Democrat Mary Barzee Flores switches races to challenge Republican Mario Diaz-Balart

U.S.  Rep. Mario Diaz-Balart.
U.S. Rep. Mario Diaz-Balart. ctrainor@miamiherald.com

Former judge Mary Barzee Flores is switching races to challenge Republican Rep. Mario Diaz-Balart, ensuring that Democrats will field strong candidates in the November election for all three Miami-Dade U.S. House seats held by Republicans.

"I’m leaving District 27 race with a heavy heart but also with the confidence that come November that a Democrat is going to take back this seat," Barzee Flores said in an interview with the Miami Herald. "I’m confident that Mario Diaz-Balart can and will be beaten this fall." Until Thursday, Barzee Flores was running to replace Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, who is retiring.

Diaz-Balart, who hasn't faced a serious challenger since 2008, will be tough to beat. He's a longtime incumbent who is well-known in his Hialeah-based district and Barzee Flores has never run a contested race for elected office. But the former federal judge nominee, who was blocked by Sen. Marco Rubio, picked up key endorsements from EMILY's List, a group that seeks to elect female Democrats to Congress, while she was running in the Democratic primary to replace Ros-Lehtinen. She says EMILY's List is "100 percent behind" her decision to switch races.

Barzee Flores' switch was first reported by Politico Florida.

mary barzee flores

Barzee Flores said she made her decision to switch races in the past 24 hours, though she said she represented parts of the district as an attorney and circuit court judge. She does not live in the Florida's 25th congressional district, which includes most of Northwestern Miami-Dade and then extends across the Everglades to include portions of Collier and Hendry Counties.

"Last time I looked Mario doesn’t live in 25 either," Barzee Flores said. Members of Congress do not need to live in the districts they represent.

For months, Democrats struggled to find a serious candidate to challenge Diaz-Balart, who won reelection by 24 percentage points in 2016 against nominal opposition. But President Donald Trump won Diaz-Balart's congressional district over Hillary Clinton by just two percentage points, and Democrats are giddy at the prospect of taking control of Congress after they flipped dozens of seats nationwide this year, including a state Senate seat in Miami-Dade and a congressional seat in Pennsylvania that Trump carried by 17 percentage points.

Barzee Flores plans to highlight Diaz-Balart's relationship with the Trump administration, highlight that he was the only Republican from Miami-Dade County who voted for Trump during the 2016 election and criticize his record on guns and healthcare.

"That's a problem for him," Barzee Flores said of Diaz-Balart's decision to vote for Trump. "Diaz-Balart has voted repeatedly to rip away Floridians' health care coverage, he’s earned an "A" rating from the National Rifle Association and taken more campaign cash from them than every other Florida member over the past 20 years. He’s voted to give tax cuts to billionaires, he’s paid lip service to Dreamers as he votes in lockstep with the Trump administration."

Barzee Flores' campaign manager said she's not changing her view that Trump should be impeached, even though she's now running in a more conservative district and likely not facing serious competition in the Democratic primary.

"Donald Trump isn’t on the 2018 ballot — but his presidency must be," Barzee Flores wrote in a 2017 opinion column. "We must be willing to tell voters, 'Yes, I will vote to impeach Donald Trump and restore honor, respect and decency to the presidency.'"

Barzee Flores' decision also has implications for Ros-Lehtinen's seat. The Democratic primary is now down to former University of Miami President and Health and Human Services Secretary Donna Shalala, state Rep. David Richardson, Miami Beach Commissioner Kristen Rosen Gonzalez and former Knight Foundation director Matt Haggman, among others.

Diaz-Balart has $1.1 million to spend on his reelection effort, while Barzee Flores has $400,000. Diaz-Balart's campaign did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

Barzee Flores hasn't officially qualified with the state to run for Diaz-Balart's seat. She has until noon Friday.

"Democrats from South Florida and around this country are looking forward to us talking back the House and this November Mario Diaz-Balart is not going to get a free pass," Barzee Flores said. "I'm ready for this fight."