Carlos Curbelo was fuming.
It was a sticky Friday afternoon in early July, and the Republican congressman had spent the last hour traipsing through a University of Florida research center, languidly asking academics about their work on environmental challenges confronting this more rural area south of Miami.
But as Curbelo emerged, blinking in the sunlight, I told him that his latest fight with the Trump administration had just metastasized.
The Department of Health and Human Services had already blocked Curbelo’s planned visit that day to a nearby shelter for children separated from their parents while crossing the border illegally, enraging Curbelo, who said that morning that his team had worked for weeks to follow protocol in arranging the visit. Now, HHS—embroiled in the enormously controversial if short-lived Trump administration policy of family separation—was complaining about the “significant and unnecessary strain” placed by visiting members of Congress.
“I don’t feel sorry for them at all,” Curbelo shot back. “We fund all of their operations and all of their salaries, so they should make the time and effort to allow us to see the work they’re doing, especially if they’re confident in the work they’re doing.”
Curbelo, seeking a third term, represents the most Democratic-leaning district held by a Republican running for reelection this cycle. That willingness to sharply criticize the Trump administration—evidence, allies say, of his independent profile—helps explain why he has thrived here so far.
[For more coverage of 2018’s bellwether districts, check out our Ground Game page.]
But as Democrats plot a path back to the majority in the House of Representatives, their journey begins in districts like Curbelo’s: diverse, overwhelmingly Democratic, where Hillary Clinton won by double digits even as more centrist Republican House members managed to hang on in 2016.
Republicans in these districts, from Curbelo, whose sprawling district runs from Miami to Key West, to Barbara Comstock in Virginia, are battle-tested and considered some of the GOP’s strongest candidates. But based on the pure political realities of their districts at a time when the president is unpopular and progressives are energized, a Democratic loss in districts such as Florida 26 would call into question whether the political environment this election year is really so bad for Republicans after all.
“Curbelo is a very crafty politician, so it’s difficult, but…yes, we should be winning this seat on a consistent basis,” said Mike Abrams, a former state legislator and former chairman of the Dade Democratic Party.
Now, this race is shaping up as a national test of whether environment alone is enough to boost a bevy of lesser-known Democratic candidates—or if a strong personal brand still matters on a district-by-district level.
Pointing to Debbie Mucarsel-Powell, Curbelo’s likely Democratic opponent, Abrams said: “If Debbie wins, I think you’re going to say it was a bellwether test of the state of Trump. At least in Miami-Dade County, the political climate was important. If she doesn’t win, I think then you would say, hey, there are Republican candidates that can overcome Trump’s innate unpopularity.”
Debbie Mucarsel-Powell had lost her parade float.
It was mid-morning on the Fourth of July, and it was already sweltering on Key Largo, where the leading Democratic candidate to take on Curbelo was running down an asphalt parade route, inhaling air thick with the smells of car exhaust and sunscreen.
“Which one is my truck? Where’s my truck?” she asked, scanning the line-up of honking vehicles that passed as parade floats for a blue truck bearing the banner, “Keys Democrats: party for the people.”
We had lost sight of it as Mucarsel-Powell, 47, energetically took to the parade route. She gamely accepted the spray of water toys (“I’m ready!” she said, as she walked up to a group bearing the devices. Sufficiently soaked, she continued, “Now you gotta vote for me! Debbie for Congress!”), hugged at least one baby and embraced every opportunity to speak Spanish, meeting several voters who, like her, are immigrants.
Mucarsel-Powell’s style was warm and effusive, but her message was sharply partisan.
“I’m Debbie, I’m a Democrat running for Congress,” she told a group of parade watchers as she passed by.
“Yay!” a woman replied.
“Democrat! Debbie!” Mucarsel-Powell exclaimed further along on the trail, as she approached a group of African American women for a longer conversation.
Unlike in many other competitive districts this cycle, where Democrats stress their interest in working with the other side and their ability to connect with Republicans, Mucarsel-Powell, who is considered the clear frontrunner in August’s Democratic primary here, unabashedly touts her party ID.
Mucarsel-Powell, who immigrated to the United States from Ecuador as a teenager and moved to Miami in the 1990s, wants to make clear that she knows this deeply Democratic district well, and that she, as a liberal, is a good fit (she technically lives over the district border, in wealthy Pinecrest. Curbelo lives over the current district line as well after court-ordered redrawing of its boundaries).
