Carlos Curbelo’s Election Dilemma: Walking the Line Between Love and Hate for Trump
All while trying to pull the GOP away from Trump-ism.
MIAMI—“You’re not really doing this, are you?”
House Speaker Paul Ryan (R-WI) had not yet come to grips with the fact that Rep. Carlos Curbelo (R-FL) was about to undertake an extraordinary effort to defy the speaker and his leadership team by forcing the House to vote on immigration reform, an effort that has been stalled for decades. Ryan wanted to try one last time to stop Curbelo in his tracks.
It was too late.
“I already did,” Curbelo responded. “You stood here and said we were going to address this. And we’ve waited for months. And nothing has happened. It’s the only option we feel we have left.”
That critical moment next to the Republican dais on the House floor set off weeks of negotiations between Ryan, Curbelo and the House’s most conservative members. It exacerbated and further exposed long-standing rifts among Republicans over immigration policy; but perhaps more importantly, it was a moment that many in the party hope can lay the groundwork for a larger-scale revolt within the GOP.
Ryan, 48, is on his way out; Curbelo, 38, is on his way up—but only if his brand of conservatism can survive long enough in Donald Trump’s Republican party, and if the moderate two-term lawmaker can successfully head off a tough re-election bid in this blue district.
Curbelo is one of the few congressional Republicans routinely going rogue out of a party that has largely been deferential to the president. His actions are owed, at least partly, to his desire to shape the party’s post-Trump future—in other words, pull the GOP away from Trumpism.
“There is a solid group of Republicans who believe in free enterprise, in the empowerment of the individual to achieve whatever it is that they want in life, strong national defense, good relationships with like-minded nations, pro-immigration, legal immigration—we believe our country has a right to enforce its borders, too,” Curbelo said in an interview in his Capitol Hill office. “And we’re fighting to either preserve what’s left of that party or to re-launch that party in the near future.”
But the most immediate question for the south Florida lawmaker is whether he can survive long enough, politically, to make that happen.
At Sergio’s in south Miami, Curbelo reverts to his first language, Spanish, to order Cuban coffee and croquetas. The restaurant sits along a strip mall, but its most important feature reminds Cubans of their home country, Curbelo explains. There’s a large open window where people can order coffee and other small bites on the go, much like the similar set-ups back home.
As a World Cup soccer game played in the background, Curbelo tore into his colleagues who had just voted to quash his immigration efforts.
“For most members, the politics of immigration are a lot safer than the solutions for immigration,” he said, at one point stopping to cheer after the Brazilian team scored a goal. “You take securing a future for Dreamers, which is an 80 percent issue, and more border security, which is a 70 percent issue—you put them together and you get 40 percent support. It’s a lack of courage on both sides to say, hey, we had to accept these things that we don’t like but we got something that’s really important to us.”
Though he was born in the U.S., the son of Cuban exiles speaks exclusively in Spanish with his daughters, Sylvie, 8, and Carolina, 6. His parents left Cuba for some of the same reasons—economic and political oppression—that immigrants come to the U.S. today, a background that informs his progressive views on immigration policy. Although he has never visited Cuba, the culture of his ancestors prevails in his household—and it’s on purpose.
In fact, it’s what got him in trouble with the House’s largest bloc of Hispanic lawmakers.
Last year, Curbelo sought to join the Congressional Hispanic Caucus but was blocked. All 31 members are Democrats. As Curbelo tells it, they were shocked to learn that a Republican would want to join their ranks.
Curbelo recounted a long conversation with Rep. Michelle Lujan Grisham (D-N.M.), the chairwoman of the caucus, during which he told her he felt discriminated against because of his party affiliation.
Curbelo mentioned to her that he was proud of his Cuban roots and noted that he speaks Spanish with his daughters. (Lujan Grisham does not speak Spanish.)
“I don’t know if you speak Spanish, but—” Curbelo said, claiming he did not know at the time that she did not speak the language. That was the final straw for Lujan Grisham. But Curbelo didn’t care.
“Think about what you’re saying,” Curbelo says he told Lujan Grisham. “Do you think that other people throughout our history have been told that? Like maybe blacks trying to join a country club?”
