Can Carlos Curbelo survive in Donald Trump’s GOP?

U.S. Rep. Carlos Curbelo emphatically gestures during the opening of the Miami office for Marco Rubio’s presidential campaign. Curbelo faces a tough re-election in November.
U.S. Rep. Carlos Curbelo emphatically gestures during the opening of the Miami office for Marco Rubio’s presidential campaign. Curbelo faces a tough re-election in November. EL NUEVO HERALD

When he was first elected in 2014, Carlos Curbelo seemed like the perfect face of the new, post-Mitt Romney Republican Party: a young Hispanic who supports immigration reform, believes in climate change and is well-liked by GOP leaders in Congress.

Then came the 2016 presidential election. Out went Republicans’ plans — swept away by Donald Trump’s populist force — to grow their party by embracing diversity and a soft political touch. The presumptive nominee derided some Mexican immigrants as “rapists,” opined global warming is a “hoax” and dismissed House Speaker Paul Ryan’s vacillation over whether to endorse him.

In the midst of it all, Curbelo — the 36-year-old congressman who gained national notoriety last year when he suggested Trump might be a ringer planted by Democrat Hillary Clinton — has pushed a legislative agenda aimed at notching incremental victories as a freshman and trying to appeal to constituents in a district more Democratic than the one that put him in office two years ago.

Can a moderate like Curbelo survive in Trump’s GOP?

Yes, Curbelo insists — assuming Trump’s name leading the November ballot doesn’t end his congressional career after a single term.

“Whoever wins the next election, I’d be willing to work with, and I’d be willing to hold accountable,” he said in an interview with the Miami Herald. “And the proof is that I’ve been able to work with the Obama administration, despite having many and sharp disagreements with them.”

In the year of Trump, the Republican rep from South Florida’s perennial swing district is campaigning in part on the work he’s done to help the Democratic president.

Curbelo, for example, is sponsoring White House-backed legislation to accredit non-traditional higher-education programs, such as boot camps for computer coding. He helped whip Republican votes in favor of a free-trade agreement with Asia, and rode with President Barack Obama on Air Force One to the Everglades.

Miami Republican Rep. Carlos Curbelo endorses Republican presidential candidate Marco Rubio during a news conference on Monday, Feb. 22, 2016, in Miami. At least 20 Florida House Republicans who rooted for Jeb Bush, including the entire Miami-Dade

Within a few weeks, Curbelo plans to file the sort of big legislation he can campaign on in a general election, even if the bill has virtually no chance of getting a vote: a new version of the DREAM Act — renamed Recognizing America’s Children Act — that would allow immigrants brought into the country illegally as children to stay.

His other large bill is a proposal to curtail automatic federal welfare benefits for Cuban immigrants, the rare example of a politician trying to limit aid to his own community. As of Thursday, Curbelo had amassed 46 co-sponsors.

So far, Curbelo has stumped on his success passing more modest proposals. He gave students learning English in public schools more time to achieve proficiency in reading and math — a longtime struggle in South Florida, as he knew from his time as a Miami-Dade County School Board member.

He tightened requirements for government agencies to hire small businesses. He expanded liability to foreign companies responsible for oil spills. He secured money for transportation projects at Florida International University and for counties like Miami-Dade to fix aging water pipes. He hopes to make federal Pell grants available to college students year-round, not just during fall and spring semesters.

Curbelo said GOP infighting forced him to readjust his legislative expectations.

Just weeks into his term, he found himself on the losing side of a divided Republican vote that blocked funds for homeland security. The loss portended the exit of then-Speaker John Boehner, a moment Curbelo called “painful.”

“That’s when I realized that a lot of the hopes that we had for this Congress, that it would go very smoothly, that we had working majorities in both chambers, that we could find some consensus with the president on different initiatives — that it was going to be a lot tougher,” he said. “That experience was not fun. And it woke me up to a lot of the divisiveness and just the negativity in our country’s politics right now.”

Though Curbelo said the work has been fulfilling — particularly when it comes to helping constituents — it’s been harder on his personal life. He sleeps on a cot in his office, having given up the $1,600-a-month, one-bedroom apartment he initially rented. He missed his 6-year-old daughter’s first soccer practice.

“It really makes you question the decision” of running for Congress, he said. “Nothing is as glamorous as it seems on paper.”

Nothing is as glamorous as it seems on paper.