She has a background in fundraising and development, cultivated through work in the South Florida nonprofit world and at Florida International University and its College of Medicine, which is in the district. Those jobs always had a focus on “community relations” and “strategic planning,” she said. She also ran a closer-than-expected, if failed, state senate bid in 2016.
Now, Mucarsel-Powell is seeking to turn out the many Democrats who she knows live here, and who are already accustomed to voting for Democrats, at least at the top of the ticket. Even if they tolerated a Republican in the past, she is betting that in this moment of Trump-fueled progressive anger, there is little appetite for encomiums to bipartisanship.
“Look, let’s be honest here. This is a blue district,” she told me after the parade.
We were across the water now in Homestead, sitting on a bench outside a Mexican restaurant after a lunch of ceviche and Modelo beer. Lightning from a looming summer storm flickered in the distance.
“There are more Democrats in this district,” she went on, “people that want someone that’s going to raise wages, someone that’s going to deal with the affordable housing crisis, someone that is going to fight for public education, someone that will stand up for women’s rights.”
The idea that Curbelo is a centrist is a “misperception,” she said. He may talk a moderate game in Miami, but Mucarsel-Powell argued that on the big issues, such as immigration reform, at best he can’t deliver. And at worst, when it comes to subjects such as Obamacare repeal, he sides with Trump.
“He has absolutely no leverage in his caucus,” she said, jabbing at Curbelo’s struggles to convince his party to embrace immigration reform and to protect undocumented immigrants brought here as children. “He hasn’t been able to get anything done, he has been completely ineffective, he caved into the leadership in his party. So do you want someone that’s going to get things done and work for your community, or someone who says he’s going to do it and then can’t get anything done?”
Curbelo—who in fact broke with GOP leadership as he tried to force a series of votes on immigration earlier this summer—insists that he and the handful of moderate Republicans who pressed on this issue moved the ball forward, which will be “very useful for future coalition building efforts as we continue to try to get this passed.”
And, he added bluntly, “I don’t need to prove anything on immigration.” (Several weeks later, after complaining about being barred, he would eventually be allowed in to inspect the facility for unaccompanied children, which was up to his standards.)
“My community knows me,” he said with an incredulous laugh, when I asked him about Mucarsel-Powell’s remarks. “If someone wants to go out there and say that I’m anti-immigrant—like, you know, attacks have to be based on reality, not science fiction.”
But there is no question that in this district, some are frustrated by Washington gridlock—and they blame Republicans, who control the House, Senate and White House.
“Despite Curbelo’s best efforts to be bipartisan, it’s still not working,” said Heather Carruthers, a Monroe County Commissioner in Key West, who has worked with Curbelo in the past.
“I did not actively support him, but I did not work against him in 2016,” she said. But this year, she added, “I’m a supporter of Debbie.”
Carlos Curbelo is supremely polished, the kind of politician who can interrupt himself to cheer a World Cup goal, and then go right back to finishing his sentence without missing a beat.
“The district knows me well, they know what type of representative I am, they know that I’m always going to call it honest, no matter who’s the president, no matter which party is in control,” he told me over lunch at a dimly lit Caribbean restaurant as a game played on TV in the background. “And despite the trends that we continue seeing where—woo! Goal!—where politics become more and more polarized, I know that an overwhelming majority of people, an overwhelming majority of the residents of this district, want people who will reach across the aisle, who will hold the executive accountable no matter what.”
Curbelo, 38, was born in Miami, the child of Cuban exiles. He switches easily between Spanish and English and has made a point to develop relationships in every corner of Miami’s diverse Hispanic community (“We have the United Nations down here, and it’s wonderful,” he said, after we had coffee with two activists representing Colombian and Venezuelan communities in the district).
In 2016, Curbelo tapped those deep local ties—and ethics problems associated with his then-opponent’s former aide—to shield himself from the top of the Republican ticket. That year, Clinton won here by 16 percentage points, he won by nearly 12, and to Curbelo, that was sufficient proof that his distinct personal brand can weather the whims of challenging political environments at the district or national level.
“Nothing has changed since then in terms of the way I conduct myself and my voting record,” said Curbelo, an avowed environmentalist and pro-immigration advocate who hasn’t hesitated to take Trump to task on the president’s favorite medium, Twitter.
But Democrats believe that everything has changed—both in Curbelo’s race, and in other races like it across the country.
