GOP poll: embattled David Rivera trails Joe Garcia

Two separate polls from Republican and Democratic third-party groups have arrived at the same conclusion: Republican U.S. Rep. David Rivera is losing his reelection effort.

Rivera, under separate federal criminal investigations into his personal and campaign finances, trails Democratic challenger Joe Garcia by nine percentage points in a Democratic poll and he’s behind by 10 points in the Republican survey — just outside the poll’s error margin.

Rivera’s campaign has produced its own survey showing he has an inside-the-error margin lead of four points.

The Republican survey is the newest and most eye-opening because it was conducted Tuesday and Wednesday by a top-flight GOP polling firm with vast experience in Florida: McLaughlin & Associates.

Pollster Jim McLaughlin confirmed the numbers in the poll, but he declined comment and he wouldn’t disclose who paid for the survey obtained by The Herald.

“This is a quality polling firm, and based on the data, it’s very difficult for Rivera to come back,” said political consultant David Custin, who successfully led efforts to defeat Garcia in his previous congressional races in 2010 against Rivera and in 2008 against Republican Rep. Mario Diaz-Balart.

“I don’t want Joe to win,” Custin said. “But this poll makes it look like he will.”

The Republican poll’s numbers aren’t just bad news for Rivera in the new Kendall-to-Key West Congressional District 26 seat.

The survey shows Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney trails President Obama 51-43 percent in the GOP-leaning district, which voted an average four percentage points more Republican compared to the national average for the results of the two prior presidential campaigns. In some ways, the results of this survey shed light on Romney’s struggles in must-win Florida.

Obama is besting Romney in every recent major Florida survey, albeit the Democrat’s statewide leads are often within the error margin.

Voters in District 26 are more likely to view Obama favorably than unfavorably, the Republican poll shows. It shows they’re more likely to have an unfavorable view of Romney. Voters in the district view Rivera equally favorably as unfavorably. They appear to like Garcia marginally better.

Geography also conspires against Rivera in the race, Custin said. He said the addition of Monroe County to the district hurt Rivera, who lost the more-conservative Collier County to Diaz-Balart when the seats were redrawn this year by the Legislature.

The McLaughlin poll shows Garcia winning by nine points in Miami-Dade and 13 points in Monroe.

The survey showed 19 percent undecided. Another candidate, independent Jose Peixoto, earned 5 percent of the vote. The survey didn’t include the fourth candidate in the race, Angel Fernandez, an independent.

Custin said it’s likely independent voters will break Garcia’s way as more news about the federal investigation into Rivera surfaces.

The results of the Republican poll were similar to a survey taken by the Democratic House Majority PAC and the Service Employees International Union.

That survey, showing Garcia leading Rivera 50-41 percent, was conducted mid month by Benenson Strategy Group, which surveyed 400 likely voters and had an error margin of 4.9 percentage points just like McLaughlin’s survey, which showed Garcia leading Rivera 43-33 percent.

The back-to-back bad poll numbers come as Rivera fends off a federal investigation into whether he helped steer tens of thousands of dollars to an opponent challenging Garcia in the Aug. 14 Democratic primary.

The opponent, political newcomer Justin Lamar Sternad, is cooperating with the FBI, which is examining whether his federal campaign finance forms were intentionally misleading when they initially failed to report $47,000 in secret money linked to Rivera.

Rivera has denied wrongdoing.

The congressman is also under a separate federal investigation that stemmed from a secret $500,000 payment from a dog track. Records show he helped steer the payment to a company controlled by his mother. Rivera narrowly avoided 52 state charges linked to the payment. Prosecutors said the laws he might have broken were vague or the statute of limitations had expired.

Javier Correoso, campaign manager for Rivera, told The Herald that he would never be involved in a secret campaign.

“I don’t know who Lamar Sternad is. I absolutely had no involvement in the Sternad campaign ... Everything I learned came from the newspaper. This was a surprise to me.”

Correoso, who also ran Rivera’s 2010 campaign, said he hasn’t spoken to Rivera about the Sternad campaign.

“My focus right now is defeating Joe Garcia,” Correoso said.

Meanwhile, the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee has reserved about $1.5 million worth of TV ad time, much of which could be used for Garcia. In contrast, the National Republican Congressional Committee has earmarked no money for Rivera.

But Republican insiders say that Rivera — a tough campaigner who excels in constituent services — won’t be easy for Garcia to beat, regardless of what the polls say. And the NRCC hasn’t written him off entirely, either.

“We don’t base our decisions on one poll alone and we’re closely watching this race,” said NRCC spokesman Nat Sillin.

Miami Herald staff writer Patricia Mazzei contributed to this report, which has been updated.