Politics

A Miami lawmaker may be the most endangered Republican in Congress

Miami Republican Reps. Carlos Curbelo and Ileana Ros-Lehtinen speak in downtown Miami in February.
Miami Republican Reps. Carlos Curbelo and Ileana Ros-Lehtinen speak in downtown Miami in February. jiglesias@elnuevoherald.com

Miami Rep. Carlos Curbelo better get used to that political target on his back.

The sophomore congressman might be the single most vulnerable Republican in the country going into the 2018 election, according to a new analysis of partisanship in congressional districts.

The Cook Political Report, which has been publishing its Partisan Voting Index since 1997, found that Curbelo represents the most Democratic of districts held by Republican members of Congress.

Florida’s 26th district, which extends from Westchester to Key West, performed an average of 6 percentage points more Democratic than the nation did as a whole between the 2012 and 2016 presidential elections, Cook Report editor David Wasserman found in his report, released Friday.

“In the modern era, it takes considerable personal appeal to win a House election in a district that fundamentally favors the opposite party,” Wasserman wrote. “There are several members on both sides who have successfully run ‘against the grain.’ However, these members are also likeliest to be among the top targets for the opposite party in 2018 and beyond.”

Congressman Carlos Curbelo victory speech after defeating Joe Garcia.

No. 3 on the list of the 10 Republicans in the most Democratic districts is Miami Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, whose 27th district — a stretch of coastal southeastern Miami-Dade County — performed on average 5 points more Democratic at the presidential level than the rest of the country.

It’s no coincidence that Curbelo and especially Ros-Lehtinen have been among the most vocal Trump administration critics in the GOP. Neither legislator responded to requests for comment Friday on Wasserman’s report.

How districts break down on a partisan basis is a key indicator of how polarized the country is politically. Wasserman’s analysis shows a sharp decline in competitive swing seats like Curbelo’s and Ros-Lehtinen’s — the sort of districts that give lawmakers an incentive to work in bipartisan fashion.

Gerrymandering is responsible for only part of that decline, according to Wasserman; another factor is “sorting” by the electorate: voters moving to places where other voters think like them.

“As a result, the two parties’ House constituencies have drifted even farther apart,” Wasserman wrote.

Last month, as the House struggled with legislation to try to replace the Affordable Care Act, Ros-Lehtinen lamented in an interview with the Miami Herald that so few of her colleagues represent centrist districts like hers. Her district and Curbelo’s were redrawn ahead of the 2016 election to make them less gerrymandered — and, in effect, more Democratic.

“Most districts are gerrymandered to the point where folks only have to listen to the most conservative positions, the most conservative viewpoints, and think that the other side is full of hogwash arguments. That’s not true,” she said. “I’m very comfortable with this district because it is actually a reflection of me: Sometimes I’m conservative, and on some issues I’m more moderate.”

“We are the hardest working members of Congress, without question,” Curbelo told the Herald at the time about the few House moderates. “But we’re also the ones in the best position to forge consensus and compromise, because that’s what our districts expect.”

No Floridians made Wasserman’s list of 10 Democrats in the most Republican districts. And no Florida Democrats represent districts won by President Donald Trump.

But Ros-Lehtinen and Curbelo are among the 23 Republicans across the country who hold seats Hillary Clinton won in November. Clinton won Ros-Lehtinen’s district by 20 points and Curbelo’s district by 16 points.

Ros-Lehtinen’s district swung so much toward Democrats from 2012 to 2016 that it was No. 6 on Wasserman’s list of top 25 Democratic-trending districts in the country. No other Republican-held seat has shifted as much from tilting Republican to leaning Democratic in the same time period.

What nearly half of the 25 Democratic-trending districts on the list have in common is that they’re Latino-majority seats.

“In 2016, Trump substantially redrew the electoral map,” Wasserman wrote.

Trump was the most unpopular presidential candidate in U.S. history — which means he probably dragged down relatively moderate Republicans like Curbelo and Ros-Lehtinen, neither of whom supported Trump ahead of the election. As much as Democrats will try to make the 2018 election about Trump, the president won’t be on the ballot. And Florida Democrats have struggled to get their voters to the polls in recent midterms.

Though Curbelo’s seat might be the most Democratic one held by any Republican, he won reelection last year against Democrat Joe Garcia by a larger margin (12 points) than Ros-Lehtinen did against Democrat Scott Fuhrman (10 points). Fuhrman is already running against Ros-Lehtinen again; Curbelo has yet to draw any challengers, though national Democrats are recruiting contenders.

Ros-Lehtinen remains a more elusive target than Curbelo for Democrats because she’s been in office since 1989 — which means essentially every voter knows her — and continues to be popular. Curbelo is less entrenched in his seat, having been elected for the first time in 2014, though he’s proven to be a formidable fundraiser.

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