Cuba issue vs. the power of incumbency
BY MYRIAM MARQUEZ
Standing in front of the big screen in the Kendall sports bar, Democrat Joe Garcia congratulated U.S. Rep. Mario Diaz-Balart for a hard-fought win, as the image of Republican John McCain giving his concession speech flickered behind him.
It was election night, and the crowd of college students, black activists and white and Hispanic supporters had been counting on Garcia's win in what polls showed as a nail-biter. This was supposed to be the year that tested Cuban-American voters' fierce allegiance to the GOP. Yet all three Cuban-American incumbents in Congress won handily even as Democrat Barack Obama made inroads among younger Cuban Americans and seized the non-Cuban Hispanic vote statewide.
Did the Cuba issue really fall from the political radar as some pollsters told us?
Or have Cuban Americans not budged an inch, as the Republican winners now tell us?
The answer is more nuanced.
In fact, Garcia's loss -- by 6 percentage points in a district with about 25 percent Cuban Americans -- has more to do with non-Cuban whites and Hispanics and blacks in his district, which covers Southwest Miami-Dade and a chunk of Collier County. Thousands embraced Obama but didn't bother to vote in that congressional race.
Nicaraguan and Venezuelan voters also delivered for the Republicans. A Bendixen & Associates exit poll showed they voted for McCain. Like the Cubans, they fled Marxist regimes and fear promises of change will mean spreading the misery around.
No question that the incumbents' tough stand on communist Cuba was instrumental in getting the elderly exiles out to vote. They delivered for both Diaz-Balart brothers and Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, whose diverse district stretching from Key West to Miami Beach was never at risk.
U.S. Rep. Lincoln Diaz-Balart and former Hialeah Mayor Raul Martinez had a titanic slugfest filled with dirty GOP campaign ads that focused on Martinez's conviction on corruption charges, later overturned on appeal.
Voters in Democrat-rich Broward County seemed unable to decide. Many simply didn't vote for either. The undervotes resulted in Democrat Martinez getting only a few hundred more votes than Diaz-Balart, who spent three months walking the southern Broward portion of his district.
Martinez, a hugely popular mayor in heavily Cuban blue-collar Hialeah for years, won in only one precinct in his ''city of progress.'' Even if many of the voters in Hialeah are more recent arrivals who would prefer to see Bush administration travel restrictions lifted to visit family they left behind, the majority chose Lincoln, one of the architects of the restrictions. But many split their vote, handing the presidency to Obama, who has promised to ease those limits on travel and remittances.
Florida International University professor Dario Moreno, whose preelection polls on the congressional races proved more prescient than any santero's seashell clairvoyance, said the results prove the power of incumbency.
He thinks Garcia lost in the tightest of the three races because the Democrat didn't do enough on Miami Cuban radio to make his case. ``He didn't try to peel off Cuban votes from Mario.''
Mario's district, which has seen a seismic shift in voter registration that has lost about 20,000 Republican voters, still managed to deliver. Bottom line, said Moreno: ``People underestimate how hard it is to unseat an incumbent.''
Nor can we underestimate the passion and pain of exile.