Carlos Curbelo is Extremely Online.
The second-term congressman seeking to win reelection in the most Democratic-leaning district in the country held by a Republican is no fan of President Donald Trump’s governing style and temperament, but the pair share a love of scrolling through their phones and tweeting at all hours of the day.
“Sorry Donald Trump but I’m calling the new NAFTA, NAFTA — maybe NAFTA 2.0,” Curbelo tweeted in jest when Trump announced a new U.S.-Canada-Mexico trade deal recently. “Glad to see some progress on trade with our allies.”
A few minutes later, Curbelo tweeted his disapproval of Trump’s treatment of a reporter, when the president said, “I know you’re not thinking” to a journalist trying to ask him about the FBI investigation of Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh.
Sign Up and Save
Get six months of free digital access to the Miami Herald
“If I think something’s terrible, I’m going to say it; if I think something’s funny, I’m going to say it,” Curbelo said. “I criticized [Trump] for the way he talked to that reporter. It pissed me off. She [the reporter] has the same name as my wife. Why do you have to be such a jerk?”
Curbelo, 38, is seeking to keep his seat for a third term in November, and he’s been in constant campaign mode since July 2013. But this time around he won’t be facing former Rep. Joe Garcia, whom he ousted by three percentage points in 2014 before beating him by more than 11 points in 2016 in a year where Trump was unpopular in the Miami-Dade portion of his district, which also includes the Florida Keys. His 2018 opponent is Democrat Debbie Mucarsel-Powell, a former nonprofit fundraiser who ran an unsuccessful state Senate campaign two years ago in a district that overlaps with Curbelo’s Miami-to-Key West seat.
Mucarsel-Powell criticizes Curbelo’s votes in favor of the unsuccessful Obamacare repeal bill, and says his support of a successful tax overhaul he helped draft hurt working-class voters in a majority Latino district that includes more than 90,000 Obamacare recipients. She has recently outspent him on TV advertising, though Curbelo maintains a fundraising advantage in a race where both national parties are investing millions. The race is seen as a toss-up.
“The extreme left has spent millions here over the last five years attacking me and it hasn’t worked because my community knows me,” Curbelo said. “I know that this community does not want any party puppet to represent them in Washington.”
In his first TV ad this year, Curbelo combined his love of hoops with a pitch to voters that invoked his first job: high school and adult intramural basketball referee. He argued that he’s willing to call foul on Democrats and Republicans alike when they approach issues from a solely partisan perspective.
“In Washington, many politicians play for their party, but I play for you,” he said in the ad.
But referees are often loathed by both sides.
Curbelo, a former Miami-Dade County school board member, political consultant and lobbyist, is the son of Cuban exiles. He graduated from the University of Miami and is related to former Florida Marlins third baseman Mike Lowell through his wife. He recently suited up for a charity basketball game in Washington alongside lawmakers like Ted Cruz and Conor Lamb, where they broke a pregame huddle with a chant of “Drain the Swamp.” The game program listed the 5-foot 8-inch Curbelo at 5-foot-11, prompting some ribbing from his lawmaker teammates.
Curbelo, the shortest lawmaker on the court, was tasked with boxing out a 6-foot-6, 300-pound opponent and was whistled for a foul, though he flexed for the crowd, which appreciated the effort.
At the start of his second term in Congress, Curbelo was appointed by House Speaker Paul Ryan to the powerful tax writing committee responsible for carrying out Trump’s biggest policy achievement: overhauling the nation’s tax code and cutting corporate taxes.
“I think our biggest accomplishment was to pass historic tax reform legislation that has allowed economic recovery to include more Americans,” Curbelo said. “That doesn’t mean that everyone is in perfect financial shape in this country, but without question since we passed tax reform, since we passed it, [employers] are investing more in American workers.”
He worked for months to help draft the bill and angled his way onto a committee dominated by members with long tenures in Washington.
“I think that in many ways he’s kind of the consensus of the Republican conference,” said Rep. Matt Gaetz, a 34-year-old first-term Republican from Fort Walton Beach who said Curbelo was the first member of Congress who encouraged him to run against a state senator nearly 30 years his senior in the 2016 Republican primary.
“He also pushes the younger members to pursue more leadership. There’s this existing call in Washington that says ‘Young people stay in the back row.’ Carlos was organizing young members of the Republican conference across the ideological spectrum and pushing people to run for leadership.”
Gaetz, a vocal backer of Trump, is one of the most conservative members of Congress, though he said younger members from both parties are ready to work on issues like overhauling federal marijuana laws, promoting gay rights and acknowledging the effects of climate change.
“Because we are younger members our natural inclination is to begin at the areas of agreement,” Gaetz said. “We don’t think that Republicans should be mean to gay people, for example. Do you want a bunch of Baby Boomers sitting around making the substantive decisions on net neutrality? I sure don’t.”
Earlier this year, Gaetz was making one of his ubiquitous cable TV appearances criticizing a compromise immigration bill negotiated by Curbelo, which ultimately failed when conservative Republicans and Democrats voted against it for different reasons.
Curbelo didn’t take kindly to Gaetz railing against a bill that included giving young immigrants known as Dreamers a path to citizenship in exchange for $25 billion for Trump’s border wall and limiting legal immigration, areas that were massive concessions from Republicans like Curbelo meant to get conservatives on board.
“He was pushing for a compromise immigration bill, a bill that he contends should have been appealing to conservatives as well as moderates,” Gaetz said. “He heard me criticize that on television and got in my face and called me a jerk for my statements. He’s not Mr. Nice Guy when you cross him.”
But Gaetz said younger members like Curbelo and himself don’t take harsh words personally, and that he plans to work together with Curbelo on a number of issues if he’s reelected.
