Can Republicans take back the Senate District 37 seat from a well-funded incumbent?

garcia v rodriguez
Senate GOP leaders are making a play for the seat held by Sen. José Javier Rodríguez.

As of late May, Democratic Sen. José Javier Rodríguez was facing a clear path to reelection in Senate District 37.

The incumbent had built up a sizable war chest after narrowly winning the seat in 2016 by fewer than 6,000 votes. That’s a margin of just over 3 percentage points.

The Democrat succeeded Republican Sen. Miguel Diaz De la Portilla. With Republicans intent on spending big in several open Senate races, it looked like Sen. Rodríguez might coast to a second term.

That changed when Senate GOP leadership announced they were backing Latinas For Trump founder Ileana Garcia in her bid to challenge Sen. Rodríguez. Garcia officially filed for the seat on June 1.

Garcia worked in the Donald Trump administration. She served as the first Hispanic female Deputy Press Secretary at the Department of Homeland Security under President Trump. She previously founded Latinas For Trump.

Non-party affiliated candidate Alex Rodriguez has also since qualified. Rodriguez did not respond to Florida Politics’ request for an interview.

Garcia and Senate GOP leadership appears to be following the President’s lead in labeling her Democratic opponent as a socialist ahead of the contest. That effort began as soon as Garcia joined the race.

“As the daughter of Cuban exiles, Ileana has seen the devastating impacts of the brand of socialism being pedaled by today’s Democrats,” Senate President-Designate Wilton Simpson said.

“We cannot move our state forward by holding back the very people we seek to help.”

Garcia built upon those attacks when she officially filed for the contest.

“The sacrifices made by so many in our community to become free, and make a better life for their families, should be represented by a State Senator who rejects socialism, the oppressive policies of dictatorships and embraces the opportunities Florida and the United States provides,” Garcia said.

The attacks are emblematic of the GOP strategy this cycle and is clearly a bid to appeal to the district’s sizable Hispanic population, many of whom have fled socialist regimes. If Republicans can label the incumbent as “too extreme,” that could peel off enough support to secure a victory.

In a talk with Florida Politics, Garcia doubled down on the charges. “I would like to see the Senator dispute that characterization and then back it up with actions.”

Garcia’s tactic in SD 37 may run into a hurdle, however. Sen. Rodríguez is also of Cuban descent. His father also fled communist Cuba. Christian Ulvert, an advisor to the Rodríguez reelection campaign called Republicans’ attacks “offensive” and made clear the Senator rejects socialist ideology.

“As they come at us with this nonsense about socialism and a false brand with our party, we’re going to have a very direct and authentic response to it,” Ulvert said.

“The values that these brutal dictators espouse have no place in our state or community, and he’s led on that.”

Ulvert pointed to the Senator’s 2020 resolution condemning “the oppression of the Nicaraguan people under President Daniel Ortega,” the socialist leader of that country.

The Senator’s team also plans to highlight recent Republican efforts to curry favor with socialist regimes.

Former U.S. Rep. David Rivera recently won election to the Miami GOP’s executive committee. That’s after the New York Times reported Rivera’s consulting firm had agreed to a $50 million contract with a Venezuelan oil company which was then controlled by socialist leader Nicolás Maduro.

The Miami Herald also recently reported Trump’s former campaign manager, Paul Manafort, sought a meeting with the Castro regime during a 2017 trip to Cuba.

“The Trump administration has put the Republicans on clear defense because his administration’s record and the rhetoric don’t line up,” Ulvert argued.

Garcia disputed the connection of Manafort to the Trump presidency. “Paul Manafort had nothing to do with the President when Paul Manafort was out doing whatever it is that Paul Manafort does.”

The Miami Herald’s report, which cites a Senate Intelligence Committee report, did not conclude Manafort’s trip was approved by or known to the President.

That interplay will likely intensify as the race progresses. Garcia, however, did acknowledge voters have bigger issues on their minds given the ongoing COVID-19 crisis.

“Talking about Venezuela right now and talking about Cuba is the least of our problems,” Garcia said.

“I see the people in my area suffering. Places are closing down. Some of them are not coming back and it’s concerning.”

Sen. Rodríguez made several pushes on that very issue in the past several months. He joined Democrats to lobby Gov. Ron DeSantis to put out a statewide stay-at-home order in March. DeSantis eventually did so in early April.

In mid-April, Sen. Rodríguez also urged officials and voters to prepare for an increase in mail voting. That’s a topic which has garnered national attention in recent weeks.

The issue on which Sen. Rodríguez arguably focused the most is the state’s struggle with its unemployment system.

For months, Democrats hammered DeSantis for the state’s delays in paying out those claims. In early June, Sen. Rodríguez testified in Washington before the Senate Finance Committee where he labeled Florida’s unemployment system “slow, unreliable and inept in general.”

