In South Florida, Democrats See An Opening
MICHELE NORRIS, host:
In Florida, some of the most closely-watched contests are two Congressional races. They're in districts represented by Lincoln and Mario Diaz-Balart. They are two brothers who represent South Florida's Cuban-American community, a community that has been reliably Republican. Now, as NPR's Greg Allen reports, Democrats believe that the Republican bloc may be crumbling.
GREG ALLEN: Since the era of Ronald Reagan, there have been few groups in Florida more reliably Republican than Cuban-Americans. Because of that, the congressional districts representing the southern tip of the state have long been considered safe Republican seats, but no longer.
Mr. JOE GARCIA (2008 Democratic Congressional Nominee, South Florida): We're going to win this thing.
(Soundbite of crowd clapping and cheering)
ALLEN: At a rally today in Miami Beach, Democrat Joe Garcia made his speech to union members. Garcia is trying to unseat three-term Republican Congressman Mario Diaz-Balart. Along with his brother, Lincoln, he's one of two Diaz-Balarts representing South Florida in Congress. If it wasn't already clear, the Diaz-Balarts come from a political family. Their father, Rafael, was majority leader in Cuba's House of Representatives before the revolution.
(Soundbite of talking)
ALLEN: At an early voting site in Miami, Diaz-Balart works a crowd of supporters with his brother. He's long been a leading voice in advocating a hard-lined policy against the Castro regime. Because of that, he's had to fight charges that he's a single-issue politician. He says he's proud of his record in speaking out for human rights in Cuba.
Representative MARIO DIAZ-BALART (Republican, Florida): That doesn't take away from the fact that I've also done a lot of other things, such as, you know, look - again with the Miami Herald said recently about the billions of dollars that I've brought for this community and important projects, helping to get jobs here. My record speaks for itself.
ALLEN: Surprisingly though, except on Spanish-language radio, the issue of Cuba has not come up much in this or in the other congressional campaigns in South Florida. That's because here, as across the county, there's one issue that's front and center, the economy. Challenger Joe Garcia.
Mr. GARCIA: We have the worst foreclosure rate in the nation. We have the highest unemployment pick up in the state. We are in a very tough place, and it's time for people to decide. Do you want more the same, or do you want a change?
ALLEN: Democrats are benefiting from the Obama campaign's strong presence in Florida and the increase in party registrations among Hispanics. Those factors, combined with President Bush's low approval rating, make this the toughest race Mario Diaz-Balart has faced since taking office six years ago. And his campaign ads show it.
(Soundbite of campaign ad)
Unidentified Woman: Who is Joe Garcia? Enron's convicted CEO said.
Unidentified Man: Joe Garcia was on our short list of people we'd be quite comfortable with.
Unidentified Woman: Joe Garcia.
ALLEN: Garcia is the former head of the Democratic Party in Miami Dade County. In his attack ads, Diaz-Balart reached back seven years, when Garcia was a member of the State Utility Commission, and former Enron chairman Ken Lay contacted him about a possible position with the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission. That's put Garcia on the defensive, forcing him to deal with the charges and TV ads on the stump.
Mr. GARCIA: My new name is Enron Joe. I never worked for Enron. I never had a job with it. I never even interviewed with Enron. I'm Enron Joe. They're saying I'm going to raise taxes - all these stuff. It's all lies.
ALLEN: For his part, Garcia has worked to link Diaz-Balart with President Bush, and it's a strategy that's worked. Polls show the race now is a toss up. Next door in the 21st Congressional district, after serving 15 years in Congress, Lincoln Diaz-Balart is trying to hold off a well-funded challenge by long-time Hileah Mayor Raul Martinez. Even though he's a Democrat, Martinez is popular in the Cuban-American community, even among Republicans like Ivan Lyttle(ph). At an early voting site in Miami, Lyttle said he voted for John McCain but not for Lincoln Diaz-Balart.
Mr. IVAN LYTTLE: This time, I want to give a chance to Raul Martinez to see what he can do forward. I want to see a change, you know.
ALLEN: For the first time in years, it's possible. Polls show this race, like the one in the 25th Congressional district, is too close to call. Greg Allen, NPR News, Miami.