Garcia ekes out victory over Taddeo, setting up Curbelo rematch

Former U.S. Rep. Joe Garcia held off a political surge Tuesday by former friend and political ally Annette Taddeo to win the Democratic primary for Florida’s 26th congressional district, setting up a rancorous rematch against Republican Rep. Carlos Curbelo, who ousted Garcia from office two years ago.

“The campaign starts here,” Garcia said as he celebrated at a La Carreta Cuban restaurant in West Kendall. “Talking about the issues that matter to the people of Florida, clean water, the Zika virus, guns, and most of all, better jobs for our families.”

Garcia eked out a victory against Taddeo by 51-49 percent, according to unofficial Florida election results — even though he was outspent by about 4-to-1 by Taddeo, who raised more than twice as much as Garcia and had the political and financial support of the national Democratic Party.

Yet Garcia was so well-known in the Westchester-to-Key West district that he led in public-opinion polls from the start. His big advantage tightened only in recent weeks after Taddeo began advertising on television and in the mail. She never attacked Garcia in TV ads, however, and he didn’t spend a dollar on the air.

On Tuesday, Taddeo edged Garcia in mail-in ballots, and in the Florida Keys. But in-person voters and the far larger portion of the district in Miami-Dade County put him over the top.

Taddeo conceded from her election-night party, a low-key affair at a homey Colombian restaurant with an Argentinean name, El Gran Mar De Plata, and ads for a Mexican mariachi band in a strip mall in West Kendall, reflecting the suburb’s diversity. Taddeo is Colombian-American.

“This was such a close race,” Taddeo said. “Please remember we started 25 points down. You should be proud. We sent a loud voice for new opportunities for new people and women.”

She called Garcia to congratulate him. Asked if she’d actively support him in the general, she replied: “One step at a time.”

Her immediate goal, Taddeo added, is to get Hillary Clinton elected president.

Taddeo, the 49-year-old owner of a translation business, notched her fourth electoral loss, after running unsuccessfully for Congress in 2008, for Miami-Dade County Commission in 2010, and as Charlie Crist’s gubernatorial running mate in 2014.

She argued during the campaign that the district needed to move on from Garcia’s political scandals. He contended he’d put the trouble behind him and been a proven fighter for his old constituents.

Taddeo and Garcia had been politically and personally close for years. When Garcia left his post as chairman of the Miami-Dade Democratic Party, he nominated Taddeo as his successor. When the national party pressured Taddeo to support its hand-picked primary candidate in 2012, she endorsed Garcia instead.

Their relationship started to fray, however, after voters booted a scandal-plagued Garcia from Congress in 2014. Garcia telephoned Taddeo that same night — after she and Crist lost — to urge her to run for the U.S. Senate in 2016. Taddeo took the call as a preemptive move by Garcia to keep her from seeking his old congressional seat.

Garcia ran again in spite of two criminal investigations that erupted just months into his congressional term in 2013. His chief of staff, Jeffrey Garcia, no relation, admitted he orchestrated an unlawful online absentee-ballot request scheme during the 2012 campaign. He pleaded guilty and went to jail. Jeffrey Garcia later also admitted to propping up a ringer candidate in Joe Garcia’s failed 2010 campaign. He was sentenced to house arrest and probation.

Joe Garcia was never charged, though an email uncovered in the ringer-candidate case suggested he might have known about the setup. The statute of limitations in the case expired late last year. The threat of legal action lifted, Garcia joined the congressional race a few months later.

“I like him because he’s been in politics for a long time — so he must know a lot,” 78-year-old retiree Carmen Graniela said after casting her ballot for Garcia on Tuesday morning at the West End Regional Library.

Taddeo jumped in the race far earlier than Garcia, with the backing of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, which believes it can flip the 26th district back into Democratic hands. Florida’s southernmost seat has been a swing district for the past three election cycles, but it leans even more Democratic now: The courts forced state lawmakers to redraw its borders last year.

For Democrats to pick up the seat, Garcia, 52, will have to beat Curbelo, 36, who was unchallenged in the primary. As a result, the Republican had nearly $2 million in the bank as of Aug. 18. Garcia had only about $306,000. The race, as it did two years ago, is expected to attract millions of dollars from outside political groups.

“Since my election to Congress, I have worked every day to build consensus in support of our community’s priorities,” Curbelo said in a statement that blasted Garcia as ill-tempered for the job. “Congress and our community need problem solvers, not a huckster with a well-documented history of denigrating those who disagree with him.”

Curbelo has already started advertising, 10 weeks before the Nov. 8 general election, with a Spanish-language radio ad featuring former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush. U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio penned a fundraising email for Curbelo on Monday.

Even before his district turned more Democratic, Curbelo had begun positioning himself as a moderate, given the more liberal-leaning electorate that votes in years when the presidency is on the ballot. Early on, he rejected Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump.

Curbelo’s anti-Trump stance — and Garcia’s political baggage — could make it more difficult for Democrats to run the contest they originally envisioned. The party has portrayed swing congressional races as a national referendum on pro-Trump Republicans.

Curbelo is expected to reprise his 2014 strategy against Garcia. That year, Curbelo cast Garcia as unworthy of representing the district.

In a bit of political irony, Garcia had deployed a similar strategy in 2012 to unseat his predecessor, Republican David Rivera, who was under federal criminal investigation as the suspected financier of a ringer candidate against Garcia. The ringer, Justin Lamar Sternad, and his campaign manager, Ana Alliegro, pleaded guilty and went to prison.

Rivera, named a “co-conspirator,” has never been charged. On Tuesday, he won a Republican primary for the Florida House of Representatives.

Mario J. Pentón of el Nuevo Herald and Yaneli Gonzalez of the South Florida News Service contributed to this report.