Gwen Margolis outspent by surprise newcomer in Senate race

In what may be the sleeper legislative campaign of the season, Sen. Gwen Margolis, the veteran Democrat from Miami, is getting a run for her money — literally — from Miami Beach lawyer John Couriel in the newly drawn coastal district.

Margolis has loaned herself $160,000 to win reelection to Senate District 35, which stretches from Golden Beach to Homestead. But she is being outraised and, so far, outspent by Republican newcomer John Couriel, a Miami Beach lawyer.

Couriel, 34, has collected $213,830 in campaign contributions to Margolis’ $174,093 and has won the endorsements of former Gov. Jeb Bush and U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio. A Harvard-educated lawyer, Couriel quit his job as an assistant U.S. attorney in Miami to run for the seat and vows to out-campaign Margolis, 78, a former state Senate president who was first elected to the state House in 1974.

“I’m hustling. I’ve never done this before but I’m not going to be outworked,’’ Couriel said Monday during a break from walking door-to-door in Pinecrest.

Couriel has the trappings of broad Republican support, from the endorsements of party icons Rubio and Bush to a political committee running attack ads against his opponent. But there is one notable absence: his race is not among the must-watch contests receiving cash infusions from the Senate Majority, the political committees controlled by incoming Senate leader Don Gaetz, R-Niceville.

At a meeting with reporters last week, Gaetz singled out the races that could produce upsets and Couriel v. Margolis wasn’t among them.

“Sen. Gaetz and I are friends,’’ Margolis said Monday, noting that the Niceville Republican lived for years in her Miami Shores district and supported her.

Couriel says he is undaunted that he’s not getting more attention from Senate leadership. “I am assuming I need to do this on my own,’’ he said.

He said he’s running because he believes voters want a change. “The purpose of public office is not to honor someone by electing them to office. We elect someone to work for us and I’m running because I think I could do a better job.”

The district trends Democratic, with nearly 60 percent voting for Obama in 2008 and Alex Sink in 2010. But Democrats do not make up a majority of the district — 45 percent are registered Democrat, compared to 28 percent registered as no party affiliated and 27 percent registered Republican.

Couriel believes he can reach independents and crossover voters with his moderate Republican message. He ticks off the statistics in previous races to make his case.

“Rick Scott doesn’t do well here,’’ Couriel said, but Republican Chief Financial Officer Jeff Atwater barely lost the district in 2010 and Rubio beat Democrat Kendrick Meek in the U.S. Senate race. “That tells me that many Democrats are soft.’’

Margolis has been a fixture in Miami-Dade politics for decades, and Couriel must not only introduce himself to voters but bring down Margolis’ image in the process, an expensive task in the long coastal district.

“To effectively run an aggressive campaign against Sen. Margolis is going to take a lot of money,’’ said Christian Ulvert, a Margolis advisor and Democratic consultant.

Margolis was first elected to the state House in 1974, then moved to the state Senate in 1981 where she became the first female Senate president. She was elected as a Miami-Dade county commissioner in 1993 and returned to the Senate in 2003, taking a brief break in 2008 to unsuccessfully run for county property appraiser before returning in 2010 for a third time.

Couriel is not entirely on his own. His campaign received nearly $60,000 in bundled contributions from companies affiliated with Max Alvarez, the Rubio benefactor and gas distributor.

He has hired GOP political consultant David Custin, whose electioneering and communications organization, Tell the Public the Facts, just last month received a $50,000 contribution from a committee run by medical malpractice defense lawyer David Di Pietro of Fort Lauderdale.

The committee paid for a mail piece that accuses Margolis of “supporting cutting over $700 billion from Medicare” because she opposed a non-binding constitutional amendment on the ballot that was pushed by Republican lawmakers as a referendum on the federal healthcare reform act known as the Affordable Care Act.

If passed, it will have no effect on the implementation of the Affordable Care Act, or on Medicare.

“It’s a convoluted argument,” Margolis said. “It’s a traditional campaign tactic where your opponent has to attack you to make points.”

Couriel said “the specific words are not mine” but defends the mailer.

“I think it’s fair to say she is in favor of using a portion of Medicare’s budget to fund the bureaucracy required to fund the Affordable Care Act,’’ he said.

He acknowledged, however, that a similar cut to Medicare is made by congressman Paul Ryan in his budget proposal. “People aren’t being fully honest about that fact,’’ he said.

But Couriel also doesn’t agree with Republicans, such as Gov. Scott, who say the state should oppose any effort to start planning for implementation of the act. If elected, he said one of his priorities would be to develop a healthcare exchange program that would be a model for other states. Scott has said the state will not develop that component, even if it means failure to do so will allow the federal government to write the program for Florida.

“I fear what is going to be dictated to us by Washington if we don’t fill the gap,’’ he said. “Drawing the line in the sand and saying we should not govern is not a good option.”

Mary Ellen Klas can be reached at meklas@ MiamiHerald.com and on Twitter @MaryEllenKlas