Debbie Mucarsel-Powell is outspending Carlos Curbelo on TV. Will it pay off?

Democratic challenger Debbie Mucarsel-Powell defeated Republican incumbent Rep. Carlos Curbelo.
Democratic challenger Debbie Mucarsel-Powell defeated Republican incumbent Rep. Carlos Curbelo. jiglesias@elnuevoherald.com

Debbie Mucarsel-Powell has been running against Carlos Curbelo for more than a year, but the past three weeks could prove pivotal in her quest to unseat one of the Republican Party’s strongest candidates.

Mucarsel-Powell and her Democratic allies are spending around $1 million on bilingual television and radio advertising this week, a spending pace that’s been in place since mid-September, according to a source familiar with media buying in the district. Though Mucarsel-Powell hasn’t been able to raise more money than Curbelo, one of the GOP’s best fundraisers, she’s outspending him.

The aggressive pace is shifting momentum in one of the nation’s most watched congressional races, in which Curbelo has seen his chances of reelection improve in the eyes of most prognosticators in recent weeks despite a national environment that favors Democrats. Mucarsel-Powell has peppered the airwaves with a biographical ad and an ad that touts Democrats’ efforts on healthcare in a district where more than 90,000 people are enrolled in the Affordable Care Act.

The Mucarsel-Powell campaign “went up [on TV] before the primary and they have not come down since then, and the campaign has no plan to decrease this communication,” the source familiar with media buying said. “This wasn’t an early ‘I’m going to throw all my dollars on the table and have nothing left’ strategy.”

A new poll commissioned by Mucarsel-Powell’s campaign shows the race in a statistical tie, a big change from a Democratic poll in July that showed Curbelo with a seven percentage point lead over Mucarsel-Powell.

The poll, conducted by Greenberg Quinlan Rosner Research, shows Mucarsel-Powell with a one percentage point lead over Curbelo. Mucarsel-Powell’s 49-48 lead came after her campaign began spending money on TV advertising in August.

“I’ve been working on behalf of my community for over 20 years, and families here can trust I’ll be a genuine voice for them in Washington on the most important issues, like healthcare, jobs and the environment,” Mucarsel-Powell said in a statement.

The internal poll, which used live phone calls to landlines and cellphones in English and Spanish to reach 511 likely voters from Sept. 23-27, was conducted concurrently with Mucarsel-Powell’s ramped-up spending. The poll’s margin of error is 4.9 percentage points, meaning that the race is essentially a tie.

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

Curbelo’s unfavorable ratings have jumped according to the poll, while his favorable ratings have remained the same since July. The poll gives Curbelo a 47 percent favorable rating and a 40 percent unfavorable rating, while Mucarsel-Powell has a 32 percent favorable rating and an 18 percent unfavorable rating, up from 14 percent favorable and 8 percent unfavorable in July. Donald Trump’s approval is also under water in the district, though Curbelo won reelection by 12 percentage points in 2016 while Trump lost the district by more than 14 percentage points.

“Voters like Mucarsel-Powell as they get to know her, and support for her grows,” the polling memo said.

Two other recent polls show the race as a tie.

A poll commissioned last week by the Democratic firm Public Policy Polling showed Mucarsel-Powell with a one-point lead, and a New York Times/Siena College poll conducted at the same time Mucarsel-Powell increased her ad spending showed Curbelo with a slight three-point lead, though both polls were within the margin of error.

But Republicans are trying to portray the still relatively unknown Mucarsel-Powell in a negative light, and they’re also throwing lots of money on TV advertising in one of the country’s most expensive media markets in an environment where other incumbent Republicans are being cut off because their races are seen as unwinnable.

The National Republican Congressional Committee is putting just over $1 million over the next two weeks into a negative ad about Mucarsel-Powell titled “Shady Characters.” The ad seeks to tie her to: a Ukrainian oligarch, who is accused of ordering contract killings, because he partially owned a company that Mucarsel-Powell’s husband, Robert Powell, worked for; the Iranian government, due to Mucarsel-Powell’s support of the Iran nuclear deal; and a Democratic lawmaker accused of sexual assault who chairs a political action committee that contributed to Mucarsel-Powell’s campaign.

National Republicans are continuing to attack Mucarsel-Powell for the Ukrainian connections, as the group put about $550,000 behind a similar ad last month around the same time that Mucarsel-Powell upped her own TV spending. Democrats say the recent poll results are evidence that the attacks fizzled.

“Campaigns that are talking about polls are campaigns that are losing,” Curbelo said. “We’re confident in our data and the district.”

Curbelo noted that a poll from nearly the exact same time period two years ago showed Democratic candidate Joe Garcia with a one point lead over Curbelo, and Garcia ended up losing by double digits.

“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. “We have an aggressive campaign too. I have a lot of confidence we’re going to get another positive result.”

Alex Daugherty, @alextdaugherty, 202-383-6049