Lujan Grisham, he said, “got up and started yelling and walked out.”
“How can a group that criticizes the president for his divisive rhetoric—for singling out ethnic groups and religious groups like Muslims—how can that same group that champions diversity and inclusion refuse to admit someone who has a solid record on the most prominent issue for the Hispanic community, which is immigration?” Curbelo said.
Hispanic Caucus members who opposed Curbelo’s bid to join the group said his vote to repeal Obamacare earlier that year, in addition to his conservative tendencies on fiscal issues and taxes, made them question whether Curbelo shared their “values”
“I know this word is usually reserved for conservatives, but it was bigoted. It was a decision motivated by bigotry,” Curbelo said. “And they essentially publicly advocated for the segregation of the Hispanic community. If your leanings are more conservative or you’re not affiliated with the Democratic party, you don’t count.”
Lujan Grisham’s office declined to provide an on-record response, though she ended up voting in favor of admitting him into the Hispanic Caucus.
Curbelo has increasingly become a reviled figure among the most liberal House members—even though he’s one of the most progressive Republicans and agrees with them on many issues.
The congressman, whose district includes the Everglades and the Florida Keys, recently proposed legislation to tax carbon emissions. When he arrived in Congress, he co-founded the Climate Solutions Caucus. On immigration, he has consistently voted with Democrats on legislation aimed at protecting so-called DREAMers, who were brought to the U.S. illegally as children, and he has even employed their same tactics by voting against unrelated spending bills in protest of Congress’ inaction on the issue. After last year’s deadly shooting in Las Vegas, Curbelo swiftly introduced legislation to ban so-called “bump stocks.” He opposed Trump from the get-go in the 2016 campaign and had initially backed Jeb Bush. He also supports same-sex marriage.
In 2016, he stayed overnight at the home of an undocumented farm worker in Homestead to get a sense of the day-to-day life for immigrants living in the U.S. illegally. He woke up with her the next morning before sunrise to pick okra with his hosts.
“It’s grueling work,” he said of the early-morning labor. “I’m really glad I did it. I didn’t let people know I did it, I didn’t have media there or anything like that.”
It’s hardly Trump-ian—some would say it’s not even conservative. But, to Curbelo, that label is being warped.
Conservatism is being tested under Trump, and Curbelo is seeking to protect it from Trump’s impulses. But just as he rejected the idea of abandoning his Catholicism amid the church’s sex-abuse scandals in the early 2000s, he feels an obligation to remain in the political arena to shape the post-Trump Republican party.
“As a Catholic back then I said I believe in this church, I believe that it’s a great force for good in the world. It’s just going through a tough period. I want to be a part of making it better and revitalizing it,” he said. “And I think for Republicans that have struggled with the direction the party has gone in the last few years, we’re at that crossroads. Do we just cut and run? Or do we believe that there has to be a free-enterprise party in America that can respond to the needs and the concerns of rising generations?”
In the nearby town of Homestead, Curbelo stopped by New Hope, an addiction treatment center focusing on opioid abuse—the only one in his district.
The last time he visited was in September 2016 with Ohio Republican Gov. John Kasich, who at the time was helping Curbelo campaign for re-election. Curbelo has long associated himself with Republicans like Kasich and former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, politicians once viewed as mainstream but who are an endangered species in today’s GOP.
It was during the 2016 campaign that Curbelo emerged as one of Trump’s loudest critics, even comparing him to Hugo Chávez, the late Venezuelan dictator. But he didn’t vote for Hillary Clinton. And he isn’t yet ready to back someone like Kasich to challenge Trump in 2020, although he isn’t ruling it out.
“Look, if we get immigration reform done under this president, if this trade experiment somehow works out—which, I don’t see how that happens, but maybe—I think at the end of the day despite all the unfortunate rhetoric and the divisive rhetoric, he deserves to be judged for his accomplishments,” Curbelo said. “And we’ll see what that looks like in a year and a half.”
First elected in 2014, Curbelo faces a tough bid this year to keep his job. Clinton’s margin of victory in 2016 was wider here than in any other district where an incumbent Republican is running for re-election; she defeated Trump by 16 points in Florida’s 26th congressional district, which includes parts of Miami-Dade County and all of Monroe County. But Curbelo defeated his Democratic opponent that year by 12 points, suggesting he can largely avoid an association with Trump’s unpopularity this time around.
