With a whopping $550,000 hauled in during his first three months in office, Miami-Dade Democrat U.S. Rep. Joe Garcia signaled he's a top freshmen fundraiser in Congress.
And the money, a campaign's lifeblood, sends a message to Republicans: He won't be easy to beat in 2014.
Garcia's self-reported fundraising totals rival that of fellow Democratic freshman Patrick Murphy, of Jupiter, who also said he raised $550,000. But Murphy's far more vulnerable.
Both Florida freshmen are considered at-risk, even by Democrats. They're on the frontlines of the battle for the U.S. House of Representatives — and therefore President Barack Obama's agenda. Just 16 Republicans stand in the way of Democrats controlling the House and all of Congress.
"My job is not to worry about people's political perceptions. My job is to represent the people," said Garcia, who bested a scandal-plagued Rep. David Rivera by nearly 11 percentage points in November.
Republicans say they won't let Garcia rest. They say they need the right candidate and the absence of the Obama voter-turnout machine to beat the Democrat. Florida Republicans tend to fare better than Democrats during non-presidential election years.
This month, a Republican political committee targeted Garcia and just one other Democrat, from New York, in an early but small TV and web ad campaign. About the same time, the National Republican Congressional Committee also went after him and a handful of other Democrats in a separate campaign.
Even before Garcia won the newly drawn Kendall-to-Key West seat in November, Republicans thought he'd be easy to beat in 2014. But then they looked at the numbers, which showed the president carried the district by 7 points in a seat that they thought leaned Republican.
"This is a real swing seat," said Miami-Dade School Board Member Carlos Curbelo, a Republican considering a run against Garcia.
"This district isn't easy for anyone to win," Curbelo said. "That's why Joe Garcia is raising all this money. I'm sure he feels vulnerable. And he should."
Another Republican, state Rep. Jose Felix Diaz, said he's "testing the waters" and indicated Garcia's strong financial showing and the last election results are "obviously part of the calculation."
"But at the end of the day, no matter how much money you have, it's a competitive district," Diaz said.
On paper, Congressional District 26 looks enticing to Republicans. The Washington-based Cook Political Report considers it a Republican-leaning seat.
But Rep. Garcia's chief of staff and political strategist, Jeff Garcia, said the analysis from the nonpartisan group doesn't take into account the changing demographics of the district.
As the district was being drawn in 2011 by the GOP-led Legislature, Garcia said, it was almost 34 percent Republican and about 30 percent Democrat. Then the Obama machine started registering voters, he said, and the district essentially flipped. Democrats barely outnumber Republicans now, 35.3-35.1 percent.
But the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, like Garcia, doesn't think that's enough of a cushion. The DCCC is giving him, Murphy and 24 other incumbents across the nation fundraising and other help as part of its "Frontline" program.
"Nancy Pelosi and her Washington Democrats are admitting that Joe Garcia's chances of re-election are shaky at best," National Republican Congressional Committee spokeswoman Katie Prill said in a written statement.
Garcia's adviser, Jeff Garcia, said the Republicans are just spinning away bad numbers. And the DCCC said it's targeting 52 Republicans, including the Tallahassee-based seat of Steve Southerland, where Gwen Graham — daughter of former Gov. and Sen. Bob Graham — plans to run.
Prill and a DCCC spokesman said the self-reported fundraising totals from Garcia and Murphy are among the largest for freshmen. Final numbers will be posted in the coming days.
During the last election, Murphy barely beat Republican Rep. Allen West. And where Obama won Garcia's district by 7, the president lost Murphy's by 4 percentage points — the only seat now held by a Democrat the president didn't carry.
Garcia recently won praise in Homestead from its mayor and police chief, according to the South Dade News Leader. He has made the ill-effects of the federal budget cuts at Miami's airport and seaport a top issue that has kept him in front of TV cameras.
And he's planning to appear Sunday at the Colombian-heavy Festival Vallenato in Bayfront Park — a nod to the fact that the district, more than 60 percent Hispanic, has the largest non-Cuban population of any in South Florida.
But in the end, much of the early campaign trail is about raising money. And more money.
"When I started the campaign, I said I'd give it my all," he said, "and it's already killing me as it is."
And still, the Republicans are ready to take as many lethal shots as possible.
"It's a result of good constituent outreach, reaching out to business leaders, community leaders and civic leaders."