A new poll suggests that two Republican members of Congress from Miami are facing a tight race from their Democratic challengers — the first significant challenge to the incumbents in years.
The poll, by Bendixen & Associates, shows Reps. Lincoln and Mario Diaz-Balart, Cuban-American brothers with a long Miami political pedigree, are leading their Democratic challengers by only single digits with four months to go to the election. Potentially more troubling for the GOP incumbents, the poll shows neither cracked 50 percent of the vote. That's a far cry from their dominance in previous campaigns.
"This election shows signs of being something of a reckoning for the Diaz-Balart brothers," said pollster Fernand Amandi, executive vice president at the polling company. The Coral Gables-based firm, which specializes in Hispanic polling, worked for Hillary Clinton in the Democratic primary, but has not worked with any of the congressional candidates.
Spokesmen for the Diaz-Balarts' campaigns noted Bendixen's ties to Democrats, with spokesman Carlos Curbelo calling it "great news'' for Lincoln Diaz-Balart when a "known Democrat pollster confirms from the onset'' that the incumbent is ahead. Lincoln Diaz-Balart's pollster said the candidate's own internal polls show him running 12 points ahead of rival Raul Martinez, the former mayor of Hialeah, a Miami suburb.
A third Republican, Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, faces no such contest, the survey showed. She's besting her Democratic opponent, Annette Taddeo, by 27 percentage points — 58 to 31 — with just 11 percent undecided.
"In an off year for the GOP, it's a testament to the constituent work Ros-Lehtinen has done," Amandi said. "She's done a ton of outreach and it's paid off."
Taddeo's campaign called it "far too early to put much stock in a poll," while Ros-Lehtinen said she was "humbled'' her constituents want to "give me the opportunity to work on these tough economic problems."
The poll, of 350 respondents in each congressional district with a margin of error of plus or minus five percentage points, showed Lincoln Diaz-Balart statistically tied with Martinez, 41 to 37 percent, with 22 percent undecided.
Mario Diaz-Balart was ahead of challenger Joe Garcia, the former chairman of the Miami-Dade Democratic party, 44 percent to 39 percent, with 17 percent undecided.
The poll was conducted June 6 to 22.
Both Diaz-Balarts enjoy their strongest support among Cuban-Americans, and Amandi said the poll results suggest the greatest opportunity for Garcia and Martinez is non-Hispanics as well as the non-Cuban Hispanics who make up an increasing number of voters in the districts.
"Both Raul and Joe need to get away from a Cuba-centric campaign and talk other issues," Amandi said. "If the Diaz-Balarts can make this election about Cuba policy, they will both hold on to their seats."
Martinez said the numbers reflect what he's hearing in the community: "My numbers are the people I meet out on the street. They stop me at gas stations, red lights, and come over and say, 'It's time for change,' " Martinez said.
David Hill, the Diaz-Balart brothers' pollster, said Lincoln's internal polling shows the congressman with a 12-point lead over Martinez and a "double-digit advantage over his opponent in virtually every significant segment of the electorate."
"Lincoln's record of effectiveness, integrity and concrete accomplishments on behalf of South Florida is clearly resonating with voters," Curbelo, the Diaz-Balarts' spokesman, said.
Garcia, too, said the poll "confirms the tremendous support we've been seeing on the ground every day. Our campaign is addressing the issues that matter most to the people of South Florida, like fixing our broken economy, fully funding our schools and solving the housing crisis, while my opponent has a six-year record of rubber-stamping the failed policies of the Bush Administration and a lot of empty rhetoric on Fidel Castro."
Mario Diaz-Balart's campaign manager, Miguel Otero, called it "comforting that even a poll conducted by Mr. Bendixen, who has worked extensively with our opponent and whose exit poll in 2004 predicted that John Kerry had won Florida, would show Congressman Diaz-Balart leading as well.
"On November 4th, Mario will once again win the only poll that matters," Otero said.
The poll comes as the matchups increasingly attract national attention: the nonpartisan Cook Political Report, which tracks congressional races, recently suggested the races are heating up, moving the race between Lincoln Diaz-Balart and Martinez to "leans Republican," from "likely Republican." Mario Diaz-Balart's race ranked "likely Republican."
And Martinez and Garcia, who in their first fundraising quarter kept pace with the incumbents, were named last month to a national Democratic Party program that gives them campaign support and money. The Diaz-Balarts, too, were added to a similar GOP effort.