Ros-Lehtinen, Diaz-Balarts keep seats in Congress
BY LESLEY CLARK, LARRY LEBOWITZ AND ALFONSO CHARDY
Miami's three Cuban-American congressional Republicans staved off the most serious challenges of their careers Tuesday, crushing Democratic hopes of making major inroads in the traditionally Republican Hispanic community.
Incumbent Reps. Lincoln Diaz-Balart and Ileana Ros-Lehtinen declared victory late Tuesday, each garnering 58 to 42 percent margins, with a handful of precincts yet to be counted in Miami-Dade. Rep. Mario Diaz-Balart carved out a narrower, four-point lead over Joe Garcia, the former Miami-Dade Democratic Party chairman who helped orchestrate the attempt to shatter the Cuban-American Republican dynasty.
Voters rejected Democratic arguments that the Republicans were out of touch with their districts, unresponsive on the economy and too tied to President Bush.
In a speech to supporters, a jubilant Lincoln Diaz-Balart -- who defeated former Hialeah Mayor Raul Martinez -- vowed to spend the next two years in Washington working to create jobs, foster energy independence and protect human rights "here and abroad, especially for our brothers who are enslaved 90 miles away.''
Ros-Lehtinen acknowledged the risky environment Republicans had faced, citing Bush's sinking polls numbers, an unpopular war, a slumping economy and an ``Obama wave.''
''This could have been the perfect storm,'' Ros-Lehtinen told her cheering supporters. ``It had all the makings of me going down. If I can make it in this election, I can make it in any election.''
Mario Diaz-Balart's district, which is far less Cuban-American than the other two, made for a tougher fight, with he and Garcia battling for voters still in line two hours after the polls closed.
Diaz-Balart took the stage with his wife, Tia, just before midnight to thank his backers.
''I feel so empowered by your support by the way you turned out despite millions of dollars against us,'' Diaz-Balart said. "It just strengthens my resolve to continue working for you. This victory is not mine. This victory is yours.''
Garcia, though, claimed a partial victory, noting that all three Democrats waged credible campaigns, forcing incumbents unaccustomed to serious challenges to raise money and campaign door-to-door in their districts.
''If anyone had said last year that three Democratic challengers would give the Republican incumbents such a fight, no one would have believed it,'' Garcia said.
Voters said they were sticking with a known quantity.
''They know Miami,'' voter Maria Perez, 44, said of the brothers as she cast a vote for Mario Diaz-Balart. ``They know what we are made of and what it takes to keep Miami and South Florida where it needs to be.''
Sounding defeated but never officially conceding, Raul Martinez, the charismatic former mayor of Hialeah, told supporters, ''We did the maximum that could be done, but one could not achieve what one wanted.'' It was the first time he lost an election in his three-decade political career.
The effort to oust the three Miami Republicans attracted widespread attention, and by the end of the campaign, national Republicans had spent more money to defend Lincoln Diaz-Balart -- $1.6 million -- than any other Republican in the country.
Lincoln Diaz-Balart waged an expensive and aggressive ad campaign to define Martinez, running ads that dredged up Martinez's 1990 corruption convictions and hitting Spanish-language radio to question his commitment to U.S.-Cuba policy. The convictions were overturned on appeal.
Though South Florida's record home foreclosure numbers and soaring jobless rates relegated discussion of Cuba to the sidelines, the incumbents used the friendly platform of Spanish-language radio to warn darkly that electing the Democrats would suggest to Washington and Cuba that after four decades, the community's staunch support for tough U.S. policy against Cuba is eroding.
The warnings hit home with some voters who said they agreed with the Diaz-Balart's hard-line stance against Cuba.
''I feel strongly that [Lincoln's] been doing a good job up there in Washington as far as the boycott of Cuba is concerned,'' said Yanet Tabares, a 34-year-old Hialeah art teacher.
The Lincoln Diaz-Balart and Raul Martinez contest in particular devolved into a slugfest. The pair sniped at each other during rare joint appearances, accusing each other of corruption and wrongdoing.
All three Democrats had hoped to crest an Obama wave to victory, but Lincoln Diaz-Balart's negative ads -- which began airing in August as Martinez was enjoying the national stage at the Democratic National Convention -- may have resonated with too many voters.
''I voted for Obama because I want change, but I voted for Lincoln Diaz-Balart,'' said Giovanni Nazario, 20, a graphic designer from Pembroke Pines. "He's currently in office and I think he's done a good job. Plus, I'm worried about Raul Martinez.''
The Diaz-Balarts, both staunch anti-Communists, are descendants of a family that has defined U.S.-Cuba policy for decades and dominated politics in Miami, Havana and Washington for a half-century.
Democrats had argued that many younger Cuban-Americans are more worried about holding on to their jobs than toppling the Castro brothers, and observers pegged the race as a referendum on whether the GOP hold on the once-reliably Republican voting block is slipping.
Though the three Democratic challengers, like the three Republicans, back the economic embargo against Cuba, they supported lifting tougher travel and remittance restrictions imposed in 2004.
Taddeo's bid against Ros-Lehtinen was relatively tame. A tireless campaigner, the political newcomer garnered support from the likes of Hillary Clinton and Nancy Pelosi but had a difficult time gaining traction against the gregarious incumbent.
Miami Herald staff writers Adam Beasley, Alfonso Chardy, Elaine DeValle, Jennifer Lebovich, Patricia Mazzei, Michael Vasquez and Luisa Yanez contributed to this report.