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Florida GOP Congressmen Tries To Win Re-Election By Distancing Himself From Trump

Oct 29, 2018
Originally published on October 29, 2018 5:41 pm
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In their quest to win back the House of Representatives, Democrats are focused on 25 House seats currently held by Republicans in districts that Hillary Clinton won in 2016. Florida Republican Carlos Curbelo is in one of those districts, and he is betting that his independent reputation will attract Democrats and Republicans alike. NPR's Kelsey Snell reports.

KELSEY SNELL, BYLINE: Carlos Curbelo isn't shy about confrontation. Here he is this summer bashing everybody - fellow Republicans who backed President Trump's hard line on immigration and Democrats who wouldn't cut a deal with Trump to protect people who were brought to the country illegally as children.

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CARLOS CURBELO: They prefer the politics - the petty politics of immigration instead of the solutions for immigration.

SNELL: That's how Curbelo has spent most of the past two years. He publicly opposed Trump and Republican leaders on major issues like immigration, climate change and trade. But he also largely voted to back the president's agenda when it comes to health care and taxes. Now he's running for re-election in a district that Hillary Clinton won by 16 points. And he's running on a campaign focused heavily on his reputation for bucking his party.

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CURBELO: I don't remember ever apologizing for anything I've said. Whatever I've said is what I believe. So why would I (laughter) walk it back, you know?

SNELL: That same approach helped him win in 2016. But Democrats like Maria Elena Lopez, who helps run the party chapter in Miami-Dade, say that independent image isn't true.

MARIA ELENA LOPEZ: So he talks the talk that he's a moderate. But when you see his voting record, that is completely not the case. And unfortunately, most voters do not do that extra step. And they just hear him, and they say, wow, you know, he sounds good.

SNELL: This year, his opponent, Democrat Debbie Mucarsel-Powell, is trying to change that.

DEBBIE MUCARSEL-POWELL: You know, they need information. We need to provide information and access and make voting easy.

SNELL: Mucarsel-Powell is an energetic former educator, mom and an immigrant from Ecuador. She's running on protecting immigrants, health care and the environment, all things that Curbelo says he also wants to protect. They're locked in a battle to convince voters who's telling the truth.

MUCARSEL-POWELL: I should be ahead by 16 points if it's a straight Democratic district. But it's not. It's complicated.

SNELL: Convincing voters who's right is a unique challenge in a diverse district that stretches from the suburbs of Miami south through farm fields and on to the tourist hub of Key West. About 70 percent of the population is Hispanic. Roughly half are of Cuban descent. Curbelo, the son of Cuban exiles, gets a warm welcome from a lot of voters here. He slips seamlessly between Spanish and English when he's talking to constituents. And he pairs boundary-pushing politics with personal attention. Take a recent event where Curbelo and Senator Marco Rubio were pushing back on Trump's new trade agreement with Mexico and Canada all while hardly mentioning Trump by name.

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CURBELO: We want to have strong trade relationships with our allies, but we believe that this trade should be fair.

SNELL: They focused on a new bill to help area fruit and vegetable growers who were largely left out of the new trade agreement. People like Republican tomato grower Kern Carpenter say that personal connection is important.

KERN CARPENTER: I mean, it's hard not to like a guy like that. I mean, he's - he comes to listen and tries to do something about the problem that affects his state and his area. And that's all you can ask.

SNELL: Relationships like that are the benefit of incumbency. Most challengers have to convince voters that they'll follow through on their promises. But Mucarsel-Powell also worries that the people her party needs to win, people like those who work long hours in the service sector or tourism, may not show up at the polls.

MUCARSEL-POWELL: If we get our people to come out and vote, I win. It's going to be a close race. For me, my focus, my campaign's focus, is making sure they know who I am, my message but also getting them out to voting sites.

SNELL: The last few days of the campaign will come down to whose message voters believe. And it might help Curbelo's case that Trump himself is coming to Florida this week but not to campaign for Curbelo. That may be just what he needs. Kelsey Snell, NPR News, Miami.

(SOUNDBITE OF CARIBOU'S "BEES") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.