This Miami special election is the bellwether contest no one predicted

Zoraida Barreiro, left, faces Eileen Higgins, right, in the June 19 runoff election to fill the Miami-Dade County Commission seat vacated by Bruno Barreiro, who's running for Congress. The former commissioner is Zoraida Barreiro's husband.
Zoraida Barreiro, left, faces Eileen Higgins, right, in the June 19 runoff election to fill the Miami-Dade County Commission seat vacated by Bruno Barreiro, who's running for Congress. The former commissioner is Zoraida Barreiro's husband.

It's the year of the bellwether special election, and Miami-Dade County is in for an encore.

After pulling off victories in a Florida Senate seat in September and a state House seat last month, South Florida Democrats successfully turned a county commission race in Miami and Miami Beach into a partisan affair Tuesday. With help from the state party, local strategists, activists and politicians pushed a first-time candidate into a runoff election next month ahead of candidates from well-known, Republican families.

Now, Democrats will try to pull off another upset in June in a contest that will be decided just two months before the state’s primary elections. Though officially non-partisan, the contest carries implications for county government — where open seats on the 13-member commission are rare and the partisan split is even — and also the upcoming congressional campaign to replace Ileana Ros-Lehtinen in Florida’s 27th district.

“We’re interested in every Democratic special election,” said Juan Peñalosa, executive director of the Florida Democratic Party, which contributed resources to Eileen Higgins’ campaign. “No seat is safe in Florida right now.”

Higgins, whose campaign was supported by Democrats running for governor and Congress, heads into a runoff against Zoraida Barreiro. She is the wife of former county commissioner Bruno Barreiro, who triggered the election when he resigned in order to run for Congress. Barreiro is now a leading contender to secure the Republican nomination to succeed the retiring Ros-Lehtinen.

Higgins’ political strategist Christian Ulvert has already signaled that the campaign will continue to hit on the Barreiros for their support of Donald Trump during the 2016 presidential election. Heading into Tuesday's vote, Higgins attacked Zoraida Barreiro and Trump-supporting Republican candidate Alex Diaz de la Portilla by comparing their dynastic candidacies to Trump and his children.

"Donald Trump is, without a doubt, going to be a factor in this race," Ulvert said.

Read more: Newcomer finishes first in Miami-Dade as Higgins and Barreiro advance to June runoff

Higgins was outspent in the election, but received significant help from the Miami-Dade Democratic Party and their state counterparts. Together, the parties contributed more than $25,000 to her campaign, including spending on a mail piece, digital ads and data, said Juan Cuba, chairman of the local party. The parties also rallied their candidates for governor and Congress and their members to give Higgins foot soldiers for door-knocking, something observers say has been key in special elections going back to Annette Taddeo's Florida Senate victory in September.

"The big winner tonight is door-to-door canvassing," said Republican election lawyer and former state Rep. J.C. Planas, who is supporting Barreiro.

The Republican Party of Miami-Dade County was not involved as an organization in Tuesday's election, according to chairman Nelson Diaz. But Diaz said Monday that the party would consider jumping in if Higgins made the run-off against a Republican candidate.

Former Miami-Dade County Commissioner Bruno Barreiro during a 2015 meeting. He resigned his seat on March 30 to run for Congress, creating a vacancy that has to be filled by special election. Pedro Portal pportal@miamiherald.com

For Miami Democrats, Higgins' candidacy represents the potential to tilt the balance on the county commission in their favor. Though decisions by the body and individual commissioners often have less to do with party than local politics, Cuba believes adding Higgins to the commission would change conversations around issues like conversion therapy and sanctuary city laws.

Also, if Democrats win in the county’s fifth commission district – which on paper favors Democrats but is a majority-Hispanic district that traditionally votes for Republicans down-ballot – they can feel even better about their chances in Ros-Lehtinen’s district, which many already presume will go to a Democrat in November. Combine the neighborhoods in the county's fith district with neighborhoods included House District 114 – which voted Democrat in a special election last month — and you have just about the entirety of Florida’s 27th congressional district.

Higgins' victory may be simply in making the June 19 run-off election in first place. Barreiro still has the recognizable name, and the thousands of voters who cast ballots for Diaz de la Portilla — a former Senate majority leader in Tallahassee — seem far more likely to go to the other Cuban Republican candidate in the race. The district also remains heavily weighted in favor of Little Havana and Miami's traditionally Cuban, conservative neighborhoods, which have long-standing ties to the Barreiros.

"It's not a partisan race, no matter how hard they try to make it partisan," a political insider told the Miami Herald Tuesday night.

But there’s little to lose for Democrats. And with a victory, they could knock the legs from under Bruno Barreiro’s congressional campaign, giving the party a two-for-one result.

Miami Herald staff writer Douglas Hanks contributed to this report.