“I think younger members are more naturally collaborative. Some of these older members, they can hold a grudge for a decade,” Gaetz said. “With the younger members we’ve shared everything from our stupid Halloween costumes to our high school prom pictures on social media, so we know how to deal with exposure.”
Curbelo’s affinity for authenticity crosses party lines, giving credit to Trump’s openness as president because “I don’t think anybody can accuse him for hiding who he is or what he thinks,” and similarly giving credit to self-described socialist Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, a 28-year-old Democrat who upset a 56-year-old Democratic Party leader in a New York City primary in June.
“Surely, I disagree with her on many issues. However it’s clear she’s talented & importantly, authentic & sincere,” Curbelo tweeted. “The last [two] are traits millennial voters (myself included) value. More millennials in Congress is a good thing.”
He says Mucarsel-Powell isn’t authentic, running a campaign based on a nationalized healthcare message with blind loyalty to House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi.
“If we send my opponent to Congress, we’re going to get more of the same,” Curbelo said. “I do think that in this day and age and the millennial generation coming of age, more and more voters want people to be as they seem. That doesn’t mean you have to be rude, that doesn’t mean you have to put people down, but if I think something’s great, I’ll say it, and if I think something’s stupid, I’ll say it. There’s a lot of role playing in Washington and my opponent is part of that. I certainly hope that’s not what the voters in my community want.”
Democrats are convinced that his vote to repeal Obamacare in 2017 is what they need to motivate voters who typically don’t turn out for midterm elections. The 92,500 people in his district enrolled in Obamacare — the second-highest figure for any congressional district in the country, according to the Kaiser Family Foundation — are a natural constituency for Mucarsel-Powell.
“It is inconceivable to me that politicians in D.C. are committed to stripping away healthcare access to millions of Americans,” Mucarsel-Powell said during a speech the day she officially launched her campaign, adding that Curbelo’s vote was the reason that she ran for Congress.
Democrats are banking on the healthcare message, spending millions on TV advertising around the issue. And Mucarsel-Powell isn’t shying away from Pelosi in a district that has a higher partisan lean toward Democrats based on past election results than any other district in the country represented by a Republican. Pelosi has visited the district and Mucarsel-Powell has publicly indicated that she will vote for her as Speaker if elected, in an environment where dozens of Democrats have distanced themselves from the longtime party leader.
Curbelo recently joined a group of 19 Democrats and Republicans, most of whom are facing competitive reelections, who said they will withhold their vote for Speaker to any candidate from either party that doesn’t agree to relinquish some lawmaking power from party leadership and give it back to rank-and-file members, effectively giving younger lawmakers more power.
“My opponent is 100 percent committed to one of the authors of the politics of division, pettiness and attacks,” Curbelo said, referring to Pelosi. “I’ve signed a pledge to withhold my vote for Speaker for anyone, Democrat or Republican, who doesn’t want to work with us to change the rules.”
Curbelo praised Florida Democratic Reps. Stephanie Murphy and Darren Soto for also signing the pledge, arguing that they are part of a minority from both parties “who are clearly committed to putting country over party.”
But Curbelo’s status as a Republican who doesn’t support Trump’s temperament and many of the president’s policies hasn’t translated into policy victories on issues important to Curbelo like immigration and gun control.
Curbelo first introduced a bill to ban devices that allow semiautomatic weapons to fire like automatic weapons after the Las Vegas shooting over a year ago, before Parkland shifted the debate on guns in Florida. Even though his bill was introduced “Noah’s Ark style,” meaning every Democrat who signed on had to find a Republican cosponsor, only 37 of 435 House members signed on and it didn’t become law. He was the only Florida Republican running for Congress endorsed by Everytown for Gun Safety, who cited his work on bump stocks and support to ban guns from individuals on the no-fly list. Other national gun control groups have not endorsed Mucarsel-Powell due to Curbelo’s record on guns.
He also tried to find a pathway to legal status or citizenship for young immigrants who came to the U.S. as young children years ago, after the president announced that the program that protected them from potential deportation would end. Initially, Curbelo authored a bill that was dubbed a conservative alternative to the Dream Act, an immigration solution that was embraced mostly by Democrats and a small number of Republicans. After months of voting against spending bills as immigration talks stalled, Curbelo joined a group of Republicans who went against leadership to propose an immigration bill that was favored by Democrats. That effort ultimately fell two Republicans short, so Curbelo tried to negotiate with the conservative faction of his own party, and ended up losing by a wide margin.
After all the talk and failed votes, the 690,000 young immigrants known as Dreamers are left with an uncertain fate.
Curbelo also positions himself as a leading GOP voice on climate change, and founded the Climate Solutions Caucus with Broward Democratic Rep. Ted Deutch. The coalition has grown to 90 members split between both parties, and has influenced some government spending decisions related to climate change, though critics say the group mainly exists to provide cover to Republicans facing tough reelection chances.
He has also introduced a tax on carbon emissions, an idea that most Republicans have traditionally declined to consider. The complicated tax proposal loosens environmental regulations if certain carbon reductions are met as a way to please conservatives, but liberals generally balk at decreased EPA regulations.
“The best thing I’ve done over the last two years is my effort to reach across the aisle and convince other Republicans to take a risk and reach across the aisle for the good of the country,” Curbelo said. “We made a lot of progress on immigration, we forced Republicans to take this issue up for the first time in a decade. On climate we’ve gotten 43, 44 [Republicans] acknowledging that this is a real issue. This is how you make change in Congress. It doesn’t happen overnight. It takes a lot of work.”
He’s hoping voters give him two more years to do it.
After months of signs that Curbelo was in a strong position for reelection, the race has tightened. When a prominent election prognosticator moved Curbelo’s race back to “toss-up” status, Curbelo replied, naturally, on Twitter.
“Feels great to be home again!”