As Democrats inch closer to having real power in the Florida Senate for the first time in nearly three decades, political leaders and donor checkbooks are focused on a South Florida swing seat.
“It’s no secret that District 39 is the top battleground as Senate Democrats continue on the path to the majority in Florida,” incoming Senate Democratic Leader Gary Farmer said last year, framing the race’s importance early in the election cycle.
Now, with qualifying finished and slightly more than four months until the November election, the battle in Senate District 39 is on pace to become one of the most heavily contested and expensive legislative races of the year.
The race in Monroe County and part of Miami-Dade County features two state representatives, Democrat Javier Fernandez and Republican Ana Maria Rodriguez, both of whom were recruited by their state parties and have received hundreds of thousands of dollars in help.
Fernandez, however, will first have to win an August primary against Daniel Horton Diaz, a former district chief of staff for U.S. Rep. Debbie Mucarsel-Powell, D-Fla. Celso Alfonso, who has no party affiliation, also qualified for the race before a June 12 deadline.
The race is being closely watched because it is a toss-up in a district that Democrats would like to capture as they try to ultimately regain control of the Senate. Sen. Anitere Flores, R-Miami, cannot run for reelection in the district this year because of term limits.
Democrats, who lost control of the Senate in the early 1990s, need to flip three seats to gain a 20-20 split of the upper chamber, which could be a longshot this year.
Senate Republican leaders are fiercely defending their majority and had pumped more than $200,000 into Rodriguez’ campaign as of June 12.
The race is expected to be heavily impacted by the presidential race between Republican President Donald Trump and presumptive Democratic nominee Joe Biden, the top race in an election cycle dominated by news of the coronavirus pandemic.
Trump lost in the Hispanic-majority district by 10 points in 2016 to Democrat Hillary Clinton, even though he won Florida. Fernandez’ campaign is counting on a similar dynamic for the upcoming election.
“We can be fairly certain Joe Biden will win (the district) just like Clinton and Obama, but the real challenge of this race is making sure the disaffected Republicans who back Biden at the top of the ticket also back Javier Fernandez for state Senate,” said Dan Newman, a veteran Democratic consultant and Fernandez adviser.
“That’s the whole ballgame,” he added.
Fernandez said he intends to work with Republicans in Tallahassee, if elected in November.
“While I have been criticized by some Democrats for supporting Republicans in the past, I think we need good people on both sides of the aisle whose first objective is to work and to advance solutions to the key problems facing our state,” Fernandez, of South Miami, told The News Service of Florida in an interview Monday.
Rodriguez, of Doral, said that if elected she will “serve everyone in the district, regardless of who voted for” her. But she emphasized that most people in her district can agree on “clean water and low taxes.”
“I am a conservative in the sense that I am fiscally conservative.
I don’t believe in having a huge government.
I don’t think the government's role is to have tentacles in every aspect of everyone’s life,” Rodriguez said in a phone interview Monday.
But just like almost every competitive race in the country, a larger dynamic will likely influence their election: Trump.
The president hit a nerve in the Senate district when he told news site Axios on Sunday that he would consider meeting with Venezuela leader Nicolas Maduro, a hated political figure among many voters in South Florida.
The president, who on Monday backtracked his comments via Twitter, also expressed ambivalence about a 2019 decision to recognize Venezuela opposition leader Juan Guaido as the country’s legitimate leader, according to Axios.
Fernandez, whose family fled Cuba, said he hopes Republicans find the “courage to break with the president” in his comments about Maduro. But he also wants Republicans to stop branding Democrats as socialists, saying it is an “insult” to him personally.
“I take it very personally because I lived the same experience as Ana Maria Rodriguez and other Republican have with my family having to leave everything behind and rebuild our lives.
I don’t have any sympathy for (former Cuban President Fidel) Castro and Maduro,” Fernandez said.
Rodriguez, however, defended the president and noted his administration has been pushing to oust Maduro.
“I think his comments may have been taken out of context,” she said.
“I don’t talk to the president, so I don’t know exactly what is in his mind. But if I had to interpret his comments, I would say that he wants to get a resolution one way or another.”
Trump has not been the only disruption to the race. The coronavirus pandemic has also been a blow to the basic mechanics of political campaigns.
For example, candidates had to briefly pump the breaks on fundraising events and have been unable to knock on doors or schmooze with supporters in person as much as they would like.
“Trying to engage voters using Zoom and other problems has been difficult,” Fernandez said. “We’re going to have to probably spend more money and raise more money to do more paid communications, radio, TV and also paid digital and mail to get out word out there.”
Despite the health emergency, Rodriguez and Fernandez were able to raise thousands of dollars between March and June to build robust war chests.
Fernandez had a combined $320,506 on hand between his campaign and political action committee, Florida Future, as of mid-June, according to campaign finance records. Rodriguez had piled $492,189 in the bank, records show.
The Democratic and Republican Senate campaign arms have also kicked in $123,042 and $211,584, respectively, to help pay for polling, research and campaign staff for their recruited candidates, records show.