HOMESTEAD, Fla. — Rep. Carlos Curbelo (R-Fla.) vowed this past week to oppose President Trump’s emerging trade deal with Mexico and Canada if it does not include protections for Florida’s specialty farm crops, prompting cheers from Larry Dunagan and Lynn Chaffin.
Dunagan grows beans, squash and avocados on his 300-acre farm, while Chaffin has been growing tomatoes for 36 years in this region 40 miles south of Miami. They are both proud Trump supporters, but they do not mind Curbelo’s periodic clashes with the president over how Trump talks about immigrants or the policy of separating migrant children from their parents at the border.
They plan to happily vote for the 38-year-old second-term Republican because he looks after their interests. “What more really, in this day and age, can you ask for? We have his ear, he comes and listens to us, he’s here today,” Dunagan said.
“He’s been very attentive to our concerns,” Chaffin chimed in.
In one of the tightest House races, Curbelo is trying to keep alive the old theory that all politics is local. But that standard might finally be laid to rest in the Trump era.
Politics, more and more, seems to be all about national issues and the prevailing sentiment of whether voters in congressional districts or particular states support the president at that moment. Curbelo’s district is one of 25 held by Republicans that Hillary Clinton won. There are 12 held by Democrats where Trump won.
The modern record low for ticket splitting came after the 2012 elections, when just 26 districts voted for a congressman from the opposite party they backed in the most recent presidential election.
By the time all votes are counted next month, the House realignment will likely drop below that record.
Given those polling trends, Democrats have intensely focused on Curbelo ever since Trump took the oath of office 21 months ago.
A longtime bastion of Cuban exiles who strongly supported Republicans, this district recoiled from Trump in 2016, favoring Clinton by 16 percentage points.
No Republican seeking reelection is running in a more anti-Trump district. His congressional neighbor, the retiring Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, is the only GOP lawmaker representing a more pro-Clinton district — from narrowly favoring Barack Obama in 2008 to giving Clinton a margin of nearly 20 percentage points two years ago.
Republicans have poured money into a last-ditch effort to hold the Ros-Lehtinen seat after Democrats nominated Donna Shalala, 77, the former health secretary during the administration of Bill Clinton. Republican Maria Elvira Salazar, 56, a former Telemundo news anchor, has run a stronger than expected campaign in this heavily Latino district.
Curbelo believes that, at least in this corner of America, voters still evaluate each candidate and that individual brands matter.
“This is a community where ticket splitting is still a thing, it’s still popular. I know it’s not in most parts of the country,” he said inside El Rinconcito Latino, a Cuban restaurant in the strip mall where his campaign headquarters is located in Miami.
He rattled off the numbers by which Clinton won the district, noting that Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) narrowly won there in 2016. Yet Curbelo piled up a victory margin of 12 percentage points.
That’s a 28-point differential between the presidential margin and his reelection.
“It validated my approach to this work. I’ve been unapologetic about being willing to reach across the aisle,” Curbelo said.
Debbie Mucarsel-Powell, a former medical school associate dean, begs to differ.
The Democratic nominee hesitated to enter the race because she knew of Curbelo’s popularity in a district that stretches from the western edge of Miami through the Everglades and down to Key West.
“Then he took that vote to repeal the Affordable Care Act, that was the day I decided. That’s when I knew I was going to do it,” she said in an interview outside City Hall in Homestead.
That came in May 2017, when Curbelo supported a leadership-crafted bill to repeal the Affordable Care Act and its core protections, and replace it with what he considered a more market-driven system.
Mucarsel-Powell is using that vote over and over again to say that his moderate image at home gets overrun in Washington by a conservative party that was willing to allow states to do away with insurance protections for those with preexisting medical conditions.
“Let’s be honest and let’s be clear about what the Republican Party’s agenda is,” she said.
She is running a fairly conventional Democratic campaign on the issues.
She is “open to looking at all the options” on health care but does not take a position on the liberal Medicare-for-all proposal from the most liberal wing of her party.
She supports all recent gun-control measures.
And she is using the GOP’s failure to protect millions of undocumented immigrants brought to the country as children as a singular failure by Curbelo.
A moderate rebellion on immigration in the House ended at an impasse in June, but Curbelo called it a “very important exercise.” Both proposals — a compromise bill written by moderates and a more conservative draft — fell well short of passage.
For years, however, conservatives had opposed bringing any legislation to the House floor that included a path to citizenship, arguing a majority of Republicans would oppose it. But a narrow majority of GOP lawmakers supported the Curbelo-backed bill that included such a provision along with funding for Trump’s proposed border wall.
“Now we know that a majority of Republicans support a path to citizenship for 2 million undocumented immigrants. Not just a majority of Republicans, every member of Republican leadership, the White House. We got Kirstjen Nielsen, even Jeff Sessions, to support this legislation,” Curbelo said, noting two Cabinet members with very conservative views on immigration.
A small but influential group of younger House Republicans regularly talk about the immigration rebellion as a first act in their effort to force leadership out of “the status quo” of gridlock on so many issues, Curbelo said. “We want to build a better politics in this country, which means building a Republican Party that’s more responsive to the rising generations of Americans.”
But first, he has to win an election.