette Taddeo and independent candidate Jose Peixoto. Garcia and Taddeo will face off in the Democratic primary. The seat has changed party hands in the last two elections.
District 27 was redrawn to include a swath of Miami-Dade from Kendall to Miami Beach, but longtime Republican Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen is still a heavy favorite in the majority Republican district. Republicans David “Tubbs” Adams and Mark Peiro along with Democrats Thomas Cruz-Wiggins, Scott Fuhrman and Adam Sackrin entered the race in recent weeks.
Incumbent Republican Mario Diaz-Balart drew opposition from Democrat Alina Valdes in District 25.
Democrats dominate the 23rd and 24th districts, which include urban Miami, central Broward County and parts of Miami Beach.
District 24 incumbent Frederica Wilson faces a primary challenge from former University of Miami and Miami Dolphins football player Randal Hill.
District 23 Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz — head of the Democratic National Committee — faces a primary against Nova Southeastern law professor Tim Canova. Their primary has drawn national attention after Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders endorsed Canova in a show of defiance toward Wasserman Schultz. Republicans Martin “Marty” Feigenbaum and Joseph “Joe” Kaufman and no-party candidates Don Endriss and Lyle Milstein also qualified for the ballot.
Other notable races outside of South Florida include District 13 in the Tampa Bay area, where former Democratic Gov. Charlie Crist faces off against incumbent Republican Rep. David Jolly, who recently withdrew from the Republican U.S. Senate primary after Rubio announced he would run again.
Democrats Alan Grayson’s and Patrick Murphy’s U.S. Senate aspirations have triggered a gaggle of candidates in their newly redrawn congressional districts.
In Central Florida’s 9th District, Democrat Dena Grayson is seeking to fill her husband’s seat, while former Grayson aide Susannah Randolph and state Sen. Darren Soto are also entered in the Democratic primary, among others.
District 18 — which encompasses the Treasure Coast — has 11 individuals vying for Murphy’s old seat. They include Republican Carl Domino, who unsuccessfully challenged Murphy in 2014, Republican Rebecca Negron (Negron’s wife) and self-made millionaire Randy Perkins, who will run as a Democrat.
Kristen Clark reported from the Herald/Times Tallahassee bureau. Tallahassee bureau chief Mary Ellen Klas contributed to this story.
Kristen M. Clark: 850-222-3095, @ByKristenMClark