A tale of two primaries: The race to replace Ros-Lehtinen enters the final stretch

Republican Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen
Republican Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen

The Republican and Democratic primaries to replace Miami icon Ileana Ros-Lehtinen both have front-runners.

That’s where the similarities end.

Democrats are arguing over policy issues that could accelerate the party’s leftward shift and are trying to attack former University of Miami President Donna Shalala. Discussions about abolishing U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement and implementing Medicare for all are ideas that just recently came to the national party’s attention.

Republicans are arguing that the leading candidate, TV journalist Maria Elvira Salazar, was flirtatious with former Cuban dictator Fidel Castro in a television interview 23 years ago, lobbing well-worn accusations of being soft on Cuba that have been a staple of Miami campaigns for decades.

“You would think that in Miami that we’re running campaigns on foreign policy,” said Republican political consultant Jesse Manzano-Plaza, who is not involved in the GOP race. “This is an example on the federal level, but even on the policy it seems like it’s about the perception that someone may have been friendly to Fidel Castro in an interview years ago.”

When Ros-Lehtinen, the GOP’s leading social moderate in Congress and a noted critic of President Donald Trump, announced her retirement nearly a year and a half ago, the seat instantly became the Democrats’ to lose. Hillary Clinton defeated Donald Trump by more than 19 percentage points in the district that encompasses Miami Beach, most of Miami, Kendall and parts of coastal South Dade.

Republicans and Democrats have gone 0 for 23 in situations like Ros-Lehtinen’s since 1994, when an incumbent representative doesn’t run for reelection in a district carried two years earlier by a candidate for president from the opposite party.

Democratic primary

The Democratic primary has been defined by Shalala, who entered the race in March. The former University of Miami president and secretary of Health and Human Services under President Bill Clinton has high name recognition but faces a challenge from her left, most notably by state Rep. David Richardson and former Knight Foundation director Matt Haggman.

Haggman and Richardson were among the first congressional candidates running nationwide to support abolishing ICE and both want to implement Medicare for all, a policy position notably espoused by Bernie Sanders during the 2016 presidential election that would cost as much as $32 trillion over 10 years, though proponents argue overall healthcare spending would be slightly reduced. Shalala wants to overhaul ICE instead of abolishing it and says that her top healthcare priority if elected would be defending Obamacare, with the possibility of pursuing a Medicare for all healthcare plan in the future.

“On the Dem side they’ve been talking about healthcare and those other issues, because one of the opponents (Shalala) has a track record,” Manzano-Plaza said.

Richardson and Haggman have raised enough money to wage TV advertising campaigns in an effort to chip away at Shalala’s lead. Recent polls from both campaigns show a tightening race, though Shalala remains the favorite because of her name recognition and the presence of four other Democratic candidates who could split the vote.

“What’s interesting is this is a Democratic-leaning seat and the issues that rise to the top for a lot of voters in this district are the ones being talked about in the Dem primary, access to healthcare, affordable healthcare, transportation, mass transit and affordable housing,” said Christian Ulvert, a Democratic political consultant who is not involved in the race. “Whether it’s Donna Shalala or David Richardson, they are having that conversation with voters, unlike Republicans” who are trying to stir the emotions of Republican primary voters on an issue that doesn’t have substance.

Miami Beach commissioner Kristen Rosen Gonzalez and former UM academic adviser Michael Hepburn are also running on the Democratic side. Both candidates were in the race before Ros-Lehtinen retired, though neither has the same resources as Shalala, Richardson and Haggman.

Rosen Gonzalez grabbed headlines during her campaign for stating that “None of us can beat Shalala” in a text message to Richardson, and for her accusation that a former political ally sexually harassed her. Hepburn, who has raised the least amount of money among the Democrats, is part of a nationwide group of left-leaning candidates, including Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, a socialist who pulled off an upset in a New York City seat earlier this year. But while Ocasio-Cortez hit the campaign trail for other candidates since her victory, she hasn’t weighed in on behalf of Hepburn.

