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'Trumpism isn't the future.' Ousted Miami Republican reflects on election loss

Alex Daugherty, McClatchy Washington Bureau on

Published in News & Features

WASHINGTON -- Carlos Curbelo couldn't win a two-front war.

National Democrats spent more money in Curbelo's district than any other across the country on a health care-centric TV campaign. Donald Trump spent the final stretches of the campaign attacking immigrants, which didn't help Curbelo in his majority-Hispanic district months after he led an unsuccessful GOP rebellion to force Congress to act on the issue.

And Curbelo's Democratic opponent, Debbie Mucarsel-Powell, avoided strategic and ethical blunders that plagued former Rep. Joe Garcia, the Democrat Curbelo beat in 2014 and 2016.

The combination added up to a 1.8 percentage point loss.

"I think the number one factor in my race was spending," Curbelo said, as he worked out of a Washington coffee shop during his final weeks in office. "We got outspent significantly and a lot of the casual voters that showed up, especially late, voted straight ticket Democrat and I'd say that was really what made the difference. The barrage of ads and negative attacks do work, as much as everyone says they hate them."

Curbelo's assessment of his race is a hat tip to national Democrats, who considered it a personal affront that he was able to win, by more than 11 percentage points, the most Democratic-leaning seat in the country held by a Republican in 2016. Instead of repeating mistakes like backing Annette Taddeo's failed primary campaign against Garcia two years ago, the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee encouraged Mucarsel-Powell to enter the race early and began a campaign focused on healthcare in a district where nearly 100,000 people are enrolled in Obamacare. The DCCC spent just under $7.2 million to defeat Curbelo, the most the group spent in any race across the country. The haul was the largest share of $20.1 million spent on TV ads in the district by campaigns and outside groups from both parties, according to Advertising Analytics. House Majority PAC, a super PAC that seeks to elect Democrats, also spent about $2.5 million on TV ads in the district.

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In late September, Mucarsel-Powell's campaign and the DCCC began spending $1 million a week on ads related to healthcare and kept the pace up through Election Day. In contrast, the National Republican Congressional Committee spent over $1 million on a TV ad that tried to cast Mucarsel-Powell as untrustworthy due to her husband's previous work for a Miami-based company that was partially owned by a Ukrainian oligarch.

But Mucarsel-Powell avoided a Democratic primary and was largely mistake-free on the trail, making it tougher for Republican attacks on her character to stick. And Curbelo was left to campaign on a tax bill he helped draft that became less popular as the campaign turned to its final months, and forced to deal with his vote to repeal Obamacare.

Trump, described by Curbelo as a "media hog" who drowned out localized messaging by his campaign and other Republican groups, chose to go all-in on keeping the U.S. Senate in GOP hands at the expense of Republicans from suburban districts, like Curbelo. Come January, Miami Rep. Mario Diaz-Balart will represent the most densely populated congressional district in the country held by a Republican, as the GOP was routed in suburbs like Orange County, California. Miami-Dade County will have four Democrats representing the five districts in the county.

"The national narrative the last few weeks was just very negative in terms of the immigration issue, the talk about birthright citizenship, the whole caravan circus," Curbelo said. "With everything being so nationalized, this idea that all politics is local is increasingly untrue. I was able to preserve my own brand and people were aware of it, just not enough people, especially in the face of a spending gap."

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