A Miami Cuban American has never lost a House seat to a non-Cuban. It could happen in November

Donna Shalala speaks to supporters at a watch party held at Ball & Chain in Little Havana on Tuesday, Aug. 28, 2018. Shalala, the former University of Miami president and Health and Human Services secretary, won the Democratic primary in the race to replace retiring Republican Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen. She will face off against Cuban-American journalist Maria Elvira Salazar.
Donna Shalala speaks to supporters at a watch party held at Ball & Chain in Little Havana on Tuesday, Aug. 28, 2018. Shalala, the former University of Miami president and Health and Human Services secretary, won the Democratic primary in the race to replace retiring Republican Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen. She will face off against Cuban-American journalist Maria Elvira Salazar. jiglesias@elnuevoherald.com

Miami-Dade Democrats, hoping to ride a blue wave in November, have set their sights on winning all five of Miami-Dade County’s congressional seats. It’s a tall order that, if successful, would end the longtime dominance of Cuban-American Republican lawmakers who have exercised outsized power over the nation’s relationship with Latin America.

If a blue wave were to actually hit Miami, the county would be represented in Washington by five women from an unusually diverse background: one African American, one non-Hispanic white, one Jewish, one Ecuadorean American and one Lebanese American. The only Cuban-American Republican left from Miami would be U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio.

But unseating incumbent Reps. Mario Diaz-Balart and Carlos Curbelo, and flipping the seat held by Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, who is retiring, will require convincing tens of thousands of independent voters — and even some Democrats who have voted against their party in congressional races — that the unique perspective brought by the sons and daughters of Cuban exiles is no longer a prerequisite for holding elected office in Congress, where members have influence over the nation’s foreign-policy course.

“The South Florida tradition in Congress established by Ileana, that tradition is going to continue,” said former Republican Rep. Lincoln Diaz-Balart, a Cuban-American lawmaker who served in Congress from 1993 to 2011. “When you see these national things about waves and all these predictions, South Florida’s different and we’re going to remain different.”

Since Ros-Lehtinen first won her seat in 1989, no non-Cuban has ousted a Cuban-American Republican from a Miami-Dade congressional seat, even in years like 2006 and 2008, when Democrats made sweeping gains across the country in the latter part of George W. Bush’s administration.

Democrats will need to win in Cuban-American strongholds in all three GOP-held districts, including Little Havana and Westchester in Ros-Lehtinen’s district, parts of Kendall in Curbelo’s district and Hialeah in Diaz-Balart’s district.

Ros-Lehtinen is supporting Cuban-American journalist Maria Elvira Salazar — who handily won her GOP primary Tuesday — as the way to continue the legacy that began 29 years ago.

Republican congressional candidate Maria Elvira Salazar, center, seeks to succeed retiring Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, right. Pedro Portal pportal@miamiherald.com

“Lincoln [Diaz-Balart] and I have had the pleasure of working together as a united team for many years and I’ve missed him in Congress,” Ros-Lehtinen said at Salazar’s victory party on Tuesday night. “And now I hope that Chucky [Curbelo] and Mario [Diaz-Balart] miss me in Congress, but they won’t miss me for very long because Maria Elvira Salazar is going to take over.”

Juan Cuba, a Peruvian American and the chair of the Miami-Dade Democratic Party, said Andrew Gillum’s win in the Democratic gubernatorial primary will drive more voters to the polls who aren’t used to voting for members of Congress every two years, and therefore have less of a connection to the Republican incumbents or Salazar.

“What you saw with Gillum’s surprise victory is that voters are craving a bold vision for the challenges they are facing,” Cuba said. “Our midterm turnout last cycle was the worst in history across the board. Miami-Dade voters need a reason to vote and Andrew Gillum gives them that reason. Whether it’s healthcare, or education or gun violence, I think those are what’s really going to be on the ballot in November.”

Foreign policy issues are of high importance to voters in South Florida, Cuba said, but there isn’t much debate among local members of either party that dictatorships in Venezuela and Nicaragua should be opposed. He said members like Mario Diaz-Balart use foreign policy issues to “divide the electorate” for political purposes and pointed to County Commissioner Eileen Higgins, a non-Hispanic white woman who called herself “La Gringa” during a successful special election for a seat that includes Little Havana, as a model for Democrats in 2018.

County commission seats are nonpartisan, but Higgins ran with the support of the Democratic Party in a seat formerly represented by a Cuban-American Republican.

“I was talking to my dad yesterday ... he moved to this country when I was 3 and he was in his late 30s,” Cuba said. “His thoughts are similar to what I believe voters care about. He’s not concerned about the ethnicity of the candidates but what are they going to do about the exorbitant cost of healthcare and what are we going to do about guns.”

Democrats are countering the Cuban-American lawmakers with Debbie Mucarsel-Powell, who is running against Curbelo; Mary Barzee Flores, who is running against Diaz-Balart; and Donna Shalala, who is running against Salazar. Incumbent Democratic Rep. Debbie Wasserman-Schultz, who represents portions of Northeast Dade in a Broward-based district, is favored to win reelection, while Miami Gardens Rep. Frederica Wilson is already assured another two years in Washington after easily winning her primary on Tuesday.

Shalala likely has the best shot of flipping one of the three GOP-held seats. The 77-year-old former Health and Human Services secretary under President Bill Clinton and former president of the University of Miami has a vast fundraising network at her disposal and is running in a district that voted for Hillary Clinton over Donald Trump by more than 19 percentage points.

Shalala also has no intention of letting Salazar, the daughter of Cuban exiles, drive the conversation on Latin America issues during their congressional race, drawing a direct comparison between Trump and Latin American dictators.

Miami Republicans “will join their fellow Republicans to try to divide us as a community,” Shalala said during her victory speech on Tuesday. “That is their corrupt, un-American strategy. They have learned it at the feet of their corrupt leader. Miamians are too smart to buy this strategy. We have all seen it before throughout history. We see it today in Cuba in Nicaragua, in Venezuela and El Salvador.”

And Mario Diaz-Balart used recent foreign policy issues to attack Barzee Flores, claiming, without providing proof, that her position against Trump’s rollback of the Iran nuclear deal was tied to her husband’s work as a defense attorney on international arms conspiracies cases. Barzee Flores, a former circuit court judge, shot back, arguing that Diaz-Balart was trying to hide his opposition to Obamacare and his support from the National Rifle Association.

The Miami-Dade primary electorate went for the most hyper-partisan candidates in both gubernatorial primaries. Voters chose Gillum and the Trump-supported Rep. Ron DeSantis over former Rep. Gwen Graham and Agriculture Commissioner Adam Putnam, the favorites among centrist voters from both parties.

“Where else in the country do you have a Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, [Broward Rep.] Ted Deutch, Debbie Wasserman-Schultz and Mario Diaz-Balart working together?” Lincoln Diaz-Balart said. “Show me somewhere else in the country.”

Miami Herald staff writer Martin Vassolo contributed to this report.

Alex Daugherty, 202-383-6049, @alextdaugherty
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