Carlos Gimenez said he didn’t see the trouble coming until it was too late Tuesday night.
For weeks, the Miami-Dade mayor and his aides told confidants and supporters that internal polling showed him far ahead of school-board member Raquel Regalado and five other challengers. Their predictions had the five-year incumbent comfortably crossing the 50-percent threshold and securing his reelection on primary night without the need for a runoff in November.
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That was wrong: The first wave of absentee ballots barely gave Gimenez a majority — an early sign of trouble since it was so far below the 62 percent he captured in mail voting during his last primary in 2012. Then came the really bad news. Early votes, those cast before the actual Aug. 30 primary, dragged Gimenez down to 49 percent.
“When I saw the early votes come in, that’s when I thought: hmm, it’s going to be a runoff ,” Gimenez said Wednesday, hours after final results put him at 48 percent and Regalado at 32 percent. “We thought we were going to go up with early voting. But we actually went down.”
Gimenez’s primary strategy relied on Miami-Dade’s black voters to compensate for a muscular showing in Hispanic precincts by Regalado, a Spanish-language radio host and daughter of Miami Mayor Tomás Regalado.
But a strong performance Tuesday by the only black candidate on the mayoral ballot seemed to rattle Gimenez’s plan, with retired teacher Frederick Bryant besting Gimenez in some precincts in African-American strongholds of Miami Gardens and Opa-locka.
We thought we were going to go up with early voting. But we actually went down.
Miami-Dade Mayor Carlos Gimenez
Bryant took nine percent of the vote to secure third place in the primary, despite running a shoestring campaign with reported spending of $3,000. Of that, $1,800 went to the filing fee, and the rest for a newspaper ad and radio spot. Campaign signs? The Overtown resident said he made three of them.
“I went to some events,” Bryant said of his campaign, which he said centered on preventing the shootings that have ravaged some African-American neighborhoods in Miami and its suburbs. “I think it was my message. And my soul. The truth of what I was saying.”
Tuesday’s results forced the Gimenez camp to reevaluate its assumptions for a race that became much harder than the group expected.
He starts the nine-week sprint to the runoff the favorite: with a 16-point edge in Tuesday’s results, and an increasingly crowded electoral plate where presidential campaigns will compete with any sort of message reset Regalado might try to broaden her appeal and overtake Gimenez.
Still, the runoff came after half of the primary electorate voted for someone other than him, suggesting broader dissatisfaction with his tenure than his polls showed. And Regalado can point to some more favorable elements of the November landscape than what awaited her in August.
She gets a fresh start to reintroduce herself to voters who weren’t paying attention.
Sean Foreman, political science professor at Barry University, on challenger Raquel Regalado.
Now pinned to a presidential election that could put the first woman in the White House, Gimenez faces a challenger trying to break the same glass ceiling at County Hall.
“She gets a fresh start to reintroduce herself to voters who weren’t paying attention,” said Sean Foreman, a Barry University professor of political science. “Now the race is going to be who gets to redefine Regalado first.”
Gimenez declined every Spanish-TV and radio debate before the primary, sparing him from confronting Regalado in a language the Cuban-born mayor acknowledged she probably speaks more comfortably than he does. “She’s had that kind of practice,” said Gimenez, who came to Miami as a boy and regularly gives speeches and interviews in Spanish. “I’m not a radio personality. But I can defend myself in Spanish very well.”
Democrats are gearing up for a massive November turnout in Miami-Dade to compensate for shortfalls elsewhere in the swing state of Florida, and that means a mobilization of union voters. Gimenez won endorsements from some county unions, but Regalado scored the backing of the county’s main umbrella labor group, the AFL-CIO.
Then there’s the issue of Donald Trump for the pair of Republicans: Regalado had already said she couldn’t support Trump, while Gimenez avoided talking about the GOP nominee until he revealed Wednesday that he wasn’t planning to vote for him.
Another reset involves campaign cash. Gimenez said Wednesday his campaign war chest was down to $100,000, after having raised a record-breaking $4.5 million. Regalado was not available for an interview Wednesday, but the latest financial reports had her coffers down to about $100,000 before the spending-splurge that defines the final days of most campaigns.
One challenge Gimenez will face, according to several members of his donor circle, is that some contributors will want to hedge their bets and give to Regalado, too. That could make it harder for Gimenez to replicate the four-to-one spending advantage he enjoyed during the primary, when Regalado raised roughly $1 million. Regalado also has the backing of one of South Florida’s wealthiest residents: auto magnate Norman Braman, who contributed about $140,000 to her campaign through August.
In the run-up to his reelection bid, Gimenez assembled a string of initiatives with special appeal to black voters.
There was his Employ Miami-Dade hiring program, launched two years ago in the largely African-American neighborhood of Liberty City. He was an early advocate of police body-cameras, which gained national popularity after a rash of white police officers shooting unarmed black civilians across the country. And this year he pushed through a $300 million redevelopment contract for the notoriously squalid Liberty Square housing project in Liberty City.
Supporters see Gimenez’s pitch to African-American communities easier to make in November, when the only choice will be two Hispanic candidates. Winning over Bryant voters would be helpful; the third-place finisher said Wednesday he’s not ready to endorse in the runoff.
The incumbent is also bound to generate significantly more money and free media, thanks to the influence and attention that come with being mayor, said Christian Ulvert, a Democratic campaign consultant not working in the mayoral race.
“He has the upper hand on the message-delivery front,” Ulvert said, “both as the incumbent and someone who is also a formidable fundraiser.”