Latino candidates line up for next year’s Congressional races in Florida

by Nathan L. Gonzales June 17, 2013 · 10:46 AM EDT

The midterm elections are still more than a year away, but Latino candidates in Florida are already jockeying for position in a couple of key congressional races.

In 2012, Democrat Joe Garcia defeated incumbent David Rivera in the 26th District, in large part because the Republican congressman was dogged by ethical questions about his time in the state legislature, as well as his alleged role in meddling in last year’s Democratic primary.

Garcia won handily with 54 percent and didn’t look to be particularly vulnerable for re-election next year – until he started to face his own troubles.

The Congressman recently dismissed his chief of staff, Jeffrey Garcia (no relation), for concocting a phony absentee ballot scam during the same primary last year. In addition, Joe Garcia’s communications director was placed on unpaid administrative leave as the investigation continues.

President Barack Obama won the south Florida-based 26th District with 53 percent in 2012, but he lost it narrowly in 2008, and President George W. Bush won it with almost 55 percent in 2004. Republicans have an opportunity to defeat Garcia with a strong challenger.

Miami-Dade School Board Member Carlos Curbelo and former Miami-Dade City Commission Chair/mayoral candidate Joe Martinez look like the initial frontrunners on the Republican side. Other potential candidates include state Rep. Jose Felix Diaz, Cutler Bay Mayor Ed MacDougall, and former state Senate candidate John Couriel. Former state House Majority Leader Carlos Lopez-Cantera is mentioned but unlikely to give up his position as Property Appraiser of Miami-Dade County to run.

The Rothenberg Political Report currently rates the race as Toss-Up/Tilt Democrat.

Further north in the 9th District, U.S. Navy Veteran Jorge Bonilla (R) is challenging incumbent Rep. Alan Grayson and announced his candidacy in videos in English, as well as in Spanish.

The Democratic Congressman is regarded as one of the most polarizing members of Congress, but he now represents a Democratic district, which makes it difficult for any Republican candidate to defeat him.

Bonilla is the son of Puerto Rican immigrants, enlisted in the U.S. Marine Corps Reserves and served on active duty with the U.S. Navy until 1993. Subsequently, Bonilla worked in “different fields such as retail, financial services, and mortgage banking.” His bio also lists his work as a professional court interpreter and a writer for The Shark Tank, a Florida-based conservative blog and Politics in Stereo contributor.

The partisanship of the 9th District will be a challenge for Bonilla, since President Obama won the district with 62 percent of the vote in 2012. But fundraising will be another key hurdle. The district is covered by the expensive Orlando media market, so candidates have to raise substantial money for television ads. Grayson spent over $5 million on his race in 2012. It can be very difficult for a first-time candidate such as Bonilla to raise millions of dollars for a campaign.

Grayson won his race last year with 63 percent but focused his effort on the Republican primary. Grayson and outside Democratic groups spent hundreds of thousands of dollars on television ads and mailers attacking Osceola County Commissioner John Quinones in order to make sure he didn’t make it to the general election.

Quinones, who also served in the Florida House, was regarded as the strongest challenger to Grayson in the Orlando-based district, which has a growing Puerto Rican population. Quinones lost the primary, and the Democrat defeated Todd Long in the general election.

Bonilla doesn’t start the race with the same reputation as Quinones, and The Rothenberg Political Report rates the 9th District race as Currently Safe for the Democrats.

Two Hispanic members of Congress in Florida, Republicans Mario Diaz-Balart and Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, appear to be in good position for re-election at this stage in the election cycle.

Democratic strategists are waiting for Ros-Lehtinen to retire, since Obama won her 27th District with 53 percent, but the congresswoman has indicated she will run again next year. President Obama won Diaz-Balart’s 25th District with 51 percent, but there is no talk of Democrats trying to defeat him.