Curbelo defeats Garcia in hard-fought congressional race

Curbelo: I pledge to work to continue to change the culture in Washington

Congressman Carlos Curbelo victory speech after defeating Joe Garcia.
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Congressman Carlos Curbelo victory speech after defeating Joe Garcia.

Republican U.S. Rep. Carlos Curbelo handily held onto his seat on Tuesday in one of the most closely watched congressional races in the country after turning back a challenge from the Democrat he unseated two years ago, Joe Garcia.

With most of the vote counted, Curbelo was ahead by 12 points in the battleground 26th Congressional District, which sprawls from Westchester to Key West, despite a redrawing that pushed its electoral make-up to the left after the Republican ousted Garcia in 2014. The new district’s demographics put the incumbent, who fashioned himself as one of a dwindling species — a moderate Republican — at something of a disadvantage.

But Curbelo carefully threaded the political needle, pointedly repudiating GOP presidential nominee Donald Trump, while bolstering his credentials with conservative Cuban Americans in the ethnically and politically diverse district by criticizing Garcia, a former head of the Cuban American National Foundation, for his support of President Barack Obama’s rapprochement with Cuba.

Curbelo, who at one point compared Trump to the late Venezuelan strongman Hugo Chávez, also said he would not vote for Democrat Hillary Clinton, but never publicly revealed his presidential vote despite persistent goading from Garcia.

Curbelo also aggressively drove a theme that helped him beat Garcia two years ago: He repeatedly brought up the fact that Garcia’s campaign chief served jail time for running a scheme during the 2014 election to submit mail-ballot requests online on behalf of unsuspecting voters, though Garcia was not charged.

About 150 Curbelo supporters gathered in a sparsely decorated banquet hall in a West Miami-Dade strip mall, the buzz steadily rising as word spread through the crowd that Garcia had conceded in a phone call around 8:40 p.m. The buzz burst into a roar shortly after 9 p.m. when Curbelo took the stage, his broad grin revealing what he was going to say before he opened his mouth.

Despite the wild cheers, Curbelo sounded sober as he contemplated the future.

“If we have learned anything from this election,” he noted, “it’s that Americans all over this country are angry, they’re frustrated, and they’re not satisfied with the answers they’re getting” from political leaders.

Garcia arrived more than an hour into his Election Day party at La Carreta in Kendall after the race was called in Curbelo's favor. In 2014, Garcia, then the incumbent, narrowly lost his seat in the swing District 26 to the freshman Curbelo.

His loss Tuesday, likely affected by the unshakable effects of his former campaign manager's convictions, was less narrow. As Garcia thanked his team, the state of the race flashed across a TV screen. Curbelo: 53 percent. Garcia: 41 percent.

Garcia conceded about an hour into his Election Day party at the restaurant. In a short speech to about 50 gathered supporters, Garcia focused on the importance of electing Clinton.

Joe Garcia concedes house race to Carlos Curbelo at La Carreta on Nov. 8, 2016.

At one point, a supporter shouted “2018, Joe!” and the crowd erupted in applause. But Garcia wouldn’t discuss his plans as he left the restaurant, only 20 minutes after arriving. Tuesday was Garcia's third loss while seeking a congressional seat.

“For the next hours, sleep,” he said, in response to questions about his plans. “I'm going to go home now.”

The race also drew an independent candidate, Jose Peixoto, who campaigned wearing a Trump “Make America Great Again” hat and finished a distant third.

The two leading candidates, both Cuban Americans, debated three times. They highlighted their significant differences aside from Cuba policy: Curbelo is steadfastly anti-abortion while Garcia is avowedly pro-choice, and Garcia called for a substantial increase in the federal minimum wage, something Curbelo has not supported.

But Garcia also relentlessly tried to puncture Curbelo’s moderate image by casting him as a Trump-like Republican, pointing to several votes the freshman congressman cast to repeal the Affordable Care Act as well as his sponsoring of legislation to curb public assistance for Cuban refugees, some of whom may abuse the entitlements. He also derided Curbelo, a former lobbyist, for declining to release a list of his clients.

In fact, both candidates earned reputations for staking out positions that weren’t always aligned with their parties’ stances.

In his two years in office, Curbelo went along with his party on the vast majority of House votes. But he also at times broke ranks to vote against defunding Planned Parenthood, to support President Obama’s climate-change regulations and against shutting down the government.

Garcia, too, earned a reputation as something of a maverick during his one term. He voted more than once against Obama’s effort to close the U.S. military prision at Guantánamo Bay, Cuba, and supported a bill that would have suspended the penalty on Americans who fail to maintain healthcare coverage.

Curbelo also significantly outspent Garcia. Curbelo raised more than $3.5 million, compared to Garcia’s $1.1 million, according to Federal Elections Commission reports as of two weeks ago.

Garcia, ardently pro-Clinton, counted on the Democratic nominee’s popularity in South Florida to help recover the seat he lost after a single term. He touted his Clinton connections and appeared on stage at recent Clinton rallies. But Curbelo capitalized on a slip Garcia made: The Democrat was secretly recorded characterizing Clinton as sexually unappealing, a comment Garcia himself later called “stupid.”

In other Congressional races on Tuesday:

▪ U.S. Rep. Mario Diaz-Balart easily won reelection in South Florida’s 25th Congressional District. Diaz-Balart, a Republican first elected to Congress in 2002, defeated Democrat Alina Valdes, a physician who had not previously run for office. Diaz-Balart was heavily favored to win the district, which stretches from Miami’s western suburbs to Marco Island and communities east of Naples.

▪ Veteran U.S. Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen handily won reelection in South Florida’s 27th Congressional District. Ros-Lehtinen, a Republican who has held the seat since 1989, defeated Democrat Scott Fuhrman, a businessman and political newcomer. The district includes Coral Gables, Cutler Bay, Hialeah, Key Biscayne, Little Havana, Miami, Pinecrest, South Miami, and Westchester.

▪ U.S. Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz easily won reelection in South Florida’s 23rd Congressional District. Wasserman Schultz, a Democrat first elected to the seat in 2004, defeated Republican Joe Kaufman. Kaufman also unsuccessfully challenged Wasserman Schultz in 2014. The district covers parts of Broward and Miami-Dade counties.

Wasserman Schultz served as chair of the Democratic National Committee from 2011 to this year. She resigned after a WikiLeaks release of purloined emails showed she and DNC staffers had favored presidential contender Hillary Clinton over Sen. Bernie Sanders during the primaries.

▪ In the 24th Congressional District, U.S. Rep. Frederica Wilson did not face a Republican opponent and was automatically reelected when she won the Democratic primary in August. The district covers portions of northwest Miami-Dade County and southern Broward County, including Miramar, North Miami and Hialeah.