Democrats still looking for Rivera challenger

The former mayor of Miami-Dade County all but took himself out of the running for the Southeast Florida congressional seat currently held by embattled U.S. Rep. David Rivera, leaving Democrats without an obvious candidate in a prime pick-up opportunity.

"It's highly unlikely that I'm going to run," Alex Penelas told the News Service Tuesday.

Penelas, a Cuban-American Democrat, said he wanted to remain home to help his wife raise their two sons and a young daughter.

"I'd love to do it," Penelas said. "I think I'd be a great congressman. ... But realities are realities."

He added that he was leaving a small chance open that he would run for the seat.

National Democrats reached out to Penelas when they reportedly became disillusioned with the campaign of state Rep. Luis Garcia, D-Miami Beach, also a Cuban-American Democrat. Garcia dropped out of the race against Rivera, R-Miami, late Monday.

Rivera is in the crosshairs of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee because of ethics investigations and what they believe is a far more favorable district for a challenger after the once-a-decade redistricting process.

Rivera's campaign has been hampered by questions about whether he can hold the seat – and last year had more debt than money in the bank. The campaign reported more $92,800 cash on hand at the end of 2011, with just more than $154,000 in debt, according to federal campaign records.

Garcia quit the race after a public falling-out with the DCCC, which has made Florida a centerpiece of its efforts to gain the 25 seats needed to take control of the House after two years of Republican rule. Garcia plans to run for the Miami-Dade Commission and said he might shed his Democratic Party affiliation.

"Our path to 25 seats flows straight through Florida," DCCC Chairman Steve Israel, D-N.Y., told reporters during a briefing last year, according to Roll Call, a Washington, D.C., newspaper.

Democrats are still confident they can find a candidate to run in the race despite the troubles.

"That story is a long way from being written yet," said longtime Democratic strategist Steve Schale.

Penelas said nothing in particular about the district discouraged him from running -- and that it would be a strong pick-up chance if it's upheld by the courts. Challenges to the districts have already been filed under the state's anti-gerrymandering redistricting standards; more are expected under the Voting Rights Act regardless of whether the maps are precleared by the U.S. Justice Department.

"I think the right Democrat can win that seat," he said.

If one can be found.

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