Miami Herald: How Biden helped Democrats win the Miami-Dade mayoral race, and reset county politics

Joe Biden’s performance in Miami-Dade on Tuesday night left Democrats feeling ill. Daniella Levine Cava’s lopsided win in the county mayoral race left Democrats cheering.

Despite the opposite reactions, both candidates took roughly the same share of votes in Miami-Dade — a measure of the new overlap in presidential politics and county elections.

Biden, a former vice president from Delaware who rarely visited Miami, won 53% of the county’s vote to Donald Trump’s 46%. Levine Cava, a two-term commissioner from Palmetto Bay who speaks Spanish, won 54% of the county’s vote to fellow commissioner Esteban “Steve” Bovo Jr.’s 46%.

The twin margins help illustrate why political consultants and pollsters think the Levine Cava win marks a new era in county politics for Miami-Dade, where there are 50% more registered Democrats than Republicans.

Democrats see gains in ditching the formal “nonpartisan” status of local races in favor of aligning with a presidential candidate sure to post healthy margins in Miami-Dade even if the votes fall short of turning Florida blue in the Electoral College.

“The mayor’s race was defined along partisan lines,” said Fernand Amandi, a Democratic pollster in Coconut Grove who released an October survey showing a 10-point Levine Cava lead thanks to strong support from Democrats. “We can see that in the final results.”

BOVO AND TRUMP CARRIED SAME VOTE SHARE

Democrats labeled Miami-Dade as one of the biggest letdowns in the country after Biden managed just an 85,000vote advantage over President Donald Trump. Four years earlier, Hillary Clinton won the county by nearly 300,000 votes.

There was a mayoral race then, too, but Democrats didn’t even contest the non-partisan race in 2016. The incumbent, Republican Carlos Gimenez, faced challenger Raquel Regalado, also a Republican, and beat her by 12 points.

Trump’s surprising strength in Miami-Dade felled two Democratic congressional incumbents: Rep. Donna Shalala in Florida’s 27th Congressional District, and Rep. Debbie Mucarsel-Powell, who lost to Gimenez. The Levine Cava win was an obvious bright spot for Democrats. The last Democrat to hold the office was Alex Penelas, who won reelection in 2000 in a summer primary before that year’s presidential election.

Tuesday brought another win for Democrats: the defeat of a charter amendment allowing non-partisan races for sheriff, elections supervisor and other county posts Florida requires to shift to elected positions in 2024.

The Democratic Party opposed the measure, and its defeat sets up officially partisan races that would overlap with the next presidential election in a county where Democrats account for about 40% of registered voters.

At an event outside her home precinct in Palmetto Bay, Levine Cava suggested she voted for the measure when asked at a press conference. “I’m in favor of nonpartisan elections,” she said at a lectern that included her campaign placard and one for Biden.

“This is not the first time that people know the party of their candidates. And we’re in a hyper-partisan presidential election. The election will pass, and we’ll go back to business as usual, which is taking care of our community and not worrying about party.”

Nelson Diaz, chairman of Miami-Dade’s Republican Party, said the presidential race let Miami-Dade Democrats boost votes down the ballot, too.

“Democrats had so much money. They could put someone at every polling place,” he said, marveling at the food trucks and dancers hired to build excitement outside voting sites. “They were basically paying people to vote with ice cream and pizza.”

Levine Cava spent her first full day as mayor-elect with city mayors of both parties and highlighting a message of cooperation. “Collaboration is my middle name,” she said, standing with Miami Beach Mayor Dan Gelber, a Democrat, and Miami Mayor Francis Suarez, a Republican.

Earlier in the day, she joined Gelber for a drive-up food giveaway in Miami Beach, and the line of cars waiting for canned beans and rice stretched for blocks. “I am honestly in despair about what is happening here,” she said of economic woes. She called the scene more “motivation to come up with a solution.”

When she takes office Nov. 17, she’ll have a commission split evenly between Republicans and Democrats. Of the four contested races Tuesday, three Democrats won: Miami Commissioner Keon Hardemon in District 3, incumbent Eileen Higgins in District 5, and Rep. Kionne McGhee, the outgoing Democratic leader of the Florida House, in District 9. (Levine Cava’s election leaves her 13th seat vacant until the new commission either appoints a replacement or holds a special election.)

Regalado was the exception in District 7, where vote counting finished with her ahead by more than 1,000 votes over Cindy Lerner, a Democrat and former mayor of Pinecrest.

THE ROLE OF TRUMP IN THE MAYORAL RACE

Both candidates for Miami-Dade mayor leaned on their partisan support. Bovo arranged to greet Trump at least twice at the county-owned Miami International Airport. He sent a photo of them together to voters ahead of the August non-partisan primary that handed Bovo a narrow first-place finish as the only Republican officeholder in the six-person field.

Bovo campaigned more for independents in the fall general election, and hoped to peel away Hispanic Democrats by trying to portray Levine Cava as a radical liberal.

Precinct data analyzed by the Miami Herald show both candidates performing well with their parties: Bovo took 67% of the vote in the 135 precincts with at least 40% registered Republicans; and Levine Cava took 71% of the vote in the precincts with 40% Democrats.

A look at the details from Tuesday’s results show the mayoral contest unfolding along the county’s partisan divides, too. Bovo took 66% of the vote in Miami Lakes, the county’s most Republican municipality.

Levine Cava dominated in Miami Gardens, the largest Black-majority city in Florida and a Democratic stronghold. She received 83% of the vote there.

In the more affluent enclaves of Miami-Dade, where party registration splits are more even, Levine Cava enjoyed a small edge. She won 53% of the vote in Key Biscayne and 52% in Coral Gables.

Comparing the results to the presidential election highlights the similar trajectories for both contests. In Miami, the county’s largest city, Biden and Levine Cava both took 59% of the vote. Bovo took 41% and Trump 40%.

As the District 13 county commissioner, Bovo represents Hialeah, and the Cuban American served on the city council there for 10 years.

He swamped Levine Cava in that city, which is also at the heart of the county’s Cuban-American community, taking 68% of the vote. Bovo’s Hialeah ties didn’t give him much of an edge over the leader of his party. Trump won 67% of the Hialeah vote.

There were some glaring exceptions among the county’s 34 municipalities.

Levine Cava out-performed Biden in Doral, where independents make up the largest chunk of the electorate and Trump owns a golf resort. The mayor-elect received 53% of the vote to Biden’s 49%.

Trump dominated in the wealthy enclave of Indian Creek, taking 79% of the 53 votes cast in a waterfront village whose slogan is “The World’s Most Exclusive Municipality.” Bovo only got about 53% of the vote there.

TRUMP-CAVA VOTERS IN AVENTURA

In Aventura, Levine Cava enjoyed the largest margin of the four, with 63% of the vote in the coastal city with one of the county’s larger Jewish populations. Along with being the first woman to lead the county, Levine Cava also will become the first mayor of Jewish faith.

Biden won 52% of Aventura’s presidential vote to Trump’s 47%. Amandi said the results reflect trends Democrats saw of Trump’s making inroads with Jewish voters in 2020. Bovo got just 37% of the vote in Aventura.

“Clearly there were voters in Aventura who voted for Trump, and then voted for the Jewish candidate in Levine Cava,” Amandi said.

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