Democrats trying to derail Curbelo’s re-election hope to seize on his vote to repeal Obamacare in a district where nearly 100,000 people rely on it for health coverage. But for Democrats in the Trump era, every day brings something brand new to be outraged about, and the shelf life of a story rarely exceeds more than a few days, often giving an incumbent the advantage.
Susan MacManus, a political science professor at the University of South Florida, says voters’ interest in health care as a political issue “ebbs and flows” but is often among their top five concerns when they choose who will represent them in Congress. But it’s unclear whether it will be a determining factor in November.
”Everybody’s having trouble gauging where the dial is going to stop when the voting starts,” MacManus said, mentioning anti-Trump movements that have gained power since the inauguration, including the March For Our Lives, the “Keeping Families Together” movement, and the Women’s March.
Curbelo finds himself in a unusual spot. In order to win re-election here, he must keep Trump supporters in his corner while proving to the overwhelming majority of his constituents who voted for Clinton that he will continue to stand up to the president.
A victory in November against Debbie Mucarsel-Powell, his likely Democratic challenger, will depend on whether Curbelo can convince constituents he’s still an independent voice—and, perhaps more importantly, whether he raises enough hell among Democrats and Republicans in Washington that voters here will want to re-hire their personal attack dog.
Several times throughout our conversation in his Capitol Hill office, Curbelo put his hand on a stack of 120 hand-signed thank-you letters to the Republicans who voted for the immigration bill he recently helped craft. He frequently referenced both the vote tally and the letters to lament his deep frustrations with what he views as both sides’ desire to keep the immigration debate alive simply to use it as a political cudgel.
“The Democrats have to oppose anything we do on immigration because they want the American people to believe that all Republicans are anti-immigrant. So anything we propose is just bad, even if it guarantees a future for a group of people—I call them the victims of a broken immigration system—they have expressed a consistent desire to support,” Curbelo said.
“And this is where people put their own political interests, their desire to be re-elected, over what’s good for the country,” he added. “I have no doubt that our country would be so better off with this policy—and that people who agree with me voted against it is just, it’s depressing.”
He devoted nearly two months to the effort, often taking phone calls and organizing weekend strategy sessions while lawmakers were back in their home districts—even delaying some trips home in order to continue the negotiations in stuffy Capitol Hill offices. In the end, the effort failed.
But behind the scenes, Curbelo said, he was heartened that many GOP lawmakers—who were, in his view, ignorant about basic facts of the current system—were open to learning more about the underlying policies.
During those conversations, he fielded questions such as, “Why don’t these [Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals] immigrants just apply for a green card like everyone else?” His colleagues apparently did not realize that DACA recipients cannot apply for green cards.
Throughout that process, he realized it was easier for many of his colleagues to double down on misinformation that he believes is at the heart of GOP orthodoxy on immigration policy.
But not all of them.
“These people were willing to say, ‘I don’t care about that, this is the right thing to do,’” he said, holding up the list of Republicans who backed his effort.
He has confronted the Trump administration more directly than most on his side of the aisle. For example, as other Republicans verbalized their opposition to the “zero tolerance” family-separation policy, Curbelo took it upon himself to visit the three facilities in south Florida where children were being housed.
Last month, he was barred from entering the Homestead Temporary Shelter for Unaccompanied Children. Sitting inside his Chevrolet Suburban before driving to the next site, Curbelo fumed at administration officials, who just the night before confirmed that he could tour the facility.
But the bigger problem in Washington, Curbelo said, lies within his own ranks.
“The institution is not broken. The membership is broken. Because too many people here are driven by fear because their end is to get re-elected,” said Curbelo, who sleeps on a cot inside the closet of his Capitol Hill office during the work week. “Their end is not to leave the country better off.”
It’s why he has vowed to remain in the political ring instead of running for the exits—and into the arms of industry groups—like some moderate Republicans have done amid Trump’s takeover of the GOP.
To Curbelo, those people are quitters.
