One of South Florida’s longest-running political dynasties will remain intact for at least another two years, as eight-term Republican Rep. Mario Diaz-Balart cruised to a convincing victory over Democrat Mary Barzee Flores, who was making a long-shot attempt at flipping Miami-Dade County’s most conservative congressional district.
Diaz-Balart, the incumbent representing Florida’s 25th Congressional District, soundly bested Barzee Flores — collecting almost 61 percent of the votes, with more than 90 percent of the county’s precincts tallied.
He managed to avoid the splash zone of a so-called “blue wave” of Democratic momentum, at least in Miami-Dade. It played a big role in two other Republican-held congressional districts Wednesday night.
Donna Shalala, who served as Health and Human Services secretary under former President Bill Clinton, defeated Republican Maria Elvira Salazar in the race for Florida’s 27th District. And with 92 percent of precincts reporting, Debbie Mucarsel-Powell was leading Republican Rep. Carlos Curbelo by about 2 percentage points in the District 26 race.
Barzee Flores called Diaz-Balart to concede the victory before 8:30 p.m.
“Well earned,” Diaz-Balart said upon hearing the results. Joined by his family and supporters at Hialeah Park Racing & Casino, he said he was eager to get back to work. “Now I’m ready to work tomorrow.”
Barzee Flores, a former Miami-Dade County Circuit Court judge and Obama-era nominee to a federal judgeship, was initially running in a crowded Democratic field to replace retiring Republican Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen in District 27.
She switched over to Diaz-Balart’s district at the insistence of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, the pro-choice EMILY’s List and the Florida Democratic Party.
Her campaign against Diaz-Balart ensured that the Democrats would put up an expensive fight for all three of Miami-Dade County’s Republican-held congressional districts. She, Shalala and Mucarsel-Powell had hoped to send an all-female delegation to Washington.
But it was an uphill climb for her from the beginning, as the conservative district voted for President Donald Trump in 2016 — even if by only 2 percentage points.
By comparison, Trump lost District 27 and 26 by a combined 36 percentage points.
Barzee Flores arrived at The Bend Lounge in Hialeah at 8:30 p.m. and entered a small room with mostly campaign aides and family.
After hugs and kisses, she addressed the small crowd, telling them she plans on sticking around and fighting for the things she believes in: healthcare for all, gun safety measures, immigration reform and the environment.
“I called the congressman and wished him well,” she told the group. “We knew it was an uphill battle. I’m proud of the campaign we ran.”
She said she entered the race because she wanted to represent true people in the community.
“The congressman and I differed, obviously, on almost every single issue,” said Barzee Flores. “As disappointed as I am for myself, I’m more disappointed for letting you all down. I don’t know what tomorrow will bring, but I have a commitment to publicly serve this community.”
The race was expensive, with the two campaigns combining to pull in nearly $4 million in contributions. The race appeared in national “upset-watch” lists warning of a potential “blue wave,” but recent polling indicated Diaz-Balart would come up victorious.
The district, which is 75 percent Hispanic, includes Northwest Miami-Dade County, rural areas of South-Central Florida and parts of Broward, Collier and Hendry counties.
“Thank God I have very strong support,” he said. “But I have to earn that support every single day, and that’s what I try to do.”
Expert race handicappers labeled the district as “Lean Republican” and “Likely Republican,” and the news outlet FiveThirtyEight gave Barzee Flores just a 27 percent shot at ousting the congressman.
Diaz-Balart and his family are political royalty in Miami-Dade County. His brother Lincoln was a South Florida congressman from 1993 to 2011, and his brother Jose is a TV anchor for the popular Spanish-language broadcaster Telemundo.
His father was a Cuban exile leader vehemently opposed to the late Cuban dictator Fidel Castro.
Barzee Flores spent two decades as an assistant federal public defender and a Miami-Dade County Circuit Court judge before joining a top commercial law firm. In 2015, she was nominated to the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Florida, but her nomination was blocked by Republican Sen. Marco Rubio and eventually expired.
She campaigned on defending the Affordable Care Act and advocating for stricter gun laws, while criticizing Diaz-Balart for his vote to repeal the ACA and pass the 2017 American Health Care Act.
The AHCA did not pass the Senate, but would have done away with premium limits on patients with pre-existing conditions set under the ACA. An analysis by the non-partisan Kaiser Family Foundation indicated that those with pre-existing conditions would have likely faced higher premiums and surcharges under Trump’s healthcare bill.
“I get things done,” Diaz-Balart said. “There’s a lot of noise, there’s a lot of bickering, there’s a lot of finger-pointing. I don’t do that. I roll up my sleeves and I get the job done.”
Among the accomplishments he touted: securing billions in funding for Everglades restoration, strengthening the military and cutting taxes.
Moving forward, he said repealing and replacing the ACA, also known as Obamacare, remains a priority. He said he wants to protect those with pre-existing conditions, while keeping overall costs down for everyone in the market.
“We have to,” he said. “I want a healthcare system where people have choices, where they have the best quality healthcare at a price they can afford.”