Florida's congressional races officially got under way Friday, with Democrats aggressively putting seats in South Florida in play for the first time in years.
Democrats are targeting at least six House districts in the state, including Miami's three Cuban-American members of Congress, who will face their first real challenge. Republicans are hoping to take at least one seat back from the majority party, as well as keep an open seat in the Republican column.
The marquee races in South Florida are already well under way, pitting Republican Rep. Lincoln Diaz-Balart of Miami against former Hialeah mayor Raul Martinez; Republican Rep. Mario Diaz-Balart of Miami against former Miami-Dade Democratic party chairman Joe Garcia; and Republican Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen of Miami against businesswoman Annette Taddeo.
Though the election is still months away, the candidates already have taken off the gloves: Garcia is up with an Internet ad that accuses his opponent of being a ''one-trick pony'' focused solely on Cuba, rather than soaring gas prices and home foreclosures. Diaz-Balart accused Garcia this week of ''hiding'' contributions from small donors he's not required to identify. And the three GOP incumbents held a news conference to tout proposed legislation to give commuters a tax rebate.
''Across the board, we're definitely keeping Republicans busy in Florida,'' said Kyra Jennings, a spokeswoman for the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee.
The headliner matchup, Lincoln Diaz-Balart vs. Martinez, also is likely to test the loyalties of local politicians and voters who have ties to the influential congressman, first elected to Congress in 1992, and the longtime mayor. Hialeah Council President Esteban Bovo, a Republican, said he hasn't yet taken sides, noting that he's running his own race for the state House.
''Obviously, it's a race that's going to get a lot of attention,'' Bovo said. ``I'm very interested to see the dynamics of the debate.''
Though the incumbents hold an edge in campaign cash, all three Democrats outraised the incumbents in the first critical fundraising quarter of the year. That's given them credibility with campaign donors and Democratic leadership, which has flocked to Miami for appearances with the trio. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi plans a Saturday fundraiser for Martinez, and Garcia has the backing of Democracy for America, which bills itself as the largest progressive political action community in the country.
Martinez's national profile is likely to be boosted further later this month when he appears in Washington before the Democratic National Committee to help present the state's appeal of the committee's decision to strip Florida of its relevance in the presidential primary.
In picking Martinez, DNC member Jon Ausman of Tallahassee noted the former mayor had ``already raised a large treasury and is a very credible candidate.''
Republicans dismiss the Democrats' chances, saying the three GOP incumbents are ''active and aggressive'' in Washington and their districts and are unlikely to be defeated. National Republican Congressional Committee Chairman Rep. Tom Cole this week dismissed the contention that the three well-financed Republicans are vulnerable, saying Democrats were welcome to ``waste their resources down there.''
Democrats believe they have a shot at the districts for the first time, with voter registration statistics showing a decrease in Republican voters, though registered Republicans still outnumber Democrats. None of the six faces a challenge in the Aug. 26 primary, with Democrat Richard Allbritton dropping out of the race for Lincoln Diaz-Balart's seat.
In addition to the three South Florida seats, Democrats are gunning for Rep. Tom Feeney, an Oviedo Republican. His challenger, former state Rep. Suzanne Kosmas, already has more cash on hand than Feeney. Other GOP targets: Reps. Ric Keller of Orlando and Vern Buchanan of Sarasota, who won his seat in 2006 by fewer than 400 votes and faces a rematch with Democrat Christine Jennings.
Republicans are looking to retake the Republican-leaning Palm Beach County district once held by Rep. Mark Foley, who resigned in disgrace in 2006 just weeks before the election. Three Republicans, Gayle Harrell, Tom Rooney and Hal Valeche, have filed to take on Rep. Tim Mahoney, D-Palm Beach Gardens, who narrowly won Foley's seat.
Republicans have made Mahoney's seat a priority, looking to link Mahoney to Pelosi, who they argue is too liberal for the district. They also expect to hold the Space Coast seat held by Rep. Dave Weldon, who is retiring.
Reps. Debbie Wasserman Schultz, a Weston Democrat, and Kendrick Meek, a Miami Democrat, drew criticism from Democratic bloggers for saying they wouldn't actively campaign for the three South Florida Democratic challengers, but Meek won election to his fourth term Friday when no one filed to run against him.
Wasserman Schultz faces only token opposition from one-time Republican Margaret Hostetter, a Davie real estate broker who filed as a no-party candidate. Hostetter, who lost to Wasserman Schultz in 2004, reported $55 cash on hand at the end of the first fundraising quarter. Wasserman Schultz had $446,205.
Other South Florida incumbents drew opponents Friday, ensuring that they will have to run. But without party support and little money, the challengers aren't likely to pose much of a threat to the incumbents.
Democrat Ray Torres Sanchez of Belle Glade filed to challenge Rep. Alcee Hastings of Miramar in the Democratic primary. The winner will face Republican Marion Thorpe of Bal Harbour in November.
Former Broward County Commissioner Ben Graber filed as a no-party candidate against Rep. Robert Wexler, a Boca Raton Democrat. The winner will face Republican Edward Lynch of Royal Palm Beach in November.