U.S. Rep. Carlos Curbelo, R-Miami

To Democrats, Curbelo’s moderate approach sounds like a calculated strategy to portray himself as more centrist than he really is — while remaining in the good graces of House GOP leaders, who have given the congressman several high-profile assignments, including delivering last year’s State of the Union response in Spanish. Curbelo’s Westchester-to-Key West district — which elected a Republican in 2010, a Democrat in 2012 and a Republican in 2014 — became more Democratic after the Florida Supreme Court ordered it redrawn.

Curbelo counters that not everything he does is motivated by political survival. “I’ve also gotten attacked by people on the right,” he said.

He’s reserved some of his harshest words for Trump, disputing the notion that the fractious GOP has become Trump’s party. He’s vowed not to vote for him (or Clinton) — and said he will “absolutely not” be swayed, even once Trump picks a running mate. That person can’t be trusted on principle, Curbelo told a Miami radio station last week, “because she or he will think Donald Trump is qualified to be president.”

“Words have to mean something,” Curbelo told WIOD’s Fernand Amandi Show. “Part of the reason there’s so much anger and frustration in our politics is because people think all politicians are liars. And when you see that some people a month ago, a few weeks ago, were saying, ‘Under no circumstances could Donald Trump serve as president of this country’ now say, ‘He’s OK,’ I mean, that leaves voters, listeners, the public to say, ‘What the hell is going on here? Are these people all a bunch of liars?’”

When a Democratic caller accused Curbelo of failing to be equally critical of former U.S. Rep. David Rivera, the embattled Republican who held his seat from 2010-12, Curbelo made a startling admission: He didn’t vote for Rivera that year — or for Democrat Joe Garcia.

“When it became apparent that both those campaigns had been involved in unethical and illegal activities — because people went to jail from both campaigns — I did not vote in that election,” he said.

Two Democrats — Annette Taddeo and former Rep. Garcia, Curbelo’s well-known predecessor — want to unseat him this time around. The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee sees such a clear pickup opportunity that it pushed its candidate, Taddeo, to declare her candidacy a mere three months into Curbelo’s term.

Democrats attack Curbelo as a duplicitous pol whose actions don’t match his words.

As a candidate, Curbelo compared Social Security to an unfunded “Ponzi scheme” in need of reform. As a congressman, his office celebrates national “My Social Security” week. As a candidate, he backed congressional Republicans’ lawsuit against President Obama’s executive action protecting certain unauthorized immigrants from deportation. As a congressman, he voted against a legal brief supporting a similar lawsuit.

He backs immigration reform but also backs Ryan, who won’t hold any immigration votes this term. He raises money for a pro-immigration reform “Leadership PAC” he created but doles out checks to some Republicans he’s friendly with who disagree with him on immigration. He promotes equal pay for women but votes against a procedural vote for Democrats’ equal pay law. He says he backs Obama’s $1.9 billion Zika-prevention request but doesn’t go out of his way to push for it.

He can’t have it both ways.

Jermaine House, DCCC spokesman

“He can’t have it both ways,” said Jermaine House, a DCCC spokesman.

Curbelo blamed his opponents for seeing everything in a partisan light.

“Extreme partisans have trouble understanding that on every issue — on every vote — I always try to do what’s best for our community and for our country,” he said. “They attack me because they will always and have always put their personal political interests and ambitions first. That’s not what our community deserves.”

Like most incumbents, Curbelo has raised a pile of special-interest money, and has traveled as far as California to collect donor checks. To this day, he refuses to disclose the list of clients who hired him as a consultant before his election, a question that dogged him in 2014.

But Democrats have struggled so far to make much of their criticism stick. Some of them have even praised him.

MSNBC host Joy-Ann Reid, a former Miami Herald op-ed columnist, told WIOD last week she considers Curbelo a rising GOP “star.”

“Carlos Curbelo is actually the guy who deserves all of the hype that Marco Rubio actually gets,” she said. “He actually is a star in the making in the Republican Party, as an Hispanic Republican, somebody informed and smart and that really could be a future leader of the party.”

Curbelo knows that sort of compliment is unlikely to endear him to some in the GOP. But he said his charge of representing a middle-of-the-road district as a Republican is more liberating than confining. The idea of campaigning for a district heavily tilted to conservatives? “That’s not me,” he said.

“Is there some political exposure?” in his current seat. “Yes.”