Sensing Cuba shift, Democrats target trio of House Republicans in Florida

For decades, Miami Cuban-Americans have been a reliable Republican voting bloc and three GOP incumbents who represent that community in the House have rarely faced significant opposition.

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Now Florida Democrats are trying to mount a meaningful challenge, in part by convincing Raul Martinez, the colorful former Democratic mayor of Hialeah, to take on Rep. Lincoln Diaz-Balart (R), an eight-term incumbent and scion of a powerful Cuban émigré family.

Martinez is exactly the kind of candidate Democrats would need to seriously challenge Diaz-Balart because their battle would take place in a district where cultural ties matter more than party affiliation, according to David Wasserman, U.S. House editor for The Cook Political Report.

“Democrats are looking more for a name than a moneyed or well-funded campaign,” he said.

Martinez, who like Diaz-Balart is a Cuban émigré, fits that bill after 25 years as mayor of Hialeah, which is the fifth-largest city in Florida, boasts a huge Cuban population and is 90 percent Hispanic.

A battle between the two well-known Miami politicians would also test the claim by Florida Democrats that the political climate in Miami’s Cuban-American community is changing.

National Democrats this week began running Spanish-language radio ads against all three members criticizing their votes against the expansion of the State Children’s Health Insurance Program. This is the first time the national Democratic Party has targeted advertising toward those districts, another indication that Democrats believe the seats are in play.

Miami-Dade County Democratic Party Chairman Joe Garcia and other Miami Democrats insist the hard-line approach to Cuba taken by Diaz-Balart is wearing thin, while GOP strategists say those policies remain popular.

Garcia is seeking candidates who are well-respected in the Cuban community but who disagree with the hard-line approach taken by the three Republican incumbents on key issues related to Cuba, such as their support for travel restrictions imposed by the Bush administration that allow Cuban-Americans to visit close relatives in Cuba once every three years.

Martinez, Garcia and some other Democrats portray these rules as preventing Cuban-Americans from visiting sick relatives on the island. Democratic candidates would be expected to use the matter against the trio of GOP incumbents.

Besides Lincoln Diaz-Balart, Garcia is also recruiting for races against Rep. Mario Diaz-Balart (R-Fla.), Lincoln’s brother, and Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-Fla.), a third Havana-born Cuban émigré. Garcia himself is thought to be a potential candidate, and in an interview said he’d consider a race if his party asks him.

“I think a lot of people are very dissatisfied within the community,” Garcia said.

Others, however, question how much of an issue the travel restrictions really are in Miami. Robert Muse, a Washington attorney who has navigated the rules of Cuba visits, doubts the restrictions have had a meaningful impact. “There is no record of a single action taken against a Cuban-American traveling to Cuba in violation of these regulations,” he said.

Lincoln Diaz-Balart supporters, for their part, think Martinez’s support for lifting travel restrictions on Cuba would hamper his candidacy. Carlos Curbelo, who has managed Diaz-Balart’s campaign for the last seven years, said Cuba policy continues to be an issue that will drive Diaz-Balart voters to the polls to defend hard-line policies.

Curbelo also said a Martinez candidacy could be a headache for Democratic leadership because of Martinez’s conviction in 1991 on federal extortion charges. Martinez appealed the verdict, and two subsequent trials ended with hung juries.

Republicans say Democratic support for a Martinez candidacy would cut against promises to run against a Washington “culture of corruption.”

“I don’t know what would hurt him more in an election — the criminal conviction or opposition to key elements of the embargo,” Curbelo said. “His being on the ballot would end up hurting Democrats statewide.”

Supporters say the charges are not an issue because Martinez successfully appealed. They note that Martinez remained wildly popular, subsequently winning reelection as Hialeah’s mayor, and that top House Democrats have given their blessing to a Martinez candidacy.

“If Raul decides to run, he’ll make that a very interesting race,” said Alejandro Miyar, who works on Hispanic issues for the Florida Democratic Party. 

The Diaz-Balart camp, however, suggests it would welcome the challenge. “How often do you get a chance to race against a guy convicted of a felony?” Curbelo asked.

Democrats see Mario Diaz-Balart as the most vulnerable of the three incumbents because his district’s registered voters are 39 percent Republican, 33.5 percent Democrat and 27.5 percent independent. President Bush attracted 56 percent of the vote in Mario Diaz-Balart’s district in 2004.

But it’s the potential of a Lincoln Diaz-Balart-Raul Martinez showdown that has Democratic political operatives salivating.

In September, Martinez quit a Miami radio program he was set to host because, according to Martinez, the station’s management asked him to give “100 percent assurances” that he would not run for Diaz-Balart’s seat.

“That’s Miami,” quipped Martinez, who said he believes the station came under political pressure from GOP forces trying to protect Lincoln Diaz-Balart. The incident has him leaning toward running, Martinez said.

“My family comes first, but then, my love has always been politics,” he said in an interview. He plans to make his decision by the end of October or mid-November, partly to give others enough time to prepare for a run if he decides against challenging the eight-term Republican.

At a glance, Democrats would seem to face an uphill climb in defeating any of the three incumbents. All are well-known and the three districts are majority Republican.

At the same time, the districts include a large number of registered independents, and President Bush in 2004 carried all three with less than 60 percent of the vote. Both Diaz-Balart brothers won reelection handily in 2006, but with under 60 percent of the vote against relatively weak opposition.

Democrats suggest this points to an opportunity. Republicans say it is a measure of their strength. “They’ve been reelected by wide margins in what were bad conditions for Republicans,” said Julie Shutley, deputy communications director for the National Republican Congressional Committee.

Still, state and national party Democrats point to a variety of changing factors, including a national political tide that continues to run against Republicans. They argue non-Cuban Hispanics are increasing their numbers in the region, and that younger Cuban-Americans born in Miami are not as Castro-obsessed as their parents and are shifting the political culture.

For example, a July poll by FrederickPolls, a Democratic pollster, indicated that residents in the Diaz-Balart districts increasingly have the same views as other Americans. In the poll, 51 percent of those responding mentioned affordable healthcare as a top priority for their congressman, while 49 percent mentioned getting out of Iraq.

Getting Fidel Castro out of power, in contrast, was only cited as a top priority by 11 percent in the poll.

Local GOP officials acknowledge Martinez would be a formidable candidate if he decides to run. However, they suggest recent public comments he made could be harmful.

In September, Martinez called Florida GOP Chairman Jim Greer a vulgar term for a female body part after Greer criticized Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (D-N.Y.) for attending a fundraiser hosted by Martinez, according to The Miami Herald.

“I would debate any f—-ing Republican about my past,” Martinez said in an interview, according to the Herald. He later apologized for the comments.

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