Democrats Waiting on Garcia in Florida

Posted February 22, 2010 at 6:38pm

With the November forecast ominous for Democrats, some factions within the party are watching to see how aggressive the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee will be in working to put Florida’s traditionally Republican-leaning 25th district seat in play.

Noting the opportunity to poke a big hole in the GOP alliance with Cuban-American voters, many party insiders are openly advocating that the DCCC should invest in the effort.

But that’s easier said than done when the party will be devoting almost all of its available resources to protecting Democratic seats.

The South Florida seat opened up when Rep. Mario Diaz-Balart (R) decided to switch districts and run to succeed his brother, retiring Rep. Lincoln Diaz-Balart (R).

An early clue as to whether Democrats plan to take an aggressive approach in the heavily Cuban district may soon come in the form of a recruiting announcement.

If Democratic leaders can persuade former Miami-Dade County Democratic Party Chairman Joe Garcia — who came 6 points shy of defeating Mario Diaz-Balart in 2008 — to leave his job with the Energy Department and take another shot at the 25th district, it will be a sign that House Democrats are very serious about picking up the seat.

Garcia had a meeting with DCCC Chairman Chris Van Hollen (Md.) on Monday evening and has also been encouraged by officials within the administration to take another look at the race.

In an interview last week, Garcia would say only that he’s “very pleased” with his job in the Obama administration.

“That’s what I’m busy doing right now. All the other speculation is speculation,” Garcia said. “I have served my country in many different capacities, and if I am asked to do so by the president I will of course consider” the Congressional race.

The DCCC has also reached out to Katherine Fernandez Rundle, who has served Miami-Dade County as state attorney since 1993.

Simon Rosenberg, the president and founder of NDN and a Democrat with past experience working in South Florida, said Garcia would be the best candidate for the party. He added that Garcia’s candidacy would be particularly important because the 25th district race means more to some Democrats than simply picking up a House seat.

“This is not a typical Congressional fight right now,” Rosenberg said. “This has implication for control of the most important swing state in American politics. … The Cuban-American political machine in South Florida was instrumental in giving George Bush the presidency in 2000. To break apart the Republican Cuban machine in South Florida is a national priority for the Democratic Party.”

Garcia, the former executive director of the Cuban American National Foundation, has the credentials and the contacts to run the kind of campaign that could begin to dismantle the GOP’s long-standing alliance with South Florida’s large Cuban-American community.

Last cycle, Garcia proved a prolific fundraiser, eventually raising about $1.8 million after entering the race in February 2008.

He was outspent by Mario Diaz-Balart by about $800,000, but the financial playing field should be a little more even in an open-seat race.

Democrats also view the swing district as a potential pickup opportunity because voter registration has been trending in their direction.

In 2006, Republicans had a 21,000-voter registration advantage in the district. In 2008 that advantage dropped to just 2,000, and as of the first of this year Democrats had about a 600-voter registration advantage.

Ironically enough, Democrats point out that it was Mario Diaz-Balart who helped draw the original lines of the 25th district when he served as chairman of the state Legislature’s Congressional redistricting committee after the 2000 Census.

“Clearly Mario felt that seat was no longer safe,” Rosenberg said. “His own admission by moving means Republicans believe this seat is up for grabs.”

Republicans say they are confident they’ll hold the seat and that Democrats are exaggerating how competitive the district really is.

“South Floridians have been sending Republicans to Congress for decades,” said National Republican Congressional Committee spokeswoman Joanna Burgos.

The party’s chances could be helped by races further up the ballot, especially if Cuban-American Marco Rubio is the Republican Senate nominee.

But first the GOP will have to sort out what may become a contentious primary.

Two well-known Republicans considering the race are state Senate Majority Leader Alex Diaz de la Portilla and state Rep. David Rivera, who is running for state Senate.

Rivera has said he will make his decision by the beginning of March, but de la Portilla has expressed confidence in his ability to win the primary.

De la Portilla has already promised to hand the state Representative an “ass whooping” in a primary.

Rivera and de la Portilla have tangled in the political ring previously. In 2008, Rivera beat de la Portilla by 4 points in a five-way race for GOP state committeeman in Miami-Dade County.

Rivera may be helped by the fact that he is closer to the Diaz-Balart dynasty.

He was in Washington, D.C., last week to discuss the contest with NRCC officials. In an interview, Rivera said the Diaz-Balarts “are like brothers [to me], and I consider them mentors.”

Rivera pointed out that he first got to know the family when he was still in college and volunteered for Lincoln Diaz-Balart’s 1986 state House campaign.

De la Portilla said Monday that he has secured a meeting with Mario Diaz-Balart for later this week along with a promise that the Congressman would not get involved in the race until after they sat down.

Rivera also responded to de la Portilla’s assessment of a potential primary matchup.

“I haven’t commented because I would never dignify profanity or vulgarities being used by a public official with any type of response,” Rivera said. “It’s demeaning to the process and to our community to speak in those terms over such a consequential matter as an election.”

Rivera, whose state House district mostly falls within the 25th district, said the results from the 2008 state committeeman race speak for themselves.

De la Portilla said he believes voters will be more interested in his 16 years of public service than in Rivera’s “eight years of doing hack work in Tallahassee.”