Sen. Jeff Flake (R-AZ), one of Trump’s most consistent GOP critics, announced in dramatic fashion last year that he would not seek re-election because he believed his opposition to the president meant he could no longer win in a Republican primary.
Curbelo wasn’t afraid to let Flake know what he thought of that mindset when they found themselves on a three-hour car ride earlier this year. The two lawmakers, accompanied by their wives, missed their flights out of West Virginia, where congressional Republicans were holding their annual retreat. Their only other option was to rent a car and drive to North Carolina, to later catch flights back home.
Curbelo told Flake, point blank, that he wished the senator would have run for re-election—regardless of how dire Flake viewed his own prospects in today’s GOP.
“If they’re leaving simply because they thought they couldn’t win, that’s something I don’t appreciate,” Curbelo told Flake. “When you leave, you’re almost giving up.”
Their discussion underscores the dilemma facing Republicans who oppose Trump: jump ship, or stay on board and try to right the ship.
“Stay and change it back,” Curbelo said. “I don’t even like this whole, ‘Oh, we have to go back to how it used to be.’ That’s not my goal, either. This is not going to be Ronald Reagan’s party ever again. Ronald Reagan is history. He was a wonderful guy, but it’s going to be whatever younger Americans want it to be and whatever the market demands it to be.”
Curbelo didn’t berate Flake for making what is a very personal decision. But he made his view known that quitting Congress at such a pivotal time for anti-Trump Republicans could damage the cause.
“We’re very concerned about where the party’s going and the fact that we seem to be drilling down on the base, trying to get the base more excited every time. That’s obviously not a substitute for having a more welcoming philosophy,” Flake said in an interview. “It’s very frustrating to see the party move the other direction.”
Curbelo once represented the future of the Republican party: young, Hispanic, fiscally conservative, socially moderate, and pro-immigration. But today, Curbelo is far from the face of today’s GOP—he’s on an island because, he contends, Trump has helped usher the party away from the values expressed in its 2012 “autopsy” report.
“In my view, he’s done damage in terms of our efforts to attract votes from certain parts of the population,” Curbelo said. “I think that when [Americans] think ‘Donald Trump,’ the first word that comes to mind is not ‘Republican.’ Maybe it’s the wall. So there’s no question that he is a major force. But to say that the party is just an extension of him—it’s not. He is unlike any president we’ve had in many ways. He could really run in either party.’”
In public, Curbelo is soft-spoken yet defiant. But at heart, Curbelo is a rabble-rouser who doesn’t care much for political correctness. It’s why he responded the way he did to Paul Ryan after he effectively forced the House speaker’s hand on immigration.
Curbelo’s colleagues on both sides of the aisle recently got a taste of his no-nonsense politicking—one that many lawmakers directly involved in the process said they were shocked to witness.
In the heat of the internal strife among House Republicans over Curbelo’s and Rep. Jeff Denham’s (R-CA) crusade to get immigration legislation to the floor, Curbelo was speaking with reporters when Rep. Juan Vargas (D-CA) heckled him.
“You were the one we were hoping on, and you haven’t helped us out at all, Carlos,” Vargas said, interrupting Curbelo as he took questions after a GOP conference meeting with Trump.
In the moment, Curbelo was unfazed and gave a mild-mannered response. Vargas walked away.
But later that week, Curbelo found himself in an elevator with Vargas and let the California Democrat know how he really felt—calling him a “professional heckler” and telling him he “invented the politics of confrontation before Maxine Waters did.”
The two men briefly exchanged jabs and moved on. Vargas confirmed the details of the conversation and told The Daily Beast his biggest problem with Curbelo was how he handled the discharge petition.
Vargas accused Curbelo of throwing Democrats under the bus—after they agreed, unanimously, to sign onto his discharge petition—because Curbelo helped supervise a process whereby Republicans were ultimately crafting a bill to Trump’s liking.
“He doesn’t seem to follow those values that he has embedded in him,” Vargas told me. “He’s trying to figure out how to win re-election, let’s be frank. So I think he was using this as a way to show back home, ‘I’m very bipartisan.’ … But he doesn’t seem to attempt to.”
