In the fight over the Florida House of Representatives, Miami is a key battleground.
The campaign generals — incoming House Speaker Jose Oliva and incoming minority leader Kionne McGhee — are both from Miami-Dade County. And with 10 seats in play, their backyard is the territory that could determine which party comes out ahead in the numbers game.
If McGhee can claw back seats in the 120-member chamber this fall, Democrats will enter 2019 with a better shot at influencing legislation in the lower chamber the next two years. The conditions would appear to be ripe, with midterm elections typically favoring the party on the outside of the White House and Democratic voter turnout up dramatically during the primary elections.
But even though Democrats outnumber Republicans in Miami, Miami-Dade County voters have steadily supported down-ballot Republicans, who have their own reasons to feel good about voter turnout during the primary election. And Oliva knows he has an opportunity, however unlikely, to head into the new year with a veto-proof super-majority that would enable him to vigorously pursue his agenda regardless of which party occupies the governor’s mansion.
“Miami-Dade County is going to be ground zero,” said McGhee.
The set-up to November makes for compelling politics. McGhee, of Cutler Bay, and Oliva, of Miami Lakes, aren’t just from the opposite ends of the county. They’re from the opposite ends of the political spectrum.
Where free-market libertarian Oliva believes in limited government and helped former House Speaker Richard Corcoran expand school choice, McGhee supports expanding Medicaid and accused House Republicans last year of pushing a “separate but unequal” education system. Where Oliva supported legislation to give local school boards the option of arming teachers after the Parkland massacre, McGhee tried to ban the sale of assault rifles.
“You’re hiring someone to do a job. This is a battle of ideas on how to do that job,” said Oliva, who believes voters will agree that Florida has fared well under 20 years of Republican rule in Tallahassee, particularly when compared to states ruled by Democrats.
Officially, there are 10 contests between Republicans and Democrats on the ballot in Miami-Dade. But only five have any real chance of being competitive to the point that the parties would engage their campaign apparatuses.
Here’s how those races stack up:
▪ District 103: Frank Mingo, a Republican Miami Lakes councilman, is running against Cindy Polo, a Parkland-inspired stay-at-home mom, in this district stretching from Northwest Miami-Dade into Southwest Broward. The seat is being vacated by Republican Rep. Manny Diaz Jr., and Democrats believe Polo can score an upset in “the year of the woman.” But Polo struggled to raise money during her primary campaign, and Oliva is likely to fight hard to keep the seat in the fold considering that Mingo, a supply chain manager for Oliva Cigar Corporation, is also an employee.
▪ District 105: This gerrymandered district connecting parts of Southwest Dade with parts of Southwest Broward and Naples previously belonged to Republican Rep. and House budget chief Carlos Trujillo, who was confirmed this year as OAS ambassador by the U.S. Senate. Ana Maria Rodriguez, the vice mayor of Doral, is seeking to hold the seat for Republicans against Javier Estevez, a progressive Democrat and the openly gay son of Cuban immigrants. Democrats believe they can win the seat, but, like Polo, Estevez hasn’t shown yet that he can raise money on his own.
▪ District 114: Democrat Javier Fernandez took the seat in a special May election triggered when former Democratic Rep. Daisy Baez was forced to resign in shame after admitting that she falsified information about her residence on her voter’s registration affidavit. He beat Trujillo’s well-funded law partner, but must now beat Javier Enriquez if he wants to ever participate in a legislative session.
▪ District 115: Vance Aloupis won the Republican nomination for the seat Aug. 28 by winning a hard-fought campaign against three opponents. He’ll face Jeffrey Solomon in the general election. Democrats believe they can win the seat, but Aloupis is by far the better fundraiser and looks like the Republican party’s heir-apparent to education guru Michael Bileca, who was term-limited.
▪ District 118: Rep. Robert Asencio won this South Dade seat two years ago by beating former Congressman David Rivera in a nail-biter. It’s a Republican-leaning seat, and Asencio has reason to worry: He’s so far been out-raised nearly two-to-one by challenger Anthony Rodriguez.
If there’s a trend in the races, it’s that Democrats are hoping good candidates and a motivated voter base will help them overcome what is likely to be a significant financial disadvantage. It’s likely that Democrats will have to make difficult choices between defending Fernandez and Asencio and fighting for open seats, but McGhee said House Victory, the name assigned to the chamber’s campaign operation, will be engaged in all the relevant races.
“We’ve got several opportunities that we feel based on the composition of the district, the history of the district, the candidates that we have there and, whether it’s an open seat or it’s a Republican incumbent we feel is weak and doesn’t represent the best interest of their districts, we’re going to go after them,” said Reggie Cardozo, the political consultant for House Victory.
Here’s some good news for Democrats: The last time two Miami-area lawmakers squared off in the Florida House, Dan Gelber’s Democrats took seven seats from Marco Rubio’s Republican Party in 2006. That happened in a year where voters across the country sided against Republicans.
But for all the talk of a “blue wave,” neither party is likely to pick up or lose more seats than can be counted on a single hand statewide. So the margins in Miami’s state House races — where independent voters can swing the results — become all the more important.
“I think Miami-Dade is probably the premier battleground for a couple reasons: The sheer number of seats that are open. And the fact that Miami-Dade as a county usually performs Democrat but as individual House districts we’ve been able to make the case for Republican governance,” said Oliva. “I think we can’t understate the importance of Dade in this election cycle.”