By Rachael Bade
October 22, 2016
It was a rare feel-good moment in a vicious campaign: Flanked by House Speaker Paul Ryan in an elementary school this week, freshman GOP Rep. Carlos Curbelo promoted a pet program to help children of immigrants in his Hispanic-heavy district learn English.
But across town at that very moment, Curbelo's Democratic opponent was staging a protest timed to Ryan's visit. The message from former Rep. Joe Garcia: A vote for Curbelo is worse than a vote for Donald Trump. No matter that the freshman Republican has opposed Trump all year long.
When it comes to House Democrats’ ongoing quest to hitch Trump’s offensive comments to vulnerable GOP incumbents, Republicans representing districts with large Latino populations are feeling the most heat. Their nominee has called illegal immigrants “rapists," “criminals” — and, at the last debate, “bad hombres." Not to mention Trump's calls for forced deportation and a towering border wall.
Democrats are sparing no effort or expense on the strategy. Their success, particularly in places like Florida's 26th district, where three of every four residents are Latino, could go a long way in deciding whether Democrats can pull off a once-unthinkable takeover of the House.
“While Trump may say outrageous things, my opponent votes for them,” Garcia told POLITICO in an interview, summarizing his plea to oust Curbelo. “His record is worse than Donald Trump’s.”
Days earlier, Ryan was on the Texas border to help another first-term congressman swimming against the Trump tide, Will Hurd.
“We know that Donald Trump and Will Hurd do not stand with our community: Trump wants to deport 11 million immigrants, and Hurd voted to throw DREAMers out of the country,” a Spanish-speaking narrator says in a new ad by the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee. Hispanics comprise more than 70 percent of Hurd’s district, and Democrats are capitalizing on palpable fears of Trump: “Now more than ever, we have to make use of the power of our vote to stand up to Trump and Hurd.”
Attacks like these are forcing Republicans representing Latino-heavy districts to work overtime to show their constituents they’re nothing like the man leading their ticket. In California’s San Joaquin Valley, where just less than half the population is Latino, Rep. Jeff Denham speaks Spanish on the trail, and is often joined by his wife, who is of Mexican-Puerto Rican descent. Denham touts the Amigo of the Year award he received from a Hispanic organization and reminds voters that he was one of the few House Republicans to support the Senate’s landmark bipartisan immigration reform package (“which was controversial at the time,” he adds for good measure).
Curbelo is doing something similar: He frequently reminds voters and reporters that he's opposed Trump from Day One and tries to turn the conversation back to his legislative record. In English and Spanish, the Republican pitches himself as an independent thinker who can work with both parties but stand up to them as well.
“I can’t control what Donald Trump says; I can control my own actions,” Curbelo said in an interview. “That’s what I have to offer: [I'm] someone who is willing to sit with Republicans and Democrats to find solutions.”
Democrats are pushing the opposite message. On Tuesday, Democratic-aligned outside spender, House Majority PAC, poured six-figures into a Spanish-language ad linking vulnerable Rep. David Valadao (R-Calif.) to Trump’s insults. Valadao is considered one of the most vulnerable incumbents on the ballot this fall, along with Curbelo, Hurd and Denham.
“Donald Trump attacked our heritage, and hatred is on the rise, but Republican Congressman David Valadao said ‘absolutely’ he would support Trump,” says the ad, which the Los Angeles Times called “misleading” because the quote was before the GOP primary. (Valadao announced in June he would not support Trump. ) “Say ‘NO’ to Trump. ‘NO’ to Valadao. ‘NO’ to hate.”
Democrats also are having a heyday linking Trump to Denham, a two-term rising-star House Republican who refuses to disavow Trump but won’t say how he plans to vote. The Cook Political Report recently moved the race from "leans Republican" to "tossup"; Denham's opponent, beekeeper Michael Eggman, says his internal polling has him slightly ahead.
Denham blames the DCCC, not Trump, for his newly vulnerable position. “They’re trying to spend a lot of money to try to get some movement," he said. "I think that we’re going to have to continue to spend a lot of money to counter-balance the attack ads against me.”
Democrats in these districts argue their message is working, though no one will truly know until Election Day. Aides to Hurd’s opponent, Pete Gallego, say a record number of Latinos are registering to vote this election.
“This is the place that Trump’s signature proposal would take place, just along the border… so we think that’s a message resonating,” said Lyndsey Rodriguez, Gallego’s spokeswoman.
House GOP leaders have tried to help their candidates fight back. Ryan (R-Wis.) and Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) have visited the districts of Curbelo, Hurd, Valadeo and Denham to raise money. And the Congressional Leadership Fund and American Action Network, which are aligned with House Republicans, are spending millions of dollars of their own.
“Curbelo is a workhorse among workhorses in Congress,” Ryan said during a campaign stop here this week.
GOP insiders say Curbelo is not only leading but that his margin has grown in recent weeks. They point to Curbelo as the perfect example of a Republican successfully finding daylight from Trump.
If Curbelo is succeeding, though, it might be in part because of issues particular to his district. About a third of his constituents, like Curbelo, are of Cuban descent, and he's won plaudits for his opposition to President Barack Obama's efforts to normalize relations with the island country. Curbelo has also benefited from an election fraud scandal involving a former aide to Garcia who pleaded guilty to a misdemeanor; though Garcia was never indicted and denies any involvement, Curbelo argues his opponent knew of the scheme and is corrupt.
At a Wednesday news conference at his campaign headquarters, Curbelo was clearly frustrated that all reporters wanted to know was who he'll vote for on Election Day. The former school board member and public relations professional said that “without question the presidential election, especially this year, creates a lot of noise, and it’s always tough for people down the ballot to compete with the noise and the contention of a presidential race.”
He’s become pretty good at changing the subject back to his legislative accomplishments, however — something GOP leaders urged all Republicans in tight races to do earlier this year.
“This guy went to Congress for two years and he passed one bill to name a post office,” Curbelo said of Garcia. “I’ve worked with plenty of Democrats in Congress, and we’ve passed bills together, substantive bills.”
Though Curbelo is regarded as one of the most moderate House Republicans, Garcia calls him an extremist for opposing Obamacare (this district has one of the highest enrollment rates in the country) and voting to cut Pell Grants.
He also accuses Curbelo of trying to block Obama's proposal to shield millions of undocumented immigrants from deportation. Curbelo was actually one of a handful of Republicans who backed the plan.
“His record is worse than Donald Trump’s record,” Garcia said of Curbelo.
Curbelo, however, doesn’t sound much like Trump. He boasted that he helped GOP leaders pass fast-track trade authority. He noted that he was an original sponsor of "no-fly, no-buy," a gun control proposal from Democrats. And twice in a 25-minute car ride, he bragged about working with Obama on things like environmental protections, including on an Air Force One flight to celebrate Earth Day in the Everglades.
These are the things he’s banking on to save him.
“I’m running on my record," Curbelo said. "I have a good record, but I expect this to be a competitive race.”
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