The GOP’s inability to find top-shelf candidates to run for Ileana Ros-Lehtinen’s U.S. House seat has some Republicans ready to write off the race and shift money and attention to more winnable contests.
The seat that encompasses Little Havana, most of downtown Miami and Miami Beach is now considered unwinnable by some Republicans in Congress and fundraisers who could infuse millions into a competitive congressional race, according to interviews with high-ranking GOP officials and potential donors. Others are slightly more hopeful but caution that a Republican path to victory is narrow, especially in an environment where President Donald Trump’s approval ratings remain low and Republicans brace for a potential Democratic wave in 2018.
Keeping Ros-Lehtinen’s seat was always going to be a challenge for Republicans after the longtime Miami congresswoman announced her retirement in May. Republicans couldn’t draw top-tier recruits, such as Florida Lt. Gov. Carlos López-Cantera; one announced candidate made national news for claiming to have boarded a spaceship with aliens; fundraising has lagged; and one of the top GOP candidates recently left the race.
“The seat is now going to go to the Democrats,” said Raquel Regalado, a former Miami-Dade school board member and candidate for Miami-Dade mayor who recently announced she was dropping out of the Republican race to replace Ros-Lehtinen. “I think I was the only moderate who could have fought that fight for a bunch of different reasons. I don’t think you’re going to see a large GOP financial investment. They’re looking for a moderate candidate, but I don’t think they’re going to find one.”
One Republican member of Congress rolled his eyes and sighed when asked about the GOP’s chances in the district. Five Republicans, including members of Congress, staffers and fundraisers who said the seat is not winnable, requested anonymity to discuss their own party candidly.
Ros-Lehtinen, a political veteran who knows the Miami scene well, is doing her part to keep the seat in Republican hands.
“They have to spend in my district. I don’t want national groups to think it’s not winnable,” she said. “They’ve got to be all in. I will beat down their doors if they take my district and write it off.”
Ros-Lehtinen is talking to any Republican who might be willing to step up. She personally met with Spanish-language TV journalist Maria Elvira Salazar at a Cuban restaurant in South Miami in an effort to drum up more competition in the primary.
“The district is totally winnable for the right candidate,” Ros-Lehtinen said. “She could be the right candidate.”
But Salazar, like many other names bandied about in Miami Republican circles, demurred when asked if she’ll run.
“I am a news reporter, not a news maker,” Salazar said in an email. “It’s an honor that over the years both parties have approached me to consider running for office. My plans are to continue being a TV journalist — until God and the audience give me that opportunity.”
Another local official with name recognition, Miami-Dade Schools Superintendent Alberto Carvalho, said he has no intention of running for the seat after Republicans approached him in recent months.
Carvalho said “anything is possible” when asked if Republicans can win, but then noted that the demographic and social profiles of the district have changed to favor Democrats in recent years, and that no Republican can match Ros-Lehtinen’s popularity.
“There’s no person like Ileana because she was so many firsts in her political career,” Carvalho said, referring to Ros-Lehtinen’s status as the first Latina and Cuban American in Congress.
Ros-Lehtinen’s district, which was redrawn in 2015 and includes parts of Miami, Kendall and Miami Beach, is the most Democratic-leaning district in the country currently held by a Republican. Hillary Clinton defeated Donald Trump by more than 19 percentage points in the district, and in 2016 Ros-Lehtinen faced her closest reelection in years against a largely self-funded candidate who did not have the backing of national Democrats.
Regalado said it would take the right Republican, one with enough name recognition to win a primary, fundraising contacts and a moderate streak, to compete in the 2018 general election.
No such Republican exists, she said, and multiple GOP sources could not name additional potential candidates beyond Carvalho and López-Cantera, who said they’re not running.
The candidates “currently running cannot win District 27, whether it’s Bettina [Rodriguez Aguilera] with her aliens, or Bruno [Barreiro] rallying behind Trump. Even if they were to win the primary, they would never attract the independents needed to win the general,” Regalado said, referring to Rodriguez Aguilera’s vivid account of telepathic communication with extraterrestrials.
Barreiro, a Miami-Dade commissioner and the only Republican candidate who has raised enough money to run a campaign, insists he’ll be able to win.
