Carlos Curbelo, a longtime political insider and former aide to a U.S. senator, won a decisive Republican primary victory Tuesday to run for Congress himself.
He received 47 percent of the vote in a field of five candidates that included a scandal-plagued former congressman vying for his old seat. Ex-U.S. Rep. David Rivera came in fourth place.
Curbelo, a Miami-Dade School Board member, now faces the far more difficult task of running against incumbent Joe Garcia, a Democrat who was elected two years ago to represent the swing 26th congressional district that extends from Westchester to Key West.
The closely watched race among Republicans and Democrats nationwide is considered a tossup. Republicans hope to flip it to their column come the Nov. 4 general election.
“I will work hard to honor your trust,” Curbelo told campaign supporters gathered Tuesday night at Killian Palms in Kendall. “I will serve with honor and integrity. We live in a community that needs new leaders.”
He reiterated his campaign appeal to younger voters — Curbelo is 34 — saying the GOP needs a new generation of politicians to appeal to them.
And he continued to position himself as the anti-Garcia, making reference to the fact that the congressman’s former chief of staff went to jail last year and is still under federal investigation over a suspected ringer candidate in the 2010 election.
Garcia released a statement on Tuesday night calling Curbelo, who runs a public and media relations firm, a “lobbyist who refuses to disclose his big-money clients and is only looking out for his own political interests.”
American flags, white balloons and blue stars decorated the room at the Grand Salon’s Ciudad Mar where Curbelo’s team celebrated. He walked in with his wife, Cecilia, and young daughters, Sylvie Marie and Carolina, to cheers, applause — and a scrum of news cameras.
Among those in attendance were Rep. Mario Diaz-Balart and his brother, former Rep. Lincoln Diaz-Balart. Curbelo worked for both men’s reelection campaigns six years ago. He was later state director for Florida Senator George LeMieux.
As the favorite of the GOP political establishment, Curbelo’s campaign fundraising exceeded $1.3 million — more than his opponents combined. National Democrats for months have treated him as Garcia’s de facto challenger, even after Rivera, who was once a heavyweight in local politics, surprised Republicans and jumped into the race.
Last week, a federal prosecutor publicly named Rivera a target in a criminal investigation into campaign-finance violations from two years ago. Rivera, who had barely mounted a campaign this time around, was hardly seen during early voting or on Election Day. He received about 8 percent of the vote.
Still, he was the first to compliment Curbelo on Tuesday night — via Twitter.
“Congratulations to Carlos Curbelo on his victory tonight in Florida congressional district 26,” Rivera wrote. “Now that the primary is over, it is time for all Republicans to unite behind Carlos and defeat Joe Garcia in November.”
Curbelo did not capture the majority of votes in the Florida Keys. That distinction went to Ed MacDougall, the Cutler Bay mayor who spent much of his time on the campaign trail visiting Keys voters. But Miami-Dade has many more voters than Monroe County, and MacDougall came in second place overall with about 25 percent of the vote.
He told family and friends gathered on Tuesday night at Capri Restaurant in Homestead that he was disappointed but proud of their work.
“We’ve put up one hell of a fight,” he said. “Losing this election is just another day — sort of. The sun will rise, my family is healthy. I’ll be OK.”
In third place was former Miami-Dade Commissioner Joe Martinez, with about 17 percent of the vote. Trailing in fifth, with about 3 percent, was attorney Lorenzo Palomares-Starbuck, a rookie candidate.
In another contested GOP primary, pro-Israel activist Joe Kaufman held a comfortable early lead over business consultant Juan Garcia to challenge Congresswoman Debbie Wasserman Schultz, a Weston Democrat and chairwoman of the Democratic National Committee, in November.
The left-leaning Congressional District 23, which Wasserman Schultz has won in recent general elections by double-digit percentage margins, stretches from Interstate 595 in Broward County south to Miami Beach.
On the Democratic side, incumbent Frederica Wilson of Miami Gardens appeared to handily defeat Michael Etienne, the North Miami city clerk.
“She always helps our youth, she’s available to our community,” said Gloria Richardson, 36, who voted Friday for Wilson at the First Baptist Church of Greater Miami. “She will always have my vote.”
If she wins, Wilson is practically assured reelection: She faces little-known candidates Dufirstson Julio Neree, a Republican, and Luis E. Fernandez, who is running without political-party affiliation, in November. Congressional District 24 extends from Miramar to Brickell, including Opa-locka, Miami Shores and Little Haiti.
Miami Herald writers Melhor Leonor, Rebeca Piccardo, Matias Ocner and Adrianne Richardson contributed to this report.
A Battle of Talking Points
It didn’t take long for Democrats and Republicans in Washington to chime in with their talking points about this November’s Congressional District 26 race. On the night Carlos Curbelo beat four other opponents in the Republican primary, the Republican National Committee called the seat “one of the best pickup opportunities for Republicans this fall.” Democrats immediately slammed Curbelo with a litany of negative attacks.
Republican Talking Points Memo
“Florida’s 26th District is one of the best pickup opportunities for Republicans this fall. While this district voted overwhelmingly for Barack Obama in 2012, Joe Garcia’s dismal first year in office solidified this race as one to watch.
Starting early into his first term, Garcia was mired in scandal thanks to his absentee voter fraud plot that caused two of his staffers, one who was his longtime political aide and best friend, to lose their jobs. The former longtime political aide who also served as Garcia’s chief of staff was also sent to jail for 90 days thanks to the bone-headed voter fraud plot. Not only is Garcia still under investigation for the voter fraud scheme, but his 2010 campaign is also under federal investigation thanks to a possible straw candidate plot.
Voters of South Florida are sick and tired of the corrupt politics of days past and Garcia’s time is about to expire. Carlos Curbelo is a fresh-faced young businessman who has served his community on the school board and offers voters a clear contrast against Garcia’s ethically challenged ways. Curbelo has been on the air running TV ads and has worked tirelessly on the campaign trail which makes this seat a great pickup opportunity for the GOP.
National Democrats should be worried that a seat they need to keep, which Obama won by a large margin, is up for grabs thanks to the ill-advised wrong doings of their candidate.”
Democratic Talking Points Memo
“For the last two weeks, Carlos Curbelo has limped through his primary refusing to answer a simple question: will you disclose your lobbying clients? He’s been hounded on local media appearances, slammed by his Republican opponents and called out by a local political commentator for refusing to reveal any potential conflicts of interest with his work on the School Board. Curbelo even went so far as to challenge his opponents to “file a complaint” against him.
The questions surrounding Curbelo’s lobbying work follow a Miami New Times report revealing that Curbelo “has a history of approving contracts for campaign donors” on the School Board, funneling millions of tax dollars to his political cronies.
But Curbelo’s lobbying scandal is just one example of how he’s putting himself and his political ambitions over South Florida’s values: Curbelo has pandered to the far right-wing by calling for the indiscriminate deportation of immigrant children caught in the border crisis, supports the Republican budget ending the Medicare guarantee (even though he admits he didn’t read it), and helped devise Rick Scott’s education proposals that slashed support for public schools.
Representative Joe Garcia has already earned a reputation for putting South Florida first in Washington. He’s quickly distinguished himself as a leading champion for comprehensive immigration reform, led the charge to pass a bipartisan bill capping flood insurance rates, and has been a proven advocate for local businesses and job creation.”