With Senate Republicans playing defense in multiple high-profile Senate races, GOP leadership is hoping to mount a challenge for the Senate District 37 seat held by Democratic Sen. José Javier Rodríguez.
But four months into Republican challenger Ileana Garcia‘s campaign, it’s unclear whether she has generated enough support — or cash — to put the SD 37 seat in play against a well-funded incumbent.
SD 37 spans portions of Miami-Dade County, including Coral Gables, Key Biscayne, Palmetto Bay and Pinecrest. Republicans seek to turn out voters in the district to reelect Donald Trump and beat back the boogeyman of “socialism,” which Republicans, including Garcia, have repeatedly warned about this cycle.
Sen. Rodríguez and his campaign have pushed back against those jabs. And while he and the Democratic Party are a far cry from socialist dictatorships seen throughout this side of the globe, the “socialist” buzzword has plenty of play in South Florida. The region is home to plenty of Hispanic residents who have been impacted by socialist regimes in Central and South America.
According to 2010 Census data, around 70% of SD 37 residents are Hispanic. Approximately 38% are Cuban, a demographic that tends to lean more conservative than Hispanics as a whole.
Both SD 37 candidates are of Cuban descent.
“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,” said Christian Ulvert, an adviser to Rodríguez’ campaign.
“The values that these brutal dictators espouse have no place in our state or community, and he’s led on that.”
Rodríguez has defended against Garcia’s attacks by attempting to tie her to the hard-line immigration policies of Republican President Trump.
“[Sen. Rodríguez] sent out a flyer with some pretty pathetic things,” Garcia told Florida Politics in late September in response to that offensive. “Like caging kids, arming librarians and said I did not address common sense solutions? I’ve never been in office.”
Garcia has pointed to comments she made to The Atlanta Journal-Constitution in 2016, where she outlined her hope for Trump’s immigration policy.
“If the same people who supported him — like me — get in front of him and say, ‘let’s look into DACA so that innocent children and innocent people don’t get lost in the progress’ and if we continue to be a democracy, I think that anything is possible,” Garcia said. “And I wholeheartedly believe he will be a President for the immigrants.”
That hope has not played out. Trump ramped up the detention of undocumented immigrants, prompting a surge of families being separated. He banned incoming travel from several countries outright — actions that were separate from health measures enacted during the COVID-19 pandemic. Trump also attempted to rescind DACA, though the courts sought to stop those efforts.
Garcia is a Trump administration veteran. She served as deputy press secretary at the Department of Homeland Security under President Trump. During the 2016 campaign, she helped found Latinas For Trump.
Like most major races this cycle, the COVID-19 outbreak is likely to be atop voters’ minds as well.
“I see the people in my area suffering,” Garcia previously told Florida Politics. “Places are closing down. Some of them are not coming back, and it’s concerning.”
She has been reticent to blame Gov. Ron DeSantis for widespread failures in the state’s unemployment system, largely set up under the Rick Scott administration.
“Could he have controlled the unemployment situation? I really don’t think so,” Garcia said. “I think that, after having worked in government in Washington, all that stuff requires work at so many levels.”
But Rodríguez has made the issue a focus following the 2020 Session in mid-March. In early June, he testified in Washington before the Senate Finance Committee, where he called Florida’s unemployment system “slow, unreliable and inept in general.”
He has since blasted D.C. Republicans for blocking House Democrats’ follow-up relief bill.
While the candidates tussle on the issues, one thing is certain: The incumbent has far more cash to help make his arguments stick.
As of Oct. 16, Sen. Rodríguez had just over $440,000 remaining in his war chest. Garcia sat on less than $93,000.
Garcia raised big bucks upon entering the race in early June. But she struggled mightily to keep pace with the Senator’s fundraising machine — an operation that had a sizable head start and had already built up a significant war chest before she even declared for the contest.
The race isn’t a clear-cut lock. Republicans have recently held this seat, with Rodríguez flipping the seat blue in 2016 by about 3 percentage points — or fewer than 6,000 votes. Republican Sen. Miguel Diaz De la Portilla represented the district before that contest.
But it’s likely difficult for a campaign with such a large cash deficit to oust an incumbent in a presidential election year where Democrats are motivated to turn out in droves. Trump is already facing an uphill battle in a Senate district he lost by more than 21 points in his first run. A few surveys have, however, shown some bright spots for the GOP in Miami-Dade County. Those will need to be spot-on for Garcia to flip the result from 2016.
Nonparty affiliated candidate Alex Rodriguez has also qualified but is not actively campaigning.