A political rematch in key South Florida Congressional district?

By: - June 14, 2019 7:00 am

Carlos Curbelo and Debbie Murcasel-Powell

WASHINGTON – Democrats are downplaying the prospect of a rematch in a key South Florida Congressional district that was one of the national upsets last fall, with a Democrat snagging a U.S. House seat from a Republican incumbent.

Democratic U.S. Rep. Debbie Mucarsel-Powell, a 48-year-old Latina college administrator, ousted Republican Carlos Curbelo in the 2018 race, helping tip the U.S. House of Representatives to Democratic control.

But now Curbelo is floating the idea of challenging Mucarsel-Powell again for the seat (District 26) in 2020. He told the Miami Herald that he’ll make a final decision this summer.

Curbelo first won the seat in 2014, and narrowly lost his bid for a third term in one of the most closely watched U.S. House races in the country. Republicans have their sights on the seat and have listed it as a target seat in 2020. So far, one Republican – restaurateur and Trump ally Irina Vilariño – has announced her candidacy.

South Florida Democratic U.S. Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz, a former chair of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, told the Florida Phoenix that a rematch in the race “doesn’t appear to be imminent” and expressed confidence in Mucarsel-Powell’s chances of winning a second term.

“She’s going to get reelected on the strength of her record,” Wasserman Schultz said, adding that Mucarsel-Powell is “on top of issues that matter to her constituents,” such as health care, civil rights, immigration, and transportation.

Jessica Taylor, an analyst with the nonpartisan Cook Political Report, said a rematch would be competitive but that the district is trending Democratic. “The bottom line,” she said, “is being a Republican in a changing Miami district is just very hard, especially when you look at some of the president’s policies on immigration.”

Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee spokesperson Avery Jaffe called Curbelo’s comments about staging a rematch a “publicity stunt.”

Curbelo’s comments came shortly after he was disinvited to testify before Congress about climate change. Among Congressional Republicans, he was a rare voice advocating for government response to the climate crisis. The low-lying South Florida congressional district sprawls over the Everglades, along Florida Bay, and the marshy southwest coast.

Politico reported that Mucarsel-Powell and other Democrats objected to Curbelo’s scheduled appearance, and that Mucarsel-Powell tried to raise concerns about it with U.S. Rep. Richard Neal, chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee, but inadvertently approached another member instead.

Mucarsel-Powell spokesman Sebastian Silva denied that report. “She doesn’t sit on the committee and neither does she have a say on what hearings they hold or what witnesses they invite,” he said in a statement. “She did not ask any member of leadership to disinvite anyone.”

Though his offer to testify was rescinded, Curbelo attended the hearing anyway and published his testimony with the Center on Global Energy Policy at Columbia University, where he is a visiting fellow. The snub, he told the Miami Herald, “obviously brought the idea of running for public office to the forefront.”

Curbelo, who works as an advisor to a marijuana lobbying group, could not be reached for comment. On Twitter, he slammed Democrats for what he called “infantile games.”

“Another day in Congress; another day that petty partisanship trumps the bipartisan collaboration that is necessary to solve our country’s greatest challenges,” he wrote.

GOP sees pickup opportunity

“We definitely see (the seat) as a pickup opportunity,” said Camille Gallo, a spokeswoman for the National Republican Congressional Committee. “The DCCC (Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee) has to be very scared” of a possible rematch against Curbelo, she said. Despite an influx of cash from the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, Mucarsel-Powell won the seat by the slimmest of margins (fewer than 5,000 votes) in her race against Curbelo and now “has a record to run on,” Gallo charged.

But Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee spokesperson Jaffe says Mucarsel-Powell is in a stronger position in 2020 because of her record – not in spite of it. And he notes she has the power of incumbency and has gotten off to a strong fundraising start in an expensive media market. “If [Curbelo] ran, with President Trump on the ballot, he’d face the same result in 2020 as he did in 2018,” he said.

Hillary Clinton carried the district by a wide margin (16 percentage points) in 2016, and national political observers consider Mucarsel-Powell the favorite at this early point in the cycle.

The nonpartisan political newsletter Inside Elections lists the seat in its “solid Democrat” category — an assessment that editor and publisher Nathan Gonzales said could change if Curbelo jumps into the race. In that case, he said it would likely be a “top-tier race” but that Mucarsel-Powell would have an initial edge.

Anticipating a tough battle in 2020, the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee says it will make defending the 26th district a priority and will provide Mucarsel-Powell and other vulnerable Democrats political and fundraising help.

“Our majority hinges on these members from tough seats winning reelection in 2020,” Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee chair Cheri Bustos said in a news release, adding: “We’re sending a clear message that the DCCC will stand shoulder to shoulder with them in the fight ahead.”

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Allison Stevens
Allison Stevens

Allison Stevens is a freelance writer for the States Newsroom's Washington, D.C. bureau.