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Miami Blues for GOP?

Incumbents Get Toughest Challengers in Years

Clarification Appended

A once-stable bloc of South Florida Republican House seats this year will face its toughest test yet, as three Miami-area GOP incumbents may be forced to seriously defend their seats for the first time in their Congressional careers.

“There is an anti-incumbent feeling … that these people have been in for a long time and are ripe for a challenger,” Florida Republican strategist David Johnson told Roll Call on Monday. “There’s a feeling that if someone credible runs against these guys, they can beat them.”

Still two months out from the Sunshine State’s filing deadline, Republican Reps. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, Lincoln Diaz-Balart and Mario Diaz-Balart all have drawn Democratic opponents whose candidacies — on paper, at least — appear promising: a bombastic longtime mayor popular with Republicans, a prominent local business owner and a local party activist with strong ties to the area’s Cuban community.

In short, not your average partisan gadflies who typically fill out the ballot in tightly held Democratic and Republican House districts.

Johnson said former Hialeah Mayor Raul Martinez represents Democrats’ best shot at ousting one of the three GOP incumbents. Martinez, who is challenging Lincoln Diaz-Balart, attended the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee’s candidate school in Washington, D.C., last week and has high name recognition in the heavily Republican west Miami suburb.

Lincoln Diaz-Balart, whose district gave President Bush at least 57 percent of the vote twice, has himself never received less than 59 percent of the general-election vote during eight terms. In five of those cycles, he has been able to retire early on election night, failing to even draw a Democratic challenger.

Martinez spent more than two decades in the Hialeah City Hall and narrowly escaped 10 years in federal prison in the early 1990s on a highly publicized corruption trial initiated by Ros-Lehtinen’s husband, former U.S. Attorney Dexter Lehtinen.

GOP strategist Johnson agrees with Martinez’s campaign strategy of banking on heavy turnout by Hialeah voters, who make up roughly one-third of the district but nearly 60 percent of its GOP vote totals.

Martinez predicts that if about one-third of Hialeah voters pick him, he’ll win. He had an 82 percent approval rating in 2005.

“It’s not like he’s unknown,” Johnson said. “[Martinez] has a strong base and … his name is another name that voters in the district are familiar with, just as they are with Lincoln Diaz-Balart.”

“With Raul Martinez, you have someone people — including Republicans — are used to pulling the lever for,” Johnson continued. “They are used to voting for him in the past.”

Martinez, who announced his candidacy in late January, said he expects to raise $1.5 million for his bid. Lincoln Diaz-Balart had about $905,000 in the bank through Dec. 31.

Going into her expected November match-up with businesswoman Annette Taddeo, Ros-Lehtinen had the strongest cash position of the three incumbents with roughly $1.8 million in the bank. Johnson said Taddeo, who owns a large Miami-based translation company, needs to spend at least $1 million to compete with Ros-Lehtinen’s strong support with local voters, who twice gave Bush comfortable victories.

Ros-Lehtinen has received at least 60 percent of the general election vote since first winning in 1989.

Although he had the least in the bank on Dec. 31 — about $466,000 — Mario Diaz-Balart also is considered the least likely of the three to fall come November, his solidly Republican district unlikely to pick a Democrat regardless of the political landscape. But Miami-Dade Democratic Party Chairman Joe Garcia, the anticipated Democratic nominee, also may offer his party its best chance in two decades, Johnson said. But his candidacy still remains a long-shot.

“Raul Martinez is a credible challenger,” Johnson said. “These other two [are] Hail Mary passes.”

Florida Republican Party Chairman Jim Greer on Monday downplayed growing Democratic interest in the three districts, but hinted that Martinez’s 1991 conviction, which was overturned five years later, will figure prominently in GOP attempts to blunt the former mayor’s popularity.

“I don’t see that any of these seats can be won by Democrats,” Greer said. “They’re just throwing their hat in the ring to put someone in the running.”

“We’re not going to leave any voter with any failure to have the information necessary to vote for our Republican Members of Congress,” Greer continued. “It’s going to be important for all aspects of the campaign to distinguish the great public service and distinguish between the Republicans and Democrats on all issues — certainly [Martinez’s] conviction would be one of those issues that we want the voters to be aware of.”

Both House campaign committees declined to indicate whether they would get involved financially in the expensive Miami media market, where all three districts are based. DCCC spokeswoman Carrie James said shifting demographics — including the fact that Florida Hispanics are increasingly picking Democrats — cast a new light on the three races, while Republicans insisted that their incumbents are not susceptible to a political tsunami.

“The decisions have not yet been made as to when, how and to what extent we will be financially involved in specific House races,” National Republican Congressional Committee spokeswoman Julie Shutley said on Monday. “We are confident that the records of these three south Florida Members will again get them re-elected in November.”

Perhaps unlike districts elsewhere, where aspiring House freshmen stand to catch a ride on Sen. Barack Obama’s (D-Ill.) coattails, state party Chairman Greer and GOP strategist Johnson agree that a November ballot led by Obama may doom all three Democrats’ chances right out of the gate.

Obama has said he supports holding discussions with Cuban President Raúl Castro, brother of recently retired Cuban President Fidel Castro, an unpopular position with both parties in the districts’ heavily Cuban-American enclaves.

“If the head of your ticket seems to be mailable, the Republicans will hammer that home — not so much for these candidates, but the Democratic Party as a whole,” Johnson said.

Clarification: March 5, 2008

The article quoted Florida Republican strategist David Johnson. There are two David Johnsons who have worked in Florida GOP politics. One is a former executive director of the state GOP. The other — and the person quoted — is the CEO of Strategic Vision, an Atlanta-based political consulting firm with an office in Tallahassee.

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