Miami-Dade County

In GOP pickup, Miami Rep. Joe Garcia loses to Carlos Curbelo

Republican Carlos Curbelo hugs his mother, Teresita, after winning his election. He ousted Democratic Rep. Joe Garcia.
Republican Carlos Curbelo hugs his mother, Teresita, after winning his election. He ousted Democratic Rep. Joe Garcia. MIAMI HERALD STAFF

Carlos Curbelo flipped a South Florida congressional seat for the Republican Party on Tuesday, besting Miami Rep. Joe Garcia in a midterm election dominated by the GOP.

Garcia, a freshman Democrat, was undone in part by scandals, much like the Republican he defeated two years ago.

Curbelo, a Miami-Dade County School Board member, led from the moment the first election results were posted through the end. He won the 26th congressional district, which spans Westchester to Key West, with 52 percent of the vote to Garcia’s 48 percent.

“Tonight begins the work of giving the people of Florida’s 26th congressional district the honest and effective representation we need,” Curbelo said.

He took the stage shortly after 10p.m. at RenA Venue, an event space in Kendall, accompanied by his wife, Cecilia, their young daughters Sylvie Marie and Carolina, and his parents.

At his side were Rep. Mario Diaz-Balart and former Rep. Lincoln Diaz-Balart, fellow Cuban-American Republicans from Miami whose campaigns Curbelo worked for in the past. He is also a former state director for former U.S. Sen. George LeMieux of Florida.

“We are celebrating an electoral victory, but we cannot forget that the American people remain frustrated and disillusioned with their government,” Curbelo said. “Here in our community, and throughout the country, Americans are seeking leaders who will put the cause of a stronger, greater nation before their personal political interests.”

He will have to resign his school board seat before taking office.

Garcia, who won a majority of the vote in the Florida Keys, conceded with about a fifth of Miami-Dade precinct results still pending.

“I just talked to Carlos Curbelo, and I congratulated him on his victory,” Garcia told supporters who greeted with applause. “It does not appear we’re going to make up ground. … This year was not a good year for Democrats.”

Garcia’s term was clouded by the conviction of his former chief of staff, who served 65 days in jail for orchestrating an unlawful online absentee-ballot request scheme in the 2012 election. The congressman’s 2010 campaign is under federal criminal investigation over a suspected straw candidate.

Still, Garcia said Tuesday he was proud of his tenure.

“There is nothing that I didn’t get to do while I was serving in Congress, except be in the majority,” he said. “I wish we could have had a different outcome. But that’s the only thing I’d change. There is nothing to regret with a job well done.”

He blamed his loss on “savage” outside spending in the race by conservative political groups. Of the more than $14 million spent, nearly $9 million came from outside the two candidates’ campaigns — more than $5.5 million of that against Garcia, according to the nonpartisan Sunlight Foundation, which tracks political spending.

Garcia’s friends and campaign volunteers had gathered at Casa Vieja, a Colombian restaurant in the Hammocks neighborhood in West Kendall. They nibbled on empanadas knowing the results weren’t encouraging — more people at the bar watched basketball than elections returns.

Garcia did not say what he’s planning to do next but suggested that he still wants to serve the region. “I will never be done with South Florida,” he said.

With Garcia’s loss, Republicans picked up a seat they had lost two years ago. Garcia had become the only Cuban-American Democrat from Florida in the U.S. House of Representatives. On Tuesday, Democrats took a North Florida seat away from Republicans with Gwen Graham’s victory over Rep. Steve Southerland.

Curbelo withstood Democratic attacks over his secretly recorded comment that Social Security and Medicare amount to a “Ponzi scheme,” and over his refusal to disclose the clients of his government and public relations firm, Capitol Gains. A proponent of the U.S. trade embargo toward Cuba, Curbelo opposed Garcia’s push for expanded travel and remittances to the island.

The Republican launched his congressional bid in July of last year, when Garcia was at his most vulnerable. A month earlier, the congressman had fired his chief of staff, Jeffrey Garcia, no relation.

Spotting a Democrat in trouble, national Republicans got into the race early, backing Curbelo even before he won the five-way GOP primary in August. That upset his rivals, who said the party should have stayed out of it until voters selected a nominee. Curbelo won decisively in a field that included former U.S. Rep. David Rivera, who was caught in campaign-finance scandal when Garcia ousted him.

Rivera, still under federal investigation, made a cameo appearance at the polls Tuesday. He showed up in several Southwest Miami-Dade precincts clad in his old “Congressman David Rivera” polo shirt and collected petition signatures for a potential 2016 Florida House of Representatives run.

Curbelo spent the early afternoon at a largely Republican polling place, John A. Ferguson Senior High School in West Kendall. When a man also named Carlos told him today was his birthday, Curbelo, a practicing Roman Catholic, noted that Nov.4 — Election Day — is the Feast of St. Charles, San Carlos.

Pórtate bien,” another Republican voter, 49-year-old Juan Carlos Esquivel, joked at Curbelo before walking into the precinct. “Behave.”

Gustavo Cruz, 67, pledged his family’s five Republican votes for Curbelo.

“He’s a crook,” he said of Garcia.

Garcia spent late Election Day afternoon with a water bottle in hand, hustling after voters at the West Kendall Regional Library. Many of them hadn’t realized that they had been moved to a different precinct, leaving Garcia to give them driving directions to their new locations in the hopes that the voters wouldn’t just give up.

“Do me a favor: Go in there and ask if you’re in the right place,” he told a woman as she walked in.

Earlier Friday, Democrat Christy Freitas voted at the library for Garcia. The Republican Party is “too old-fashioned,” she said. But she wasn’t thrilled about her choice, either.

“To be frank, I really don’t think the Democrats have a great candidate,” said Freitas, 50.

In the afternoon, Sandra Moore, a 39-year-old Democrat who spoke with Garcia outside the library, said she voted for Garcia because he had been visible in the district during his two years in office.

“He’s done a lot that he said he would do,” she said. “And he’s active in the community.”

But Javier Leon, a 36-year-old independent who voted at the West Dade library, said he found Garcia to be unresponsive while in Congress.

“I’ve sent him emails. He doesn’t reply. Minor things, not big issues — but he doesn’t even reply,” he said. His wife, Aileen, also 36, called Curbelo “very family oriented.”

“We relate to him,” she said.

Miami Herald writers Matias Ocner, Rebeca Piccardo and Kathryn Varn contributed to this report.

Other South Florida congressional races

District 20: Rep. Alcee Hastings, D-Miramar, won with 82% of the vote.

District 23: Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz, D-Weston, won with 63% of the vote.

District 24: Rep. Frederica Wilson, D-Miami Gardens, won with 86% of the vote.