Carlos Curbelo wants to be a Republican leader on climate change — if he can keep his seat

U.S. Representative Carlos Curbelo, R-Miami, at his campaign headquarters in October 2016. Curbelo is a Republican who says his party isn’t doing enough to combat the effects of climate change, but it remains to be seen how he’ll be able to convince conservative members of his party to work on the issue.
U.S. Representative Carlos Curbelo, R-Miami, at his campaign headquarters in October 2016. Curbelo is a Republican who says his party isn’t doing enough to combat the effects of climate change, but it remains to be seen how he’ll be able to convince conservative members of his party to work on the issue. dsantiago@elnuevoherald.com

Members of Congress like Carlos Curbelo are in danger of becoming extinct.

The Republican, who represents a Miami-to-Key West district, is one of the few GOP voices speaking out against Donald Trump’s decision to withdraw from the Paris Climate Agreement and his desire to dismantle the Environmental Protection Agency.

But as rising seas threaten to ruin property values in his district, Curbelo is trapped between conservatives who don’t have any interest in talking climate change and liberals who would love to take out a Republican incumbent in 2018.

In 2016, Curbelo had the second highest rating among House Republicans on the League of Conservation Voters’ annual scorecard.

The only member with a higher score than Curbelo, Illinois Republican Robert Dold, lost reelection.

Curbelo is fighting to avoid Dold’s fate, and during the first six months of Trump’s administration, he’s attempted to position himself as the national voice for Republicans who are concerned about climate change.

He munched on strawberries in South Miami-Dade with a PBS correspondent during a national television segment about conservatives embracing climate change, appeared in a New York Times front page opus on the GOP’s shift toward climate change denial and frequently tweets his displeasure with the White House.

“Every day there’s more momentum on the Republican side for responsible climate policy,” Curbelo, 37, said. “It’s also a generational issue, so there are a lot of colleagues who are my age or around my age who are far more open to engaging in this issue than those who have maybe been here 10 or 20 years.”

Instead of arguing that politicians must take action because humans are morally responsible for climate change, Curbelo is spreading a simple message: tackling the effects of climate change makes economic sense.

Curbelo, a former lobbyist and political operative, understands the political game.

In 2016, he won reelection by 12 points even after his district was redrawn in favor of Democrats. In the nascent 2018 cycle he’s among the top fundraisers from either party, with $613,622 raised, putting him 32nd nationally among House incumbents and challengers, according to Federal Election Commission data.

Curbelo frequently touts the Climate Solutions Caucus he co-founded last Congress with Rep. Ted Deutch, D-Boca Raton, where each member who joins is required to bring along someone from the other side of the aisle.

The strategy has appeared to work so far for Curbelo. He hasn’t drawn serious opposition for his seat in 2018 yet, despite Trump’s low approval ratings and excitement from national Democrats that the House could turn blue in 2018.

But the Climate Solutions Caucus is littered with vulnerable Republican incumbents: 15 of the caucus’s 21 Republican members are on the list of Democratic targets to flip in 2018.

The desire to keep moderates like Curbelo in Congress has divided environmental groups. Some, like the Environmental Defense Fund, spent nearly $500,000 to back Curbelo in 2016, while others, like the Sierra Club, choose to support Democrats.

“Absolutely, we recognize and applaud that he’s sort of split with his party and been a vocal advocate for action on climate change, but the Sierra Club needs to look across the board,” said Melinda Pierce, the Sierra Club’s legislative director. “If you look at the rest of his votes it doesn’t live up. He’s been active on climate, but if you look across the board he’s got votes on bills that are at odds with us, supporting natural gas exports, support for Keystone [Pipeline], support for fossil fuel subsidies. When our folks look at Carlos Curbelo they see a 23 percent lifetime environmental voting record.”

But Curb

elo enjoys bipartisan support for his climate-change stance within the district, as Republican and Democrats in the Florida Keys say he successfully pitches environmental legislation as economic common sense.

“We spend too much time making this a partisan issue,” said Heather Carruthers, a Democratic Monroe County Commissioner. Former Democratic Rep. Joe Garcia, she added, “was very much engaged. I think both of them really understood their constituents here. Although our county did swing red in this election, on issues like climate change we are pretty nonpartisan because we see it every day, even though there are disagreements on the causes of it.”

Republican Monroe commissioner George Neugent is a Curbelo supporter who said he frequently talks with the congressman about climate change issues. Neugent lives in Marathon, and said rising salt water is killing the grass on a local golf course, some of the first evidence of sea level rise’s impacts on the Florida Keys economy.

“He’s a tenacious guy and I think he’ll keep plugging away and influencing his friends and enemies,” Neugent said, referencing Oklahoma Republican Sen. Jim Inhofe’s snowball-throwing stunt on the Senate floor in 2015 to protest against calls for more climate-change legislation.

“It sickens me to look at that group. Congressman Curbelo has an extremely difficult task in the future to sway these people like Inhofe that are trying to do away with the EPA.”

Curbelo says top White House officials are eager to tackle climate change, even though Trump decided to pull out of the Paris Climate Agreement.

“We actually have strong allies in the White House and it’s not just Ivanka Trump and Jared Kushner but also [State Department] Secretary [Rex] Tillerson and [Defense] Secretary [James] Mattis,” Curbelo said. “All of these people are on the record expressing responsible views on climate policy and we want to continue engaging them. I think this Paris decision was more politically inclined than policy inclined and that’s why it happened and it’s very unfortunate. Hopefully, this is kind of a check-the-box thing that the president did as one of the promises he had made. Hopefully now we can turn a corner and some of these voices in the administration can start winning the day.”

In terms of swaying fellow Republicans, Curbelo doesn’t need to look outside Miami for a Republican who’s embraced issues typically associated with Democrats. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, the longtime Miami Republican who will retire from Congress in 2018, became one of the first Republicans to speak out in favor of LGBT rights.

“It really helps us stand out. People identify with us,” Ros-Lehtinen said of Republicans who choose to buck the party’s conservative base on certain issues.

Ros-Lehtinen said Curbelo and other Republicans need to re-frame their messaging in order to get support from both sides of the aisle. On LGBT rights, for instance, Ros-Lehtinen said she chose to focus on stopping bullying of LGBT children instead of social and religious issues that divide liberals and conservatives.

For Curbelo, it’s clear the path to drawing GOP support for climate-change legislation means focusing on an area everyone cares about: their wallets. He’s sponsoring a change in flood insurance that would expand the National Flood Insurance Program to cover second homes and rental properties, a major portion of the housing stock in the Florida Keys.

And Curbelo insists the Climate Solutions Caucus will move beyond its current role as a place for vulnerable members to talk about bipartisanship to become a crucial block of centrist Republicans who can sway GOP leadership on legislation.

“I assume that now when we get into appropriations season there will be many amendments where I assume our group is going to be critical to blocking bad policy,” Curbelo said.

But Ros-Lethinen, a veteran of Congress since 1989, cautioned that Curbelo will have a tough time convincing Republicans to join him.

“It’s a slow road. Nobody’s said it’s an easy climb,” Ros-Lehtinen said. “It’s like Sisyphus with the giant stone: You take two steps forward and then the giant stone rolls back on you.”

Alex Daugherty: 202-383-6049, @alextdaugherty