“I do believe all those rumblings are more from the Democrats than from actual Republicans,” Barreiro said. “I’ve been ... talking to the NRCC [National Republican Congressional Committee] and everybody else and they’re going to be supportive of all the candidates in all these so-called difficult seats.”
But Barreiro’s total fundraising haul through the end of September was $218,100, which puts him behind six Democrats who are seeking the seat. Five of the six Democrats have raised their sums in less time than Barreiro, who officially declared his candidacy a few weeks after Ros-Lehtinen announced her retirement.
“Obviously, the worse the candidate, the more money you need to get elected,” Barreiro said. “I really don’t want to accept those rumblings out there that this is not a winnable seat.”
Barreiro, who voted for Trump, will tie himself to the popular Ros-Lehtinen as much as possible. He said his policy positions are identical to Ros-Lehtinen’s, and the longtime congresswoman said she will endorse whoever wins the Republican primary for her seat.
That may not be enough.
Miami political consultant David Custin, who has worked for Republicans and Democrats, likened keeping control of Congress to a nationwide chess game, where every two years party leaders attempt to gain the most seats possible in the current political climate while using finite resources effectively.
Ros-Lehtinen’s seat, on the Republican side at least, could be used as a political pawn.
“If you’re the Republicans, if you can force the Democrats to spend money to pick up that seat, then you’re helping yourself in another state,” Custin said. “If you can get some independent group to go play and occupy Dem money over there, then you do it.”
Custin acknowledged that a seat must be marginally competitive for the strategy to work. If polling indicates that either Democrats or Republicans have a commanding lead, then no outside groups will invest.
The NRCC doesn’t get involved in Republican primaries, but said it will continue to compete in Ros-Lehtinen’s district.
“The NRCC is still one hundred percent committed to keeping the seat in Republican hands, and we will compete aggressively to do so,” spokeswoman Maddie Anderson said.
Using resources to help another Miami congressman, Carlos Curbelo, an ally of GOP leadership, will also be a priority in 2018. Curbelo has a sizable fundraising advantage over his top Democratic challenger, but his district had the second-highest margin of victory for Clinton over Trump among GOP districts, after Ros-Lehtinen’s. Curbelo will also face scrutiny for voting in favor of a failed effort to repeal Obamacare and spending months vocally supporting a Republican overhaul of the nation’s tax code.
Other Florida seats, like Republican Rep. Brian Mast’s Treasure Coast district along with Democratic Reps. Stephanie Murphy’s in Orlando and Charlie Crist’s in St. Petersburg, are also likely to be competitive for Republicans, potentially drawing attention and dollars away from Ros-Lehtinen’s seat.
The national prognosticators rate Ros-Lehtinen’s district as the hardest GOP-held seat to keep in 2018. It’s the only seat held by a Republican rated as “lean Democratic,” while about a dozen other GOP-held seats like Curbelo’s are rated as “toss-ups.” Republicans currently have a 46-seat House majority, so they can afford nearly two dozen losses in 2018 and still maintain control of the lower chamber.
“In these districts, whether it’s Florida, statewide or at the congressional district level races, there are folks in the room that have budgets,” Custin said, adding that competing in Miami, one of the nation’s most expensive advertising markets, is a gamble for both national parties.
Regalado also said national Republicans are making a mistake by downplaying the importance of pro-immigrant policy positions for South Florida Republicans. Any politician, Democrat or Republican, who wants to represent Miami, she said, must be vocal about “DREAMers,” undocumented young adults who came to the U.S. as young children, and individuals living and working in the U.S. under Temporary Protected Status.
“For me, the immigration issue is a big issue and for people in Washington and locally to be like ‘Yeah, yeah, yeah, we’ll talk about that later,’ was insulting,” Regalado said. “TPS and the DREAMers are deal-breakers for me. Immigration is make it or break it for South Florida voters.”
And then there’s also the issue of any Republican in the district being tied to Trump, whose habit of politicking on social media at all hours causes Republicans to constantly scramble in reaction.
“Washington is in a sort of paralysis,” Regalado said. “When you’re talking to people about serious issues, they’re checking their Twitter feed. That’s the new normal.”