“This is a district we’re going to win, and we’re going to shout about it in the evening when polls are still open in California to keep people in line,” crowed one national Democrat, granted anonymity to speak freely.
For starters, there is a newly engaged class of Democratic activists who are mobilized nationally to defeat Trump’s party. They have been turning out in special elections at every electoral level, including in Florida, where Republicans have sustained a number of shock losses in the Trump era, including one that challenged the longtime influence of Cuban-American Republicans in Miami.
Democrats also say Curbelo’s votes for tax reform and to repeal Obamacare (“like I said I would?” Curbelo said with an edge in his voice) are deeply damaging.
“There are people that have approached me that were independents, that were Democrats that voted for him in the last election that said to me, ‘Debbie, I voted for Curbelo in 2016, when he took that vote to repeal the [Affordable Care Act], that was it for me,’” Mucarsel-Powell said.
And locally, Curbelo successfully ran twice against former Rep. Joe Garcia, whose ex-staffer was indicted in a fraud scandal (Garcia was not indicted). This time around, Curbelo is expected to face an energetic Latina woman in a year when Democratic women have, at least in the primaries, notched strong successes so far.
Curbelo’s supporters recognize he faces a considerable challenge. But they also warn that he shouldn’t be underestimated.
“There’s quite a bit of anti-Trump fervor around the country, and so I will tell you that I’m not sure how that race is going to turn out because of that,” said Roland Sanchez-Medina Jr., a Democrat and attorney from South Florida, just outside the district, who is a Curbelo donor. “But Carlos has in his favor, he’s a moderate, a lot of things come out of his office, stuff that most of us agree with, whether it be on LGBT issues, I think some decent stuff on immigration, and frankly I think he speaks his mind when it comes to the president.”
Indeed, a number of prominent Democrats in the region, especially donors, continue to back Curbelo even as national Democrats ooze confidence about the seat.
It’s evidence that, for all of the environmental factors working against Curbelo, Mucarsel-Powell’s bid to cast him as just another rank-and-file Republican is meeting some skepticism.
“I’m a Democrat, but I want to leave some rational people in the Republican Party to talk to other Republicans, and he does that,” said Ira Leesfield, a major Democratic donor who has also donated to Curbelo.
Leesfield desperately wants Democrats to take back the House—“Overall I feel so strongly about that I couldn’t even express it,” he told me.
But, he continued, “I don’t want a wise, good-thinking, sensible Republican to get knocked out because he’s a Republican.”
Another potential challenge for Mucarsel-Powell: Unlike Democrats in wealthier areas—Orange County, Calif., for instance—this area includes significant working-class and rural pockets, where many residents are more focused on making the long commute to jobs in Miami than they are on joining the progressive “resistance.” Engaging, persuading and turning out those voters takes more effort here than it does in places where voters have the time to be glued to cable news.
Nationally, the Latino turnout rate also sometimes drops off in midterm elections, though both Mucarsel-Powell and Curbelo expressed hope for high turnout here.
Certainly, they will both have the funds to target their voters: both have proven to be strong fundraisers, with Mucarsel-Powell nearly tying Curbelo’s $785,000 haul for the second quarter of the year, though Curbelo has the cash on hand advantage, $2.6 million to Mucarsel-Powell’s $1.26 million, and in contrast to many other Republican incumbents, Curbelo did not get outraised.
As he poked at his simmered vegetables, the low-key Curbelo never mentioned Mucarsel-Powell by name. But he did swipe at politicians who are “generic,” who engage in “role-playing” and “script-reading.” From what he knew about Mucarsel-Powell, he said, she could be described that way, especially given her “super generic”, full-throated embrace of House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi at a time when increasing numbers of Democrats are distancing themselves from her.
“Being a generic Republican or Democrat in swing districts in South Florida is a loser,” he said. “People want to know who you are and what you believe in beyond your party label.”
That formula has worked for Curbelo so far. But he acknowledges that this is a moment of intense tribalism on both sides of the aisle, something he considers “the biggest problem in our politics.”
Curbelo’s race will test how many people are asking questions beyond party ID—and how many have the patience to listen to the answers.
“Really, he’s been very clever in how he’s positioned himself,” said Abrams, the former Dade County Democratic chair.
“Still,” Abrams continued, “at the end of the day, he’s a vote for a party right now that’s controlled by Donald Trump.”