Who will challenge Gimenez, Salazar for seats in Congress? Don’t ask Florida Democrats

·9 min read

Just seven months to the August primary, Democrats have little clue whose names they’ll be marking on their ballots for two of South Florida’s most competitive congressional races.

Evidence is piling up that Democrats in Florida have no clear bench of candidates willing to challenge Republican incumbents in South Florida, in what’s expected to be a daunting and expensive 2022 cycle for their party.

Two first-time candidates who made early announcements they would run for South Florida House seats have both since dropped their bids to pursue runs for state office. A rumored likely candidate for federal office, former state Sen. José Javier Rodríguez, was recently nominated by President Joe Biden to serve as an assistant secretary at the Department of Labor.

And even with proposed new congressional maps shaping up to give Democrats a fighting chance at flipping Florida’s 26th and 27th congressional districts, no Democrat has registered a campaign committee in one of the two competitive districts to run against U.S. Rep. Carlos Gimenez.

“At the end of the day, redistricting years present clear challenges for recruiting. But that shouldn’t be an excuse that, during an election-year cycle, we don’t have clear candidates,” said Christian Ulvert, a Democratic consultant based in Miami.

The uncertainty has led to months of finger-pointing in Miami’s political group chats about who’s really to blame for the void to challenge Gimenez and U.S. Rep. Maria Elvira Salazar, who flipped the districts red in 2020.

Party leaders have repeatedly pointed to redistricting as the cause, but there’s growing suspicion among some Democrats that the wait-and-see approach from two former members of Congress on whether to announce runs for the seats is running out the clock for newer candidates to step up to run and appeal to donors.

“At this point now, and really since November, we’ve had [map] drafts from both chambers to give an idea,” said Matt Isbell, a redistricting expert working with the Democrat-leaning People Over Profits. “Any argument that it’s about waiting for the new lines, I think, rings a little hollow.”

In particular, the presence of former U.S. Rep. Donna Shalala, who has been raising money for at least a year, looms large over the races. Democrats are also waiting for a formal announcement from former U.S. Rep. Debbie Mucarsel-Powell, who swung FL-26 for Democrats in 2018.

Miami’s Republican congressional delegation including, from left, Rep. Carlos Gimenez, Rep. Maria Elvira Salazar and Rep. Mario Diaz-Balart attend a rally in support of anti-government protesters in Cuba at Versailles Restaurant on Southwest Eighth Street in Little Havana on Aug. 4, 2021.
Miami’s Republican congressional delegation including, from left, Rep. Carlos Gimenez, Rep. Maria Elvira Salazar and Rep. Mario Diaz-Balart attend a rally in support of anti-government protesters in Cuba at Versailles Restaurant on Southwest Eighth Street in Little Havana on Aug. 4, 2021.

No commitment

Shalala told Politico last year that she planned to have a decision firmed up by October, but three months later the former congresswoman and former Clinton Foundation president has yet to clarify her plans.

Shalala did not return calls or requests for comment for this story. In a statement to the Herald, she blamed Republicans for “intentionally delaying” redistricting and blocking public input to gain an advantage but left open the question of her candidacy.

“Despite this, I will continue to review the process and meet with party leaders while encouraging others to consider serving in public office. Whether it is myself or someone else we will field a quality candidate, an alternative to our current failed elected representative in Congress,” Shalala added.

Raul Martinez Jr., former chief of staff for Shalala, said he didn’t think blaming her for the lack of Democratic candidates was fair, if a candidate really believed they could beat either Gimenez or Salazar.

“If someone believes they can win and they want to run, they should,” said Martinez. “At the same time, don’t blame her.”

Mucarsel-Powell has similarly been noncommittal, but she indicated in a phone call that she’ll make a decision about her political future within days.

“I will be making an announcement very shortly on what I’ll be doing,” she told the Herald last week. “Within the next week or so.”

Former U.S. Rep. Debbie Mucarsel-Powell speaks at the unveiling ceremony of the Gun Violence Memorial Installation by Giffords Pac at Bayfront Park in downtown Miami on Monday, Dec. 13, 2021. The memorial features 3,000 vases, one for every Floridian who died from gun violence last year. During the event, Giffords PAC endorsed Orlando Congresswoman Val Demings for U.S. Senate.
Former U.S. Rep. Debbie Mucarsel-Powell speaks at the unveiling ceremony of the Gun Violence Memorial Installation by Giffords Pac at Bayfront Park in downtown Miami on Monday, Dec. 13, 2021. The memorial features 3,000 vases, one for every Floridian who died from gun violence last year. During the event, Giffords PAC endorsed Orlando Congresswoman Val Demings for U.S. Senate.

Isbell said that while Gimenez’s district continues to be trending Republican in the maps proposed so far by the Florida Senate, Democrats could have a chance at flipping Salazar’s district if they can reverse their trend lines with South Florida Hispanics, who helped former President Donald Trump make gains in Miami-Dade County.

