Miami-Dade County --- long the epicenter of Florida's bloodiest political battles - is hosting three key state Senate races whose outcomes could help reshape the chamber.
The Senate seats are up for grabs for the first time since a fresh map went into effect this year, the result of a legal fight over the anti-gerrymandering "Fair Districts" standards approved by Florida voters in 2010.
The new Senate boundaries have injected a competitive element into the three Miami-Dade races that, until now, were seats comfortably held by two Republicans and a Democrat, with little risk of upsetting the status quo.
But now, incumbent Republican Sens. Miguel Diaz de la Portilla and Anitere Flores, along with incumbent Democrat Dwight Bullard, are engaged in critical contests targeted by the chamber's party leaders as top priorities for 2016.
"Miami-Dade arguably has the three most important races in the Senate happening here, and every one of them is going to be a nail biter," said state Rep. Jose Felix Diaz, a Miami Republican who in 2010 ousted former state Rep. Ana Rivas Logan, a Republican-turned-Democrat who is seriously considering a primary bid against Bullard.
Diaz de la Portilla v. Rodriguez
After qualifying for the races ends June 24, "you'll start to see at a high level, on both sides of the aisle, typical Miami, no-holds-barred, bloody, very tough campaigning," Diaz predicted.
In what is considered by many the marquee Senate race this year, Diaz de la Portilla is running against Democratic state Rep. Jose Javier Rodriguez, a Harvard-educated lawyer who joined the Legislature by defeating the senator's brother, Alex, in 2012
The Diaz de la Portillas are a Miami political institution, and Miguel Diaz de la Portilla served on the county commission in the 1990s.
Diaz de la Portilla's new District 37 is Democratic-performing and completely contains Rodriguez's current House district.
The moderate Republican, who is chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, was instrumental this year in blocking controversial legislation --- including a measure that would have allowed people with concealed-weapons licenses to carry guns on college campuses. He's banking on his voting record in the Legislature and on the county commission to carry him to victory in the fall.
"I have a proven track record of being an independent thinker and doing the right thing," Diaz de la Portilla said in a telephone interview.
Diaz de la Portilla is also an ally of Sen. Jack Latvala, a Clearwater Republican who bowed out of a heated race for Senate president against Joe Negron but who, as the incoming Senate budget chief, remains a powerful force in the chamber.
Two years after being elected to the House, Rodriguez was targeted in his 2014 reelection bid by Republicans and "outspent by a lot," the Democrat recalled.
"I had the entire Republican establishment campaigning openly against me," he said. "There's a reason why this race is so important to me, and to others. This election year is when we will see the results of Fair Districts. ... This is the year where we will see if a moderate Senate is the result of fairer districts."
Rodriguez is "the future face of the party, and particularly the future face of what Hispanics in South Florida and Hispanics in the Democratic Party look like," according to incoming Senate Minority Leader Oscar Braynon, D-Miami Gardens.
The District Demographics
The revamped district is considered a bellwether for Democrats --- now outnumbered 26-14 in the Senate --- to regain footing in the chamber. It's split almost evenly between Democrats, Republicans and independent voters and went for President Barack Obama in 2012 and former Gov. Charlie Crist two years ago in Crist's Democratic bid to return to the governor's mansion.
"Miami-Dade is becoming the battleground for 2016, and, truly, beyond," said Christian Ulvert, a consultant and former political director for the Florida Democratic Party.
Democrats are relying on demographics, which show a growing number of progressives, along with more left-leaning Hispanic and independent voters, to take over Diaz de la Portilla's seat and to hold onto Bullard's redrawn seat in Senate District 40.
For Negron, a Stuart Republican who will take over as Senate president after the November elections, getting Diaz de la Portilla reelected is a "co-number one priority" --- along with protecting Flores.
Flores is facing off in Senate District 39 against Andrew Korge, whose father, Chris, is a major Hillary Clinton supporter and Democratic fundraiser. The race, expected to be the most expensive legislative contest this year, has already spawned bitter mailers and a near-steady influx of emails from both sides.
"Miami is definitely the focus of the political universe," Negron told The News Service of Florida.
Flores' new district is also almost split between Republicans, Democrats and independents and favored Obama in 2012.
Senate Democrats, meanwhile, are focused on keeping District 40 blue, as state Rep. Frank Artiles, R-Miami, tries to peel away the seat for Republicans. But Bullard might be a casualty of the new map.
Bullard, elected to the Senate in 2012, took over the seat formerly held by his mother, Larcenia, who served two decades in the Legislature. Prior to his election to the Senate, Dwight Bullard served in the House in the same seat once held by both his mother and his father.
Bullard is almost certain to face a difficult primary in the new district, which performed well for Obama in 2012 and has a Hispanic voting age population of nearly 75 percent.
"Right now, I'm leaning yes," Logan, an assistant high school principal who switched her party registration to Democrat two years ago, said this week when asked if she plans to jump into the District 40 race. "Giving the seat to someone like Artiles turns my stomach."
Artiles --- who drew headlines last year when he sponsored a bill that would have banned transgender people from using bathrooms that don't match the gender of their birth --- has dwarfed Bullard's fundraising. Privately, Democrats are concerned that Bullard, who also serves as chairman of the county Democratic Party, won't be able to win in a district dominated by Hispanics.
But Bullard, who is black, has refused to drop out.
"It's almost a surreal moment in time for me," Bullard said. "My viewpoint is that I'm working for the best interests of the party to defend a Democratic seat and bring those values back to the Florida Senate. I just hope leadership comes to its senses and realizes that that's what we need to do, defend on principles and values and not get caught up in polling data."