Carlos Curbelo is picking fights.
He attacked the NRA for opposing his bill to ban a firearm accessory that allows semi-automatic rifles to fire like automatics. He attacked the Congressional Hispanic Caucus, currently made up of all Democrats, for denying his membership application.
And he is attacking the Trump administration and fellow Republicans who oppose efforts to combat climate change.
These spats give the second-term Republican congressman from Miami ground to criticize both sides of the political spectrum for unyielding partisanship, and they allow Curbelo to deliver a message to his constituents and voters that the right and the left are both responsible for Washington’s dysfunction.
That talking point rings hollow for some Democrats, who say Curbelo is a political opportunist who will do or say anything to survive in a South Florida district that voted for Hillary Clinton over Donald Trump by 16 percentage points. And certainly, Curbelo represents the most Democratic-leaning congressional district in the country currently held by a Republican who is up for reelection in 2018.
He has spent the last four years trying to position himself as a political moderate.
“Most Americans are sick of the games, the hypocrisy, and honestly if that’s what’s required to be successful here, I’d rather go home,” Curbelo said. “It’s the only way worth doing this work. You can either go along to get along and just be polite all the time and ignore the underlying reality or you can kind of call things the way you see them and expose what’s really going on around here.”
Curbelo’s done plenty of exposing.
Over the past few weeks, he publicly called out multiple Hispanic Caucus members who stalled or opposed his membership application after previously working with them on various issues.
When California Democratic Rep. Tony Cárdenas told a reporter that Curbelo was “playing both sides” and “stabbing the Latino community in the back” by asking to join the Hispanic Caucus, Curbelo responded by calling him a hypocrite.
“This guy and I worked together last year,” Curbelo said. “He approached me on the floor about starting a caucus called the Connecting the Americas Caucus. We worked really well together, had a great relationship. Now, suddenly because I want to join the other caucus, the Hispanic Caucus, I’m a horrible person.”
Curbelo would have been the only Republican in the Hispanic Caucus if admitted. The Congressional Black Caucus, which is overwhelmingly represented by Democrats, allowed Utah Republican Rep. Mia Love to join.
The Hispanic Caucus’ decision to reject Curbelo’s membership has drawn criticism from some Democrats in South Florida, where his Miami-to-Key West district is majority Hispanic.
“I'm a Dem in Rep. Curbelo’s district. This is a mistake,” tweeted Susana Fryman, an art gallery owner in Tavernier. “Hispanic Caucus’ decision to deny Carlos Curbelo membership is not helpful to Hispanics or immigration issues and possibly hurtful.”
Curbelo also has the support of some local officials who are Democrats. Former Miami Mayor Manny Diaz, Homestead Mayor Jeff Porter and Florida City Mayor Otis Wallace hosted a fundraising reception for Curbelo in August.
But Trump’s low approval ratings, combined with a likely Democratic opponent free from major scandal, will make Curbelo’s reelection a tough task. Despite significantly outraising his nearest competitor, Democrat Debbie Mucarsel-Powell, Curbelo’s reelection chances were changed to “toss up” from “lean Republican” by the Cook Political Report last week.
And Democrats say all the attention surrounding Curbelo’s Hispanic Caucus rejection will backfire, as Curbelo’s party association with Trump, his support for House Speaker Paul Ryan’s tax overhaul effort and decision not to cosponsor the Dream Act will hurt him in 2018.
“Every time Congressman Curbelo does his TV rounds to complain about why he was rejected from the Congressional Hispanic Caucus, he’s reminding South Florida voters that he’s a Republican who voted for the disastrous House health care repeal, voted for Speaker Ryan’s middle class tax hikes, and who won’t support the DREAM Act,” said Javier Gamboa, the Hispanic media director for the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, a national organization that seeks to elect Democrats to the House of Representatives.
Curbelo has said he will vote for any solution that helps undocumented young people who were brought to the United States as young children after Trump announced the end of an Obama-era executive order that protected Dreamers from deportation. But Curbelo hasn’t signed onto the Dream Act because he is also pushing his own bill called the Recognizing America’s Children Act that he describes as a conservative alternative to the Dream Act.
His critics aren’t restricted to the left. While Curbelo is a vocal supporter of the tax overhaul effort, appearing with Ryan and Republican leadership to tout the plan in Spanish, and a less vocal supporter of the unsuccessful effort to repeal Obamacare, he has angered some on the right.
Curbelo began a push to ban “bump stocks” after the mass shooting in Las Vegas where a gunman killed dozens after using a currently legal accessory that allows semi-automatic weapons to fire like automatic weapons. He became the Republican sponsor of a bill that would ban the sale of bump stocks, an effort that drew the ire of the NRA, the nation’s leading gun lobby that typically supports Republican officeholders.
“Banning guns from law-abiding Americans based on the criminal act of a madman will do nothing to prevent future attacks,” the NRA said in a statement. “Despite the fact that the Obama administration approved the sale of bump fire stocks on at least two occasions, the National Rifle Association is calling on the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives to immediately review whether these devices comply with federal law.”
Curbelo said the NRA’s position of supporting additional ATF regulation without supporting congressional action doesn’t make any sense.
“Here’s an issue where it’s really obvious that we should ban these and for the organization to … take that position but say, ‘We don’t support congressional action,’ is disingenuous,” Curbelo said. “If you are opposed to bump stocks and you ban them at their own shooting range, which they (the NRA) did, why would you get in the way of Congress banning them? They’re making a lot of their really strong Republican allies look bad and they know, we’ll have to wait to confirm this, that ATF cannot regulate these devices.”
But Curbelo’s Democratic-leaning district and close relationship with GOP leadership mean that he likely doesn’t have to worry about a credible primary challenge from the right. Instead, he’ll likely have to navigate serious Democratic challengers every two years for as long as he can keep his seat.
“People say I have a certain confidence in the way I act around here,” Curbelo said. “A lot of that comes from my support back home. My district that the president lost by 16 (percentage points), (Marco) Rubio tied, I won by 12. People know me and, at least in my community, they appreciate this style of leadership.”
And retiring Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, a moderate Miami Republican who represents an even more Democratic-leaning district than Curbelo’s, said his recent disagreements with the left and right are examples of political decisions certain Republicans must make if the party is going to grow.
“He’s got a lot of credibility here and he’s really moving up the ranks in our Republican caucus because people see him as the next wave of Republicans we have to attract,” Ros-Lehtinen said. “He breaks the mold when it comes to being a Republican. He colors outside the lines.”