Months after Democrats began calling him a top national target, Carlos Curbelo has drawn a serious 2018 challenger.
Debbie Mucarsel-Powell, who ran a stronger-than-expected state Senate campaign in 2016, will run for Congress. She plans to hold a news conference announcing her candidacy Wednesday.
“It’s shocking that the people in Washington are trying to strip healthcare from millions of Americans,” Mucarsel-Powell told the Miami Herald in an interview Monday, taking a jab at Curbelo. “The person that I’m running against voted for Trumpcare.”
She claimed Curbelo “has voted more than 86 percent of the time with Trump,” but also insisted: “I don’t want to focus my entire energy on what’s happening with the president.”
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The bilingual Mucarsel-Powell, 46, was born in Ecuador, where she lived until she was 14. That’s when she and her single mother and three sisters moved to southern California. Mucarsel-Powell followed a sister to South Florida in 1996.
Now married with a stepdaughter, a daughter and a son, Mucarsel-Powell lives in Pinecrest, which is outside the 26th congressional district, a stretch of Westchester to Key West. She rents property in the Florida Keys, she said. Curbelo lives about a mile from the district’s boundaries in West Kendall.
After years of working in various nonprofit organizations, at ZooMiami and for Florida International University, Mucarsel-Powell opened a consulting firm on strategic planning.
“I’ve spent my entire life in nonprofits trying to bring change, positive change,” she said. “People are really charged. They’re angry. They’re frustrated. They want change.”
For months, national Democrats have labeled Curbelo a top target, citing his district’s Democratic-leaning makeup. It favors Democrats by 6 percentage points, according to the Cook Partisan Voting Index, making Curbelo’s district the most Democratic in the country currently held by a Republican. Last year, Hillary Clinton bested Trump in the district by 16 points.
But Curbelo defeated Democrat Joe Garcia by 12 points, a 28-point swing showing Curbelo’s crossover appeal among Democrats and independents. He’s also a prolific fundraiser who had $1.1 million in his campaign account as of June 30 and consistently posts among the highest fundraising hauls of House members in both parties. Mucarsel-Powell said she expects to have to raise at least $4 million to compete.
Curbelo’s support in May for the American Health Care Act, House Republicans’ proposed replacement for the Affordable Care Act, was political manna for Democratic Party leaders, who see the vote as one of Curbelo’s biggest electoral weaknesses in a district where 92,500 people get health insurance through Obamacare — one of the highest rates in the country. Republicans have already vowed to spend millions of dollars defending Curbelo and other Republicans in competitive districts who backed the legislation.
But Curbelo is also a moderate who has tended to align himself with House GOP centrists, especially when it comes to climate change. Hoping for an anti-Trump wave in 2018, Democrats may try to tie Curbelo to the Republican president — but Curbelo was one of the loudest local Republican Trump critics in 2016. He has generally kept his distance from the White House, though he has applauded Trump’s harder line on Cuba and Venezuela.
Last year, Mucarsel-Powell challenged state Sen. Anitere Flores, a veteran Republican lawmaker who was running for the first time in redrawn Senate District 39, where she was unknown to many voters. Flores defeated Mucarsel-Powell by 54-46 percent, but the race forced Flores to raise $1.3 million, more than any other legislative candidate in the state. Senate District 39 overlaps with much of Congressional District 26.
Despite her loss, Mucarsel-Powell left a good impression with local Democratic operatives, who felt she ably argued for abortion rights, environmental protection and gun control, and against the increasing power of charter schools in Tallahassee. She called the race “eye-opening.”
Mucarsel-Powell came up as a possible congressional candidate when Republican Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen announced in April that she will retire next year. That left vacant Ros-Lehtinen’s seat in Congressional District 27, where Clinton beat Trump by an even bigger margin than District 26. But Mucarsel-Powell said she wasn’t interested.
Last month, Mucarsel-Powell discussed her likely candidacy in private Washington meetings with Emily’s List, which promotes progressive women candidates; the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, and Democratic members of Congress, including Florida Reps. Ted Deutch, Lois Frankel and Stephanie Murphy.
Music producer Steven Machat, who ran as an independent in last year’s U.S. Senate election, is also challenging Curbelo as a Democrat. Machat garnered just over 26,000 votes statewide compared to Sen. Marco Rubio’s 4.8 million.