In a year when Florida's competitive special elections have been hyped and hyper-analyzed, a close and cutthroat competition to win an open state House seat in Miami is so far flying under the radar despite a bare-knuckle fight between Republicans and Democrats.
Voting is already under way in the battle to claim Miami-Dade's House District 114, made available when Democrat Daisy Baez resigned in disgrace last year. Lobbyist and land-use attorney Javier Fernandez is hoping to keep the seat in the fold for the state's minority party, while insurance attorney Andrew Vargas — the law partner of newly minted OAS Ambassador Carlos Trujillo — is scrapping to reclaim the seat for Republicans.
Liz de las Cuevas, who switched out of the Republican primary last year and registered without party affiliation, is playing spoiler.
With the help of their parties, the Fernandez and Vargas campaigns are investing hundreds of thousands of dollars in what will likely be a close race — even though the winner will have to immediately turn around and campaign to keep the seat in November. The seat is technically the Democrats' to hold, but registration, spending and absentee ballot returns favor Republicans, who'd love to blunt the momentum their opponents have gained over the past six months by taking a series of special elections.
Sign Up and Save
Get six months of free digital access to the Miami Herald
"This is a really important election for the Democratic Party," said Miami-Dade Democratic Party Chairman Juan Cuba. "This is a seat we won in 2016 and we intend to hold on to it."
Yet the race has been a sleeper, drawing none of the national attention and bellwether talk seen with other special Florida elections heading into the midterms. Unlike February's nationally watched state House election in Sarasota two months ago, there's been no coast-to-coast deluge of small-money Democratic donations, and Republicans have shown zero interest in bringing in Trump campaign surrogates to rally voters.
And that's just fine for Vargas, who supports Trump but wouldn't take himself off the campaign trail Monday to see the president speak in Hialeah about tax cuts. The 36-year-old attorney and rookie candidate said he hopes to win by talking about issues, not the president.
"That’s a mistake — to make [the race] into a poll on President Trump. I don’t think that does anybody any good," said Vargas, who's been endorsed by U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio. "I’m talking about issues that matter to our neighbors, local issues like property crimes, affordable housing and things that may be as nominal to people as street lights."
Less than two weeks out from election day on May 1, all signs indicate that the race is tight in a district that in 2016 was decided by less than 1,500 votes. Neither party has released polling, but two years after Baez won the absentee ballot race, Republicans were outpacing Democrats Thursday by 1,200 in mailed returns. The most recent campaign filings show Vargas is also outspending Fernandez three-to-one.
"It’s important for us to win ... because we’ve got a strong candidate who’s done a tremendous amount of work," said Miami Lakes Rep. Jose Oliva, who as incoming House Speaker runs point on Republican elections in the state's lower chamber. "We think that winning that seat now creates an advantage going into November."
Some observers dismiss the importance of the election and the seat, given that the candidates aren't well known and the race could very well be the first round of a fight decided by a November rematch. There's also a special election the same day in Central Florida, and some operatives suspect both parties are holding back resources.
But Democrats — who remain confident that a well-run campaign will ride the anti-Trump tailwinds to a win — say they're pulling no punches. Mara Sloan, a spokeswoman for the Democratic Legislative Campaign Committee, said the organization has treated Fernandez's campaign as important, recently giving it $10,000 and helping to "develop a strategic field plan that will turn out voters on May 1."
And Oliva says he'll fight for any attainable seat, as he hopes to retain as much of his near-supermajority advantage as possible during a year when Republicans are expected to lose ground in Tallahassee under an unpopular president. With that in mind, the ruling party deposited the maximum $50,000 donation into Vargas' campaign last month, although it's hard to say how much they've spent on campaign staff and resources, since the most recently filed expense reports ended on March 22.
Both campaigns have been aided by attacks on their opponents launched by outside groups with ties to the candidates. Fernandez has been labeled as a fake progressive and lobbyist in the pockets of special interests, and Vargas has been attacked as a Trump and party lackey. Political committees bombing Fernandez and Vargas have spent at least $70,000, not including attacks funded by a shady faux-Democrat PAC that has blasted Fernandez while propping up de las Cuevas as the true progressive candidate in the race.
Bill Nelson has endorsed Fernandez, 42, though there's been no sighting so far of popular campaign hype-man Joe Biden.
Both parties remain confident that they'll win.
While Hillary Clinton beat Trump in the district by 14 points, Baez beat Republican John Couriel by less than 2., with independent voters helping her overcome a partisan disadvantage in voter turnout.
"We’re making a push here to the final finish," said Fernandez, who recently began airing television ads and has stumped on gun-control and public-school funding. While the focus on the recent election in Sarasota pulled away some resources early in the campaign, he said he's getting plenty of backing from the Democrats' House Victory and the DLCC.
"We’ve had a strong presence on the ground here in the last month or so and we’ll probably double that up" heading into election day, he said.
Meanwhile, Vargas is staying moderate in his positions and pushing back on the suggestion he'll toe the party line in a way that doesn't buck Republican virtues in the conservative House. And he's staying focused on the election ahead.
"It’s been a long campaign. We've been working very hard, meeting voters every day," he said. "But nobody in the party is talking about November."