The GOP's inability to find top-shelf candidates to run for Ileana Ros-Lehtinen's U.S. House seat has some Republicans ready to write off the race and shift money and attention to more winnable contests.
The seat that encompasses Little Havana, most of downtown Miami and Miami Beach is now considered unwinnable by some Republicans in Congress and fundraisers who could infuse millions into a competitive congressional race, according to interviews with high-ranking GOP officials and potential donors. Others are slightly more hopeful but caution that a Republican path to victory is narrow, especially in an environment where President Donald Trump's approval ratings remain low and Republicans brace for a potential Democratic wave in 2018.
Keeping Ros-Lehtinen's seat was always going to be a challenge for Republicans after the longtime Miami congresswoman announced her retirement in May. Republicans couldn't draw top-tier recruits, such as Florida Lt. Gov. Carlos López-Cantera; one announced candidate made national news for claiming to have boarded a spaceship with aliens; fundraising has lagged; and one of the top GOP candidates recently left the race.
"The seat is now going to go to the Democrats," said Raquel Regalado, a former Miami-Dade school board member and candidate for Miami-Dade mayor who recently announced she was dropping out of the Republican race to replace Ros-Lehtinen. "I think I was the only moderate who could have fought that fight for a bunch of different reasons. I don't think you're going to see a large GOP financial investment. They're looking for a moderate candidate, but I don't think they're going to find one."
One Republican member of Congress rolled his eyes and sighed when asked about the GOP's chances in the district. Five Republicans, including members of Congress, staffers and fundraisers who said the seat is not winnable, requested anonymity to discuss their own party candidly.
Ros-Lehtinen, a political veteran who knows the Miami scene well, is doing her part to keep the seat in Republican hands.
"They have to spend in my district. I don't want national groups to think it's not winnable," she said. "They've got to be all in. I will beat down their doors if they take my district and write it off."
Ros-Lehtinen is talking to any Republican who might be willing to step up. She personally met with Spanish-language TV journalist Maria Elvira Salazar at a Cuban restaurant in South Miami in an effort to drum up more competition in the primary.
"The district is totally winnable for the right candidate," Ros-Lehtinen said. "She could be the right candidate."
But Salazar, like many other names bandied about in Miami Republican circles, demurred when asked if she'll run.
"I am a news reporter, not a news maker," Salazar said in an email. "It's an honor that over the years both parties have approached me to consider running for office. My plans are to continue being a TV journalist — until God and the audience give me that opportunity."