It wasn't that long ago that Inocencia Coto was about the most predictable voter in America. In 2000 she and thousands of other Cuban Americans turned out in overwhelming numbers around Miami to help George W. Bush win the White House. Now 75, Coto is still sashaying to Celia Cruz CDs at the Goodlet Adult Community Center in Hialeah, a Cuban-exile enclave adjoining Miami that votes almost 90% Republican in national elections. But Coto says she's voting for a Democrat this fall. Her new hero is Raul Martinez, who is challenging eight-term incumbent Lincoln Diaz-Balart in the race for U.S. Representative from Florida's 21st Congressional District. Many of her friends say the same thing. "The cost of living, the war, health insurance--too many things are getting out of hand," says Coto, fixing a yellow flower in her hair as Martinez tours the center. "It's time for un cambio--a change."
For the first time in 20 years, Democrats are mounting serious challenges to at least two of Miami's three Republican lawmakers, who often run unopposed. A Bendixen & Associates poll released in July shows Martinez, a popular if controversial former mayor of Hialeah, trailing Diaz-Balart by only 4 points. Nearby, local political veteran Joe Garcia sits just 5 points behind three-term incumbent Mario Diaz-Balart, Lincoln's younger brother. The unexpected tests spell trouble not just for the GOP but also for what has long been the staple of Miami politics: open hostility to the Castro regime in Havana. "These were once considered the safest Republican seats in Florida, if not the country," says political analyst Dario Moreno of Miami's Florida International University (FIU). "But waving the bloody shirt of anti-Castro politics is less effective now."
And if South Florida is beginning to slip from GOP control, the situation elsewhere may be worse. Republican incumbents in Ohio, Virginia and the Southwest are facing unexpected challenges from Democrats in districts that have been safe for a generation or more. These battles come just two years after the Democrats stunned the GOP with a pickup of 30 congressional seats and took control of the House for the first time since 1994. Republicans have already lost three special elections this year in once secure districts in Illinois, Mississippi and Louisiana, and many political experts believe they could lose an additional 10 to 20 seats in November.
But the Miami challenges have caught the GOP off guard. Democratic voter registration in Miami-Dade County, as in other places, is up, and Republican registration is down. Some of the shift stems from elderly voters like Coto, but younger Cuban Americans are restless too. Like their elders, they want to liberate Cuba, but they also want to get by in Miami, where the middle class is shriveling and home foreclosures are soaring. "I'm not running for President of Cuba," says Martinez. "Cuban Americans finally see themselves as part of the wider U.S.A., and they care about other issues."
Florida Democrats are drawing new strength from a growing number of non-Cuban Latinos. Miami's third Cuban-American Representative, 10-term GOP incumbent Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, usually faces token opposition, if any. Her 18th District is still 65% Latino, but it is less than 30% Cuban today. That has emboldened Democrats like her challenger, Colombian-American businesswoman Annette Taddeo, whose constituents worry less about Havana than about immigration, health care and U.S. indifference toward the rest of Latin America.
Still, a likely decisive issue in these races involves Cuba. In 2004, as a gift to conservatives, President Bush tightened restrictions on travel and remittances to the island. Cuban Americans--only those who have immediate family members in Cuba--can now visit just once every three years and send only $300 each quarter. The move backfired: most Miami Cubans oppose the new rules, according to an FIU poll, and they have been particularly unpopular among younger Cuban Americans. That was a big reason Miami computer programmer and lifelong Republican Joe Infante, 47, who has relatives in Cuba he can no longer visit, is now a registered Democrat. The regulations, he says, "have kept Cuban families separated but haven't put a dent in the Cuban regime." The move suggests that leaders of Florida's anti-Castro movement may have lost touch with the region's changing demographics. What would have worked in 1985 to deepen GOP support had the opposite effect in today's more diverse Miami. Says Garcia, sipping a cafÃ© cubano in Little Havana: "Bush succeeded in dividing what was once a monolithic vote for his party."
Critics of the Diaz-Balarts say that clash has been apparent on other issues. Lincoln Diaz-Balart introduced a bill last year to extend benefits of the State Children's Health Insurance Program (SCHIP) to children of legal immigrants. But he and his brother (who are nephews of Fidel Castro's first wife) also helped block a $35 billion SCHIP expansion last December because, they argued, it would have heavily taxed Miami's cigar industry--a rationale that was music to the ears of Miami's Democrats.
Meanwhile, the Miami GOP has seldom faced a foe like Martinez, who can poach voters from the Cuban-exile mother lode in Hialeah, where he was mayor from 1981 to 2005. While many Miami Cubans (including the Diaz-Balarts) left the Democratic Party during the Reagan era, Martinez stayed put. He relied on his popularity as a traditional urban boss to win election five times--even after he was convicted in 1991 on racketeering and extortion charges. The convictions were overturned because of jury misconduct, and he won acquittal in a third trial, but his probity is sure to be the subject of GOP attacks. Blunt-spoken and burly, Martinez, 59, supports the U.S. trade embargo against Cuba but opposes Bush's travel and remittance restrictions.
Republicans dismiss the competition as well as the idea that Miami-Dade's 650,000 Cuban Americans are splitting politically. "We hear that from the so-called experts every two years," says Lincoln Diaz-Balart, 54. "Every other November, we deliver the same results." As ever, the Miami incumbents have much larger war chests than their challengers. But the money gap is narrower because the Dems' fund-raising this year has actually kept pace with, if not outpaced, that of the Republicans. The same is true in other Florida districts, like the 24th, near Orlando, where Democrat Suzanne Kosmas is closing in on incumbent Tom Feeney.
In Hialeah, Martinez serves arroz con pollo to hundreds of elderly voters. "He's got our cariÃ±o, our affection," says Coto. For Martinez, that's a start, but what will count for more in November is the urge for cambio--change.