After recent wins in Virginia, New Jersey and Alabama, Democrats are euphoric about the opportunity the 2018 elections present the party at the local, state and national levels. There’s particular focus is on Congress, where Democrats are only 24 seats away from gaining a majority. Republicans are faced with popular incumbents retiring, meaning that untested candidates will have to overcome the unpopularity of President Trump.
Here in Miami-Dade County, Democrats have a unique opportunity to pick up two of those seats.
Almost all the attention and money has been on District 27, where U.S. Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen is retiring after 24 years. This once-in-a-generation opening has attracted most of the Democratic bench. The district lies in the heart of Miami-Dade County, and with a plethora of well-qualified candidates this race is sucking up all the oxygen in the Democratic tank. However the nominee will have a cakewalk in the general election and, barring any major screw-ups, should be able to gain the seat easily.
The real test for Miami-Dade Democrats — the place where it needs to plant the flag and win — is in Congressional District 26, currently held by Republican Rep. Carlos Curbelo. If national Democrats want to take control of the U.S. House of Representatives, it starts with a win in this district. It is literally the bluest district held by a Republican incumbent, largely because the Democratic candidate in 2016 was weakened by a bruising primary. In the presidential election, Hillary Clinton carried this South Dade district by 16 points, which usually should be enough to carry her party’s congressional candidate. District 26 even voted Democratic in the 2010 and 2014 gubernatorial races.
The Democrats have a seemingly qualified fresh face in Debbie Mucarsel-Powell, who immigrated to the United States as a young girl from Ecuador. She looks like the girl next door and speaks perfect English. Her professional background is in the not-for-profit sector, and since 2003 she has worked at the FIU School of Health. All this sounds nice and rosy. To date Mucarsel-Powell has raised almost $200,000, but she is going to have to raise a lot more to beat Curbelo.
Curbelo has served credibly and has been extremely clever politically. Taking a page out of Ros- Lehtinen’s playbook, he has carefully cultivated an image of being a moderate Republican, even to the point of working on climate change initiatives with former Democratic Congressman Patrick Murphy. At last report, Curbelo raised almost $2 million, and Democrats have to assume that the Republican Party will get him all the money he needs.
The problem with Curbelo is that when the chips are down, he votes with the administration — to the tune of 84 percent of the time. More important, he voted to abolish the Affordable Care Act without a meaningful replacement. This is most unfortunate because his constituents made up the second largest number of people in the nation dependent on the ACA.
Naturally, Curbelo voted for the tax bill that, while popular now, will only further increase the disparity between the 1 percent of wealthy Americans and the rest of the country. In a rare moment of glibness, Curbelo even called Social Security a Ponzi scheme. When Trump really needs him, Curbelo will drink the Kool-Aid with his fellow Republicans.
Memo to the Democratic Party and donor class: You must win this race. Why? The U.S. House of Representatives is a hierarchical body. Unlike the Senate, where every member could be important, in the House power flows from the top down. The speaker and his party control all the committees and the agenda of the institution. The speaker represents the majority party, and if you believe there has to be a check on Trump, you need to help change the majority from Republican to Democrat.
At this critical time, the only thing that matters in Congress is not the individual but whether there is a D or R after their name. Unfortunate, but true. So Miami-Dade Democrats, you will have done nothing unless you win both these Congressional seats — and you need to pay special attention to the one in South Dade.
Mike Abrams is former chairman of the Dade Democratic Party, a former state legislator and currently a policy adviser to Ballard Partners.