Carlos Curbelo couldn’t win a two-front war.
National Democrats spent more money in Curbelo’s district than any other across the country on a healthcare-centric TV campaign. Donald Trump spent the final stretches of the campaign attacking immigrants, which didn’t help Curbelo in his majority-Hispanic district months after he led an unsuccessful GOP rebellion to force Congress to act on the issue.
And Curbelo’s Democratic opponent, Debbie Mucarsel-Powell, avoided strategic and ethical blunders that plagued former Rep. Joe Garcia, the Democrat Curbelo beat in 2014 and 2016.
The combination added up to a 1.8 percentage point loss.
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“I think the number one factor in my race was spending,” Curbelo said, as he worked out of a Washington coffee shop during his final weeks in office. “We got outspent significantly and a lot of the casual voters that showed up, especially late, voted straight ticket Democrat and I’d say that was really what made the difference. The barrage of ads and negative attacks do work, as much as everyone says they hate them.”
Curbelo’s assessment of his race is a hat tip to national Democrats, who considered it a personal affront that he was able to win, by more than 11 percentage points, the most Democratic-leaning seat in the country held by a Republican in 2016. Instead of repeating mistakes like backing Annette Taddeo’s failed primary campaign against Garcia two years ago, the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee encouraged Mucarsel-Powell to enter the race early and began a campaign focused on healthcare in a district where nearly 100,000 people are enrolled in Obamacare. The DCCC spent just under $7.2 million to defeat Curbelo, the most the group spent in any race across the country. The haul was the largest share of $20.1 million spent on TV ads in the district by campaigns and outside groups from both parties, according to Advertising Analytics. House Majority PAC, a super PAC that seeks to elect Democrats, also spent about $2.5 million on TV ads in the district.
In late September, Mucarsel-Powell’s campaign and the DCCC began spending $1 million a week on ads related to healthcare and kept the pace up through Election Day. In contrast, the National Republican Congressional Committee spent over $1 million on a TV ad that tried to cast Mucarsel-Powell as untrustworthy due to her husband’s previous work for a Miami-based company that was partially owned by a Ukrainian oligarch.
But Mucarsel-Powell avoided a Democratic primary and was largely mistake-free on the trail, making it tougher for Republican attacks on her character to stick. And Curbelo was left to campaign on a tax bill he helped draft that became less popular as the campaign turned to its final months, and forced to deal with his vote to repeal Obamacare.
Trump, described by Curbelo as a “media hog” who drowned out localized messaging by his campaign and other Republican groups, chose to go all-in on keeping the U.S. Senate in GOP hands at the expense of Republicans from suburban districts, like Curbelo. Come January, Miami Rep. Mario Diaz-Balart will represent the most densely populated congressional district in the country held by a Republican, as the GOP was routed in suburbs like Orange County, California. Miami-Dade County will have four Democrats representing the five districts in the county.
“The national narrative the last few weeks was just very negative in terms of the immigration issue, the talk about birthright citizenship, the whole caravan circus,” Curbelo said. “With everything being so nationalized, this idea that all politics is local is increasingly untrue. I was able to preserve my own brand and people were aware of it, just not enough people, especially in the face of a spending gap.”
National Republicans didn’t abandon Curbelo like they did with other incumbents in the campaign’s final weeks. The Congressional Leadership Fund, a super PAC backing Republicans, and the NRCC continued to run ads through Election Day, though they were outspent by Democrats.
Giancarlo Sopo, a former Garcia staffer and communications strategist who supported Curbelo during the campaign, analyzed precinct-level vote tallies in Curbelo’s race. Curbelo performed better than Republicans Rick Scott and Ron DeSantis in every Miami-Dade precinct. But Mucarsel-Powell ran up the score in South Dade, beating Curbelo by wider margins and with higher turnout than previous Democrats.
“Voters broke hard for Debbie in Homestead and Florida City,” Sopo said. “It didn’t play out that way in the past. You’d expect to lose the southern part of the district but usually you’d have a significant undervote. A lot of people came out to vote and they voted Democrat straight down the ballot.”
Trump insulted Curbelo by name a day after the election as he rattled off Republicans who chose not to campaign on his brand and lost. But Curbelo outperformed DeSantis, whose campaign was buoyed by Trump’s involvement, by nearly 5.5 points in Curbelo’s congressional district.
“Curbelo did as best as somebody could given the circumstances,” Sopo said. “In that district with all the investment that was made in digital media it got people to vote aggressively down the ballot in ways they otherwise wouldn’t have.”
Sopo noted that the Democrats’ investment in the district was not limited to TV. In the days leading up to the election, anti-Curbelo ads ran constantly on Spotify, an online streaming music service used disproportionately by younger voters.
With the campaign behind him, Curbelo is free to ruminate on the future of a Republican Party where those who remain in elected office are increasingly reliant on the president. He stopped short of saying the country would be a better place if Trump were to lose reelection in 2020, but did say the GOP needs to begin preparing for the post-Trump era.
“This party has to understand that if we’re going to have a small government, free enterprise party in America, that Trumpism isn’t the future for such a party,” Curbelo said. “Everyone has to understand that the post-Trump chapter has to start being written now. No matter how the White House or anyone else wants to frame it, since Donald Trump has dominated Republican politics House Republicans have lost 47 seats.”
Looking back on his four years in office, Curbelo said he’s most proud of his work on immigration, where a few dozen Republicans aligned with Democrats to find a potential path for citizenship for 600,000 young immigrants known as Dreamers. The effort didn’t work, and a plan with only Republican support also failed to pass.
“Though we didn’t get a bill passed... we forced the institution to process the immigration issue, to deal with it, and we got members on the record, we forced them to vote, and that was good for the system,” Curbelo said. “What we did, whether that was next week, or the week after or in two years or three years, that exercise was worthwhile and it only happened because 23 of us decided to put our names on the line.”
Curbelo said he leaves Congress without any regrets, even though voting not to repeal Obamacare could have saved his seat. He also created the bipartisan Climate Solutions Caucus, which faces an uncertain future after half of the group’s Republican membership lost reelection this year.
“What happens in a lot of these wave elections is that centrist members get taken out and they got to start all over again,” Curbelo said. “This is nothing new. We go back to [James] Madison, the solution for two warring factions was more warring factions. So maybe the solution is a third party or a movement within the Congress to create the equivalent to a third party.”
Curbelo at this time isn’t planning to run for his soon-to-be old seat, though he may run for Miami-Dade mayor in 2020. In the short term he’s planning to do some work on immigration, the environment and the national debt and supporting like-minded public officials who are “willing to take a risk” on those issues.
“I’ve worked for myself my whole life. I’ve never sat for a job interview and I hope not to start that now.”