Sen. Rodríguez released two ads on the topic Thursday. “Republican leadership in Tallahassee’s refusal to act during this pandemic has left far too many Floridians on their own at a time of crisis for so many families,” he said.

“We’re in a deep economic crisis where experience matters,” Ulvert added.

Garcia argued the Governor didn’t deserve full blame for the failures of the unemployment system, which was largely set up under the Rick Scott administration.

“Could he have controlled the unemployment situation? I really don’t think so,” Garcia said of DeSantis. “I think that, after having worked in government in Washington, all that stuff requires work at so many levels.”

Sen. Rodríguez has been vocal about providing relief to families affected by the pandemic. Garcia said her focus would be on small businesses.

“What are we going to do to help them moving forward?” she asked, arguing the federal Paycheck Protection Program didn’t do enough for businesses looking for help.

Several other issues would likely be at the forefront during the tenure earned by November’s winner.

Sen. Rodríguez has long been an advocate to address climate change. He’s donned rain boots during Session to bring attention to the issue and has filed several bills aiming at helping his district, which covers parts of Miami-Dade County including Coral Gables, Key Biscayne, Palmetto Bay and Pinecrest.

Garcia says she “wasn’t impressed by his record,” though did credit the Senator for pushing through a measure requiring publicly-funded contractors to study environmental effects before building near the coast.

“Toward the end of Session, he was able to get something across where he got DeSantis’ cooperation regarding climate change, which I think is good,” Garcia conceded.

Overall, Garcia argued Rodríguez focused on that issue at the expense of constituents’ other concerns. She said school choice efforts and reforms to the health care system would be among her focuses in the Legislature.

“Like everything, there should be a variety,” Garcia said of the school choice issue. “There should be public school, charter school, school choice in general. The power should not be in the government. The power should be given back to the people to make decisions.”

As to health care, Garcia argued the system “needs to totally and completely be revamped, starting with affordability. I think that everybody should have it but everybody should be able to pay for it.”

She added a critique of undocumented immigrants being a burden on the country’s health care system.

“Should I be responsible for someone’s health insurance that just came into the country and didn’t do it in a proper manner? I don’t think I should have to work extra hours or I should have my medical benefits increased.”

Undocumented immigrants aren’t eligible to access the Marketplace set up under the Affordable Care Act. Federal tax money is also barred from funding their health costs. However, some analysts argue emergency care costs and other expenditures for those immigrants can impact the budget.

Will her message register with SD 37 constituents? Or can Sen. Rodríguez build on his victory in 2016 in a district where Democrats have a nearly 6-point advantage over Republicans in voter registration?

“Every race is treated with every level of seriousness because you earn votes from the voters, right?” Ulvert said. “You don’t take it for granted and the Senator has done that every election he’s been on the ballot.”

Still, Ulvert sounded confident the Senator message would resonate with voters. “This is a district that continues to align with Democratic values.”

Ryan Nicol

Ryan Nicol covers news out of South Florida for Florida Politics. Ryan is a native Floridian who attended undergrad at Nova Southeastern University before moving on to law school at Florida State. After graduating with a law degree he moved into the news industry, working in TV News as a writer and producer, along with some freelance writing work. If you'd like to contact him, send an email to [email protected].


  • Andy madtes

    August 31, 2020 at 6:09 am

    Labeling democrats as socialist is a joke. The president loves the dictator. North Korea where he actually made a big deal with Kim about setting foot in a murderous regimes country. He loves Putin and that other criminal from turkey. Trump tries to silence the press, CIA and FBI just like dictators.
    JJR is a solid senator and could be governor One day or AG.
    He will win this seat because the people of that district know him and and trust him. His record speaks for itself.
    Unfortunately his opponent does not realize she is being used so democrats have to tie up money and have less resources for other races. It won’t work.
    It’s disgusting that republicans have chosen to call democrats socialist. To refer to your fellow Americans as such is a low life political tactic.
    But then again the republicans can’t talk about the issues that matter to ordinary Americans like health care retirement and decent wages and policies that bring families together. Nope the republicans just spew hate and divisive rhetoric. Lincoln Reagan and Bush are rolling over in their graves

    • John McMahon

      September 13, 2020 at 4:11 pm

      Nice try Karl Marx! Your party’s puppet master Global socialist murderer George Soros is laughing at YOU right now for your Wimpy snowflake FAKE NEWS propaganda babble against the Republican (REAL) Americans. Come on be a real man like Ocasio Cortex the genius of the sheep people who admits she’s a little commie socialist who plans on banning ALL jets and rebuilding NYC with tax dollars ! Don’t forget BERNIE THE cadaver who calls himself a socialist, sucking the blood out of over taxed working people and shipping all our jobs to Asia for Chinese slave masters to become wealthy. Republican Abraham Lincoln destroyed your partys white supremacist slave masters who deliberately kidnapped and executed black folks to become wealthy . Learn world history and the destruction of nations under
      slavery- socialism before you speak!

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