Democrats face long odds in effort to topple Congressman Mario Diaz-Balart

U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio and U.S. Rep. Mario Diaz-Balart at a panel discussion at Florida International University in March.
U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio and U.S. Rep. Mario Diaz-Balart at a panel discussion at Florida International University in March. rkoltun@miamiherald.com

Democrats are scrambling to find a credible challenger for Mario Diaz-Balart.

They may not find one.

Though a slim majority of the Miami Republican’s district voted for President Donald Trump in 2016, Democrats don’t control any significant state or local offices in the area, depriving them of a potential bench to take on a well-known and well-funded incumbent in the 2018 election.

“That’s a district that is very hard to win for a Democrat, especially if you’re not Hispanic and don’t speak Spanish,” said Raúl Martínez , a Democrat who served as mayor of Hialeah from 1981 to 2005 and who unsuccessfully challenged former Rep. Lincoln Diaz-Balart, the congressman’s brother, in 2008. “You’ve got to remember this district was hand-drawn for Mario. It takes Hialeah and the conservative areas and goes all the way to Naples. The alligators in the middle don’t vote and the Florida panthers don’t vote.”

There are just more than three weeks before congressional candidates in Florida must decide whether to run for the August primary election, and Martínez, along with other Republican and Democratic sources, could not name a Democrat with deep connections to the district that could seriously threaten Diaz-Balart.

National Democrats insist there’s still time for a candidate to emerge, though Politico Florida reported House Minority whip Steny Hoyer recently tried and failed to persuade former Knight Foundation director Matt Haggman, who is running in a crowded Democratic primary to replace retiring Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, to take on Diaz-Balart.

“Matt is a nice guy, but the Hispanics are not going to give up a seat to give it to him,” Martínez said, adding that none of the current Democrats running for Ros-Lehtinen’s seat would be a threat to Diaz-Balart. Democrats “got to look for the locals, people that know the district well.”

But the state lawmakers who represent significant parts of the district, traditionally a breeding ground for higher office, are all Republicans. They include Republican state Sen. René García and Republican state Reps. Carlos Trujillo, Manny Díaz, Jr., Bryan Avila and Jose Oliva.

Díaz, a Republican from Hialeah, said the district is known for ticket-splitting. Many voters who picked Hillary Clinton over Donald Trump voted for Republicans down ballot in 2016, and Díaz noted that he won reelection by six percentage points in a district Trump lost by 20. Diaz-Balart won reelection by nearly 25 percentage points, albeit with weak opposition, while Trump won the district by less than two percentage points.

“You have these seats that look attainable on paper, but there’s a different kind of connection with the candidates,” Díaz said. “They continue to support you as long as you continue to represent them and fight for them.”

Díaz also noted that Diaz-Balart’s office provides federal immigration assistance to hundreds of constituents every year, and his hardline approach toward Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro helps him build good will with non-Cuban Hispanics in the district, which expands his base and pays off come election time.

Democrats need to win at least 24 seats in the 2018 election to gain a majority in the House of Representatives. The Cook Political Report rates 29 Republican-held seats, including Miami-area seats held by retiring Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen and Rep. Carlos Curbelo, as toss-ups or lean Democratic as of Wednesday, meaning the Democratic Party could win a House majority without spending millions attempting to flip Diaz-Balart’s seat.

Curbelo, who faces a credible Democratic challenge from Debbie Mucarsel-Powell in his Miami-to-Key West district this year, said it is very important for voters in districts like his and Diaz-Balart’s to see and hear their elected officials speak Spanish.

“If you can speak someone’s language, they tend to connect more with you,” Curbelo said. “We have debates in Spanish in South Florida. They’re very important, so it’s a major factor.”

And Diaz-Balart’s district includes the lowest number of registered voters of any congressional district in Florida, likely because of the fact that half of the district’s population was born outside the U.S. It’s harder and more expensive for political parties to find and register unregistered voters than it is for them to motivate registered voters to come out to the polls.

Despite the lack of a serious declared candidate, Diaz-Balart has nearly $1 million to spend on his reelection effort and said he spent all but two days of the recent congressional recess working in the district.

“Nothing infuriates people more than candidates who show up election season and then we don’t see them for a year and a half,” Diaz-Balart said. “So I always do what I do and that’s it.”

Alex Daugherty: 202-383-6049, @alextdaugherty