By David Adams
MIAMI (Reuters) - A campaign finance scandal may have cost a South Florida Republican his congressional seat and handed victory to his challenger, who will be Miami's first Cuban-American Democratic representative.
Incumbent David Rivera, a fierce opponent of Cuba's communist government, was beaten by fellow Cuban-American Joe Garcia in Florida's 26th District by a margin of 54 percent to 43 percent, according to local media, which cited preliminary results from elections officials.
Rivera, a one-term congressman, was backed by fellow Cuban-American Republicans, including rising political star Senator Marco Rubio and veteran Representative Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee.
In a bizarre twist, Rivera allegedly tried to interfere in August's Democratic primary by funneling at least $40,000 in cash to the campaign of Justin Sternad, a virtually unknown candidate running against Garcia, according to Hugh Cochran and John Borrero, who worked on the Sternad campaign.
The money went to pay for campaign mailings backing Sternad, a hotel worker making his first bid for public office, Cochran and Borrero said.
Rivera denied he had anything to do with Sternad's campaign.
"Republicans and Democrats, we need to compromise, yes compromise," Garcia told a victory party. "We need to put politics and rhetoric aside and focus on what really matters."
Garcia, a former Department of Energy official, is also a tough critic of Cuba's government though he supports the Obama administration's moderate policy of "people-to-people" exchanges, including cultural visits and unrestricted travel for Cuban exile families.
(Reporting by David Adams; Editing by Ciro Scotti)