The Republican primary for a Miami state Senate seat — the first local partisan election since last November — has become a referendum on President Donald Trump.
Two self-described Trump loyalists — a former state senator with a taste for Twitter tussles and an attorney who loathes regulation — have channeled Trump in a hard-edged race against a rival who appears to be their polar opposite: A state representative beloved by Tallahassee Republicans with serious financial backing and a more complicated, and more personal, relationship to the president.
The attorney, Lorenzo Palomares, was the first to invoke Trump in the Senate District 40 race, noting his early support for Trump’s candidacy. But it’s the well-known former senator, Alex Diaz de la Portilla, who’s most prominently tried to position himself as Trump’s heir among Republicans with whom the president remains quite popular.
Then there’s Rep. Jose Felix Diaz, the best-funded candidate in the race and a one-time contestant on Trump’s “The Apprentice” reality TV show. Soon after entering the campaign, he drew scorn from both the left and right after deleting from his Twitter account a photo of himself with Trump at an inauguration party, citing “aggressive trolling” from enemies. Diaz de la Portilla and Palomares pointed to the deletion as proof Diaz isn’t a true Trump supporter.
“He’s part of the establishment,” said Palomares, 63, who served as an unofficial Trump surrogate on Spanish-language TV. “He was one of the hundreds of Republicans that never supported Trump. It was only when he became president that they all jumped on the bandwagon.”
Palomares is divorced with two adult daughters and five grandchildren.
Diaz, 37, who is married with two young sons, has tried to distance himself from the hostility, pointing to his four House election victories over the past six years as a sign he could defeat a Democrat in the competitive Senate seat.
“I feel like I have a winning formula,” said Diaz, who represents part of the Senate district in House District 116 and works as a government law attorney. “If you look at my endorsements, the business groups, the conservative groups have endorsed me and not my opponents.”
The three Cuban Americans are vying to represent a largely Hispanic swath of Southwest Miami-Dade County in a special July 25 primary election, which was scheduled following the resignation of former Sen. Frank Artiles, a Republican who left office in April after using racial slurs in conversation with black lawmakers. The Miami Herald also revealed that he had hired a former Hooters “calendar girl” and a Playboy model as political consultants.
Democrats, who hold only 15 of 40 state Senate seats, see an opportunity to seize back control of the district, which they lost last November when Artiles defeated former Sen. Dwight Bullard. The Democratic contenders are former Rep. Ana Rivas Logan and businesswoman Annette Taddeo; the general election will take place Sept. 26.
The best illustration of Trump’s importance in the GOP race came June 16, the day Trump announced his new Cuba policy in Little Havana. Diaz, whom the White House short-listed for the position of Miami U.S. attorney, got a prominent on-stage seat behind Trump. Diaz de la Portilla stood at the entrance of the Manuel Artime Theater auditorium, shaking hands with fellow audience members as they walked in. Palomares was in the crowd, too, posing for photos with a Trump pin fastened to his suit jacket.
For GOP voters, most of the race has played out in their mailboxes, between dueling Diaz and Diaz de la Portilla fliers. Diaz, the popular head of the Miami-Dade legislative delegation who headed the Regulatory Affairs Committee, has piled up endorsements from establishment organizations such as the Florida Chamber of Commerce, the Florida Medical Association and Miami’s Young Republicans.
He’s also spent a quarter-million dollars from his political action committee in the last month on TV ads that portray him as a responsible and experienced lawmaker. A North Florida political action committee run by a Diaz contributor has attacked Diaz de la Portilla for voting to raise taxes and fees and for facing foreclosure on his out-of-district home. Diaz de la Portilla has accused Diaz of being a puppet of special interests and an untrue Republican because he was registered without party affiliation until 2007.
Diaz de la Portilla, the middle child of three brothers who have all served in the Legislature, was a member of the House and then Senate from 1994 to 2010. He lost his last race, for House in 2012, to Democrat Jose Javier Rodriguez but has said his political aspirations were “reignited” after Trump’s election.
He has released internal polls that show him well ahead of Diaz, who claims his own, unreleased polls show a tighter race. Many district voters recognize the Diaz de la Portilla name not only because of his time as a lawmaker but also because his brother Miguel, also a former state senator, once represented part of the district on the Miami-Dade County Commission.
A 52-year-old who is divorced, Diaz de la Portilla earned $98,000 in 2016 from his First Stone Management LLC political consulting firm, according to campaign finances. But he has lagged behind Diaz in fundraising, listing $72,500 in contributions — $50,000 in loans to himself — since May compared to Diaz’s $279,182, records show. Diaz also has $825,654 squirreled away in his PAC, Rebuild Florida.
“He hides behind other people,” Diaz de la Portilla said of the dozens of political committees bankrolling Diaz’s campaign. “He’s fully aware of all these groups.”
Palomares, a long shot in the race, lists $24,000 in contributions. He loaned himself $15,000.
On the issues, Diaz said he hopes to strengthen child-welfare laws, cut taxes and continue to reform condominium laws. He is a proponent of the controversial House Bill 7069, a higher education bill that will force public school districts to share some tax dollars with private charter schools. Diaz de la Portilla, who served as Senate majority leader in his final two years in office, said his priorities are lowering taxes, creating jobs and improving government ethics.
Palomares, who lost a campaign for Congress in 2014, often speaks of his “hour-and-forty-minute” commute from his Kendall home to his Brickell office. He said he’d prioritize extending the Dolphin Expressway.
Last week, a man claiming to be “fed up” with Diaz and the Republican Party posted a death threat to the candidate’s Facebook page. He was arrested and charged. Diaz decried uncivil political discourse. Palomares offered to defend the man, a former member of the local GOP, for free.
Some of the heated rhetoric has come from Diaz de la Portilla, who like Trump has used his Twitter account to denounce the “fake news” media and mock Diaz — as well as to share smiling photos of voters whose doors he’s knocked on. Diaz has also used Twitter to boast of walking the district with an army of volunteers. Palomares has promoted right-wing political conspiracies involving former President Bill Clinton and Seth Rich, a former Democratic National Committee staffer killed in what police have called a botched robbery.
Diaz de la Portilla has yet to participate in a public debate with his opponents, who debated last month. Diaz said the outcome of the race will hinge on who makes more of an impression on voters.
“Any one of us could win it. I think the next few weeks are important, the way we disseminate our information and the way we execute our plan.”
Correction: This article has been updated to reflect that Alex Diaz de la Portilla is 52 years old, not 57.