“A lot of them are thinking, 2022, how is that going to look in a national environment, and is it better to hold off for another cycle?” Isbell said.

Janelle Perez, one of the first-time candidates who initially filed to run against Salazar, said she dropped out of the race to run for state Senate District 40 because of personal reasons. Around the time she announced her congressional campaign in Little Havana, she found out her wife was pregnant. She said she realized the commute to Washington, D.C., if elected, would be too onerous as a new mom.

Perez raised $224,152 before terminating her campaign committee in December. The only Democrat with an active campaign committee for Salazar’s seat is Angel Montalvo, a self-described progressive Democrat who had less than $4,200 as of the end of September. Montalvo’s website touts the campaign as “100% Grassroots. 100% People Powered.”

Salazar by comparison had raised $1.7 million from January 2020 through September.

“Every smart candidate knows running as a Democrat in South Florida is a losing option,” said Camille Gallo, a spokeswoman for the National Republican Congressional Committee.

Congressional Democrats vow to contest seats

The slow pace of Democratic recruitment offers an additional boost to the Republican incumbents in a year where the national political environment is already expected to favor the GOP. The trend could prove even more acute in South Florida, where Democrats suffered blistering defeats in both federal and state races in 2020.

“If they have somebody in mind but they just haven’t announced yet for whatever reason, that’s one thing,” said Alex Conant, a Washington-based GOP consultant who has worked for Florida Sen. Marco Rubio among other prominent Republicans. “If there’s no candidate because the national committees haven’t found a candidate yet, you’re getting close to the point of surrender.”

The Florida Democratic Party declined to comment on recruitment.

The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, the national party’s arm for House races, promised to aggressively contest the seats, but did not name any potential candidates in a statement.

“From infrastructure to climate to defending democracy, Maria Elvia Salazar and Carlos Gimenez have utterly failed Miamians in Congress. The DCCC remains actively engaged in South Florida and we look forward to taking them on and sending them home,” said DCCC spokesman Abel Iraola.

Gimenez and Salazar both won their seats by margins of less than 3 percentage points, but several factors make recruitment difficult for Democrats this year despite the South Florida districts’ competitive history in recent elections.

First, there are the low expectations for Democrats nationally. The incumbent president’s party traditionally loses seats in the midterm election, which means most of the national party’s resources will go toward defending seats in other states rather than flipping GOP-held seats in a state that’s trended toward Republicans in recent years.

Democrats will also likely be defending other seats in Florida, as U.S. Rep. Stephanie Murphy’s retirement and U.S. Rep. Charlie Crist’s run for governor put two potentially competitive seats in Central Florida up for grabs.

The high cost of running in the Miami area, one of the most expensive media markets in the country, will also deter potential candidates in an election cycle that’s expected to be difficult for the party.

“Democrats will first look to see if the former members want to run. Beyond that, I’m not sure Democrats have a great bench in a cycle that’s expected to be difficult,” said Nathan Gonzales, the editor and publisher of Inside Elections, which provides nonpartisan analysis of House and Senate races.

“I think it’s tough to ask potential candidates to put their jobs, their lives, their families on hold for a year for what is expected to be a tough race,” Gonzales said.

Gonzales said that few new candidates will want to get into the race until Mucarsel-Powell and Shalala make their decisions.

The former lawmakers would stand the best chance at raising money quickly and would enter with a high level of name recognition, but they’ll also come with baggage after their recent losses.

“Former politicians bring the advantage of name ID and a donor list. They’re also former politicians, so it’s hard to run as a change agent in an election where the incumbents are on defense,” Conant said.

Some are not as concerned

Democrats in neighboring congressional districts pointed to redistricting as the reason that potential candidates have yet to declare.

“I’m not concerned. Redistricting is still unfolding in Tallahassee. Savvy potential candidates are monitoring that process and should make a decision soon after,” said U.S. Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz, a former Democratic National Committee chair whose district borders Salazar’s seat in the current map.

“If the maps are competitive — as voters demanded in the Fair Districts Amendment I proudly helped pass — I’m confident that top-tier, high-quality candidates will enter the fray,” she said in an email.

No Democrat has yet formed a campaign committee to challenge Gimenez, the former Miami-Dade mayor who edged out Mucarsel-Powell in 2020. Gimenez campaign spokesman Danny Jativa predicted that the region will have only moved further away from Democrats since Biden took office.

“The voters in Florida’s 26th district have already rejected the Biden and Pelosi agenda once, and now that South Florida’s families are feeling the burden of failed leadership over the last year, the DNC is going to have a difficult time convincing someone to support these failures full time,” Jativa said in a statement.

David Custin, a Miami-Dade political consultant who primarily works with Republicans, said he doesn’t think Democrats have missed their window to find a candidate, but the clock is ticking.

“Anybody they’re going to recruit is going to be someone who can raise money quickly. They’re not going to recruit Joe Schmo,” Custin said. “Within 30 days, we’re all going to have an idea what those lines are going to look like and 30 days from there, they better have some people recruited and if not actually filed they better have some names.”

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