Ulvert argues that the current policy discussion in the Democratic primary — talking about healthcare with voters in the district with the largest amount of Obamacare recipients nationwide — will be helpful to whomever wins on Aug. 28.

“The Democrats can’t take it for granted so whoever emerges from the primary is going to have to work it hard, but again the contrast and the narrative is going to be important,” Ulvert said. “The Democrats have teed it up pretty nicely.”

The Republican primary

The Republican primary can’t match the money and big names of the Democratic primary, but it’s not lacking for intrigue. On Thursday, all eight of Salazar’s opponents and two Bay of Pigs veterans sat shoulder-to-shoulder at La Fragua Restaurant to accuse her of being soft on Castro, who died in 2016.

The attacks started when Stephen Marks, a self-described “political hitman,” entered the race late after loaning $450,000 to himself. Marks ran an ad on Spanish language TV with snippets of Salazar referring to Castro as “comandante” and “un revolucionario por excelencia” alongside an English-language appearance on Fox News following Castro’s death in 2016 in which Salazar referred to Barack Obama’s change in Cuba policy as “noble.” The ad was pulled from AméricaTeVe but began running again after it was revised.

In response, Salazar ran an ad of her own touting the endorsement of former Rep. Lincoln Diaz-Balart, a well-known figure among anti-Castro Cuban exiles.

Beyond that, there hasn’t been much talk about Trump, whose influence has shaped GOP primaries around the country, including the Florida governor’s race.

“I think that Miami is probably the one place where being a Republican today means something different than in other parts of the country,” Manzano-Plaza said. “I don’t think there is much to be gained by running to the right.”

Longtime County Commissioner Bruno Barreiro is the best-known candidate other than Salazar, though his fundraising sagged after he entered the race shortly after Ros-Lehtinen announced her retirement. Angie Chirino, the daughter of Cuban exile pop singer Willy Chirino, has tried to run a pro-Trump conservative campaign that emphasizes issues like gun rights, though she hasn’t raised much money either. The same goes for Bettina Rodriguez Aguilera, a former Doral councilwoman who once claimed to have boarded a spaceship with aliens.

Businessman Michael Ohevzion, former businesswoman and film producer Gina Sosa, former FIU academic adviser Elizabeth Adadi and teacher Maria Peiro are also running for the GOP nomination, though none of them appears to have enough money to fund a congressional campaign.

Salazar has maintained a lead in polls released by multiple campaigns.

“Her biggest weakness is that Republicans are stuck in their old playbook that doesn’t address what voters are feeling today,” Ulvert said. “There is going to be a clear divide between the candidates who emerge in each primary and the Democrats have laid the ground work to connect with voters on issues while Republicans are connecting on an old-school message that will do nothing in the general election.”

National Republicans will also need to spend money to defend incumbent Reps. Carlos Curbelo and Mario Diaz-Balart along with dozens of other Republican incumbents, meaning whoever emerges from the Republican primary will likely have fewer outside resources than the Democrat.

Florida’s 26th District

There is also a Democratic and Republican primary for Curbelo’s seat, which extends from West Dade to Key West. Curbelo and Democrat Debbie Mucarsel-Powell are widely expected to win their respective primaries. Curbelo challenger Souraya Faas frequently appears on Russian-controlled television to tout Russian President Vladimir Putin and Syrian President Bashar al-Assad while Mucarsel-Powell challenger Demetries Grimes, a retired Navy officer, recently showed up to a debate in the wrong congressional district.

Florida’s 25th District

Diaz-Balart and Democratic challenger Mary Barzee Flores do not face primary opponents.

Florida’s 24th District

Incumbent Democratic Rep. Frederica Wilson faces perennial candidate Ricardo De La Fuente, who lives in California. The primary is not expected to be competitive.

Alex Daugherty, 202-383-6049, @alextdaugherty