Democrats eager for a blue wave admit Carlos Curbelo is beating them

Republican U.S. Rep. Carlos Curbelo, who lost his reelection bid, says he’s considering running for Miami-Dade mayor in 2020.
Republican U.S. Rep. Carlos Curbelo, who lost his reelection bid, says he’s considering running for Miami-Dade mayor in 2020. el Nuevo Herald File

Carlos Curbelo’s low-lying and Democratic-leaning Miami-to-Key West district is ground zero for a blue wave in November.

But he’s built a sizable sea wall.

With two-and-a-half months until Election Day, polling from Republicans and Democrats shows Curbelo with a lead over his likely Democratic challenger Debbie Mucarsel-Powell in a district that Hillary Clinton won by more than 16 percentage points over Donald Trump, and Curbelo isn’t running television ads yet.

A poll released by the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, an organization that seeks to elect Democrats to the House of Representatives, shows Curbelo with a seven-percentage-point lead over Mucarsel-Powell among 500 likely voters.

It’s unusual for political organizations to release polling that shows their favored candidate trailing, and the poll shows a larger gap between Mucarsel-Powell and Curbelo than a DCCC poll from April that showed Curbelo with a five-percentage-point lead.

“All I can figure is that the DCCC released this poll to send a message to their floundering candidate: ‘You’re losing. Get your campaign in order and do something about it,’” National Republican Congressional Committee spokesperson Maddie Anderson said.

At least one Republican poll that hasn’t been released publicly shows Curbelo with a larger lead over Mucarsel-Powell than the DCCC poll.

The DCCC touted their poll, which was conducted a month ago, by arguing that the race became tied after voters heard basic biographical information about Curbelo and Mucarsel-Powell.

Around the same time the poll was conducted, Mucarsel-Powell switched campaign managers and her husband was found to have financial ties to an Eastern European oligarch dogged by allegations of contract killings and embezzlement.

“In the initial vote, despite major name ID disparity, Mucarsel-Powell earns 41 percent to Congressman Curbelo’s 48 percent. This lead quickly erodes after equal biographic information from both sides,” a DCCC polling memo said. “This exodus from Curbelo is spurred by the introduction of Mucarsel-Powell, who at the time of the poll was largely unknown and had not yet communicated with voters in the 26th district.”

Mucarsel-Powell entered the race a year ago, and her campaign started running television ads to introduce herself last week, after the poll was conducted. But Curbelo hasn’t started running TV ads, and he finished the latest fundraising quarter with more money to spend than Mucarsel-Powell in an environment where 56 Democratic challengers outraised Republican incumbents across the country, many in districts that are far less friendly to Democrats on paper.

Educating voters about Mucarsel-Powell’s background and message will likely take millions of dollars and both parties have already reserved TV ad time to help their candidates ahead of Election Day. Curbelo has the advantage of incumbency and is one of the most vocal Republican critics of President Donald Trump in Congress, though Democrats plan to use his votes in favor of the GOP tax bill and Obamacare repeal as evidence that he doesn’t stray far from the president on policy.

The DCCC also tested negative messaging on Curbelo’s tax bill and Obamacare votes, but declined to release any polling on how much support Mucarsel-Powell received after voters heard the negative messaging.

“Of the 25 House R’s in Clinton districts, only 5 currently appear well positioned to defy a ‘Blue Wave,’” tweeted Dave Wasserman of the Cook Political Report, an organization that rates the competitiveness of elections across the country, naming Curbelo as one of the five. “Why? They built pretty strong moderate brands *before* Trump took office.”

Cook moved Curbelo’s race from the “toss-up” category to “Lean Republican” on Wednesday, one of the few races nationwide that have shifted in the GOP’s favor in recent weeks. Democrats need to win two dozen House seats around the country to achieve a majority, and they face the challenge of defending 10 U.S. Senate seats held by Democrats in states Trump won, including Florida.

The five Republicans named by Wasserman who could defy the current environment were all part of Curbelo’s failed effort to force a series of immigration votes earlier this year in defiance of GOP leadership, a group that included Miami Republicans Mario Diaz-Balart and Ileana Ros-Lehtinen.

“Carlos looks forward to running an aggressive campaign about the policies most important to South Floridians like immigration, tax reform, affordable housing, infrastructure and the environment, and he is eager to make the case for his bipartisan, sober legislative strategy to the people of Florida’s 26th congressional district,” Curbelo spokesperson Joanna Rodriguez said in an email.

Mucarsel-Powell’s campaign directed a reporter to the DCCC when asked for comment on the poll.

The DCCC poll, which had a margin of error of plus or minus 4.4 percent and was conducted in English and Spanish, also showed Sen. Bill Nelson with a six-percentage-point lead in the district over Gov. Rick Scott in the race for Nelson’s U.S. Senate seat. Marco Rubio narrowly won Curbelo’s district by 1.3 percentage points in his successful 2016 campaign when he won statewide by eight percentage points, according to maps by political consultant Matthew Isbell.

“Debbie is the best funded candidate to ever face Curbelo, and he starts this essential stage of the campaign with very weak standing and major vulnerabilities after repeatedly failing to deliver for the Miami community,” DCCC spokesperson Cole Leiter said. “Conducted before any major advertising, this poll shows that Debbie starts in striking distance of Carlos Curbelo, and her powerful story immediately moves this race to a tie.”

Alex Daugherty, 202-383-6049, @alextdaugherty