Election 2020

Ros-Lehtinen Retirement Opens Up 'Great Food Fight' Race in Blue District

Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-Fla.) speaks to visiting students from North Beach Elementary School in Miami Beach, Fla., on May 26, 2016, on Capitol Hill. (AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite)

WASHINGTON — A Florida congressional retirement could put a longtime GOP seat back in Democrats’ hands.

Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-Fla.), the former chairwoman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee who has served in Congress since 1989, won her Miami-Dade County district by 10 points last fall while President Trump lost by 20 points there.

She told the Miami Herald Sunday that she would have won by an even greater margin in 2018.

“There was no epiphany. There was no moment, nothing that has happened that I’ve said, “I’ve got to move on,’” Ros-Lehtinen said. “It was just a realization that I could keep getting elected — but it’s not about getting elected.”

Both parties expressed confidence in their chances at winning her seat.

“It’s been clear for years that the Republican party was out of step with the values of Miami families, and Ileana Ros-Lehtinen’s retirement announcement is testament to the fact she recognized how wide that gap had grown,” Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee spokesman Cole Leiter said. “As one of the most Democratic districts held by a Republican representative, this district was always going to be competitive. Now it is all but guaranteed to be won by a Democrat who will finally provide the hard working people who live there the representation they deserve.”

Leiter predicted: “As more vulnerable Republicans recognize the distance between their party and their districts, this retirement could well be the first of many.”

National Republican Congressional Committee Chairman Steve Stivers (R-Ohio) praised Ros-Lehtinen as “simply a force of nature” and noted “her tireless work ethic was only matched by her charismatic personality.”

“She represented her South Florida district well and she will be dearly missed in Washington. I wish her and her family the best,” Stivers added. “I am confident we will keep this seat red in 2018.”

Ros-Lehtinen, 64, was born in Havana and immigrated to the United States at age 7; Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) was a former intern in her congressional office. Her policies have been solidly against socialist and communist regimes and human rights abusers, and pro-immigration as well as pro-Israel. The mother of a transgender son, she’s one of two Republicans in the Congressional LGBT Equality Caucus.

She was the first Hispanic woman elected to Congress and the first Cuban-American.

Ros-Lehtinen has also been critical of the Trump administration, and has voted with the White House position 72 percent of the time.

Leaving Congress, though, was not about Trump, she told the Herald. “I’ve served under all kinds of different dynamics in all these years that I’ve been in office here,” she said. “Though I don’t agree with many, if not most, positions of President Trump… it’s not been part of the calculation of retiring.”

Democratic businessman Scott Fuhrman, who unsuccessfully tried to unseat Ros-Lehtinen last year, said he’ll be running again.

A possible GOP contender for the seat is Lt. Gov. Carlos López-Cantera, who dropped out of the Senate race last year to clear the way for Sen. Marco Rubio’s (R-Fla.) re-election after the presidential candidate failed to secure the Republican nomination.

Ros-Lehtinen said at a press conference today that the race to replace her is “going to be a great food fight — I can’t wait to watch from the sidelines.”

“I have always won with ticket-splitters: people who are registered Democrats but are willing to vote for me,” she said. “Either party can win. And more districts should be that way.”