Curbelo contends that getting the president’s signature was the only way to ensure success. And he needed to work with the House’s conservative bloc—which was demanding funds for a border wall and hardline restrictions on legal immigration that Democrats said were non-starters—in order to win their votes. In doing so, the moderate Republicans were causing Democrats to leave the negotiating table.
“Are they so opposed to this type of border security that it’s worth abandoning 2 million people who, in a matter of weeks, could lose their status—and for those enrolled in the DACA program, their jobs—and just become destitute overnight?” Curbelo vented.
The result was a classic Washington tale: both sides balked at the other’s efforts; nothing got done; and nobody trusted each other’s motives.
“Here we are again, trying to find a reasonable policy and getting squeezed by radicals on both ends,” Curbelo said.
Almost immediately after the votes, lawmakers approached Curbelo with apologies—and he was already all too accustomed to what they said.
“‘It’s really hard to argue against this bill, but I just can’t vote for it,’” one colleague told him, he said.
“They’re scared of the politics,” Curbelo said as he leaned in, holding up the two pieces of paper that show the Republican members who voted against each bill. “I don’t need the Democratic [tally] because we know how they all voted,” he joked.
Rep. Mark Meadows (R-N.C.), the chairman of the hardline conservative House Freedom Caucus, has defended his members’ refusal to vote for the bill, citing broken promises from House Republican leadership. Still, Meadows said Curbelo was a “transparent” negotiator who was “willing to postpone trips back home to Florida to meet with conservative members to try to find common ground.”
Rep. Mark Walker (R-N.C.), the chairman of the Republican Study Committee, recalled a recent eruption on the House floor during which some Democratic lawmakers hurled insults at the Republican side of the chamber after a vote. Curbelo had voted with the Democrats, but when he saw what some of them were doing to his fellow Republicans, he approached them, raised his voice, and said, “You’re not helping your cause.”
“He looks me in the eye and he tells me the truth,” Walker said, noting that he rarely finds himself in agreement with Curbelo. “And I can work with anybody who operates from that perspective. And I think that’s more important. We need more of that.”
It was obvious to Curbelo why Vargas confronted him despite their agreements on the underlying policies and the tactics associated with increasing public attention to those policies.
“The only reason that Mr. Vargas would do that is to draw attention to himself at my expense, and to use this issue for political gain. And just like we have some nativists in the Republican party who I condemn because I think it’s an obtuse world view, Democrats who act that way are equally despicable and immoral,” Curbelo said forcefully. “Because they are using vulnerable, weak people to manipulate the American electorate while doing nothing for these people. Because they have nothing to show.”
Like many Republicans critical of Trump’s takeover of their party, Curbelo contends that Trump never wanted to win the presidency and was only seeking publicity. Instead, Trump tapped into a base of Republican voters who, fueled in part by economic and cultural anxieties associated with increased immigration, bristle at the 2012 “autopsy.”
“A lot of Americans rewarded what they perceived as his authenticity, his unwillingness to read from the Republican or Democratic scripts that have been written over the last 30 or 40 years,” Curbelo said.
But in the same way that Trump co-opted the GOP as the loudest voice in the room, Curbelo is confident—maybe too confident—that Trump’s eventual departure from the American political scene, paired with the rising influence of the millennial generation, will create an opening for his brand of conservatism.
“[Trump] is such a loud and enormous presence that there will be an equally enormous vacuum once his time in the White House is over. And there are many of us, especially younger-generation Republicans in Congress now, who believe that that will be our opportunity to shape the party in a way that it can respond to the fears and the concerns and the aspirations of the millennial generation, which will become in the next decade a dominant force in the electorate,” Curbelo said.
“So sure, it’s very difficult to compete with Donald Trump for attention, for ideas. It’s almost impossible,” he added. “But there’s a group of members here laying the groundwork for how we plan to win the future.”
Curbelo has a more immediate worry to tend to, though: his own re-election to his House seat.
“What’s changed other than the fact that he’s better known, that he’s got a record of getting things done? His district knows him very well. He’s not running in borrowed clothes. People know who he is,” said Rep. Mario Diaz-Balart (R-FL), whose district sits just north of Curbelo’s.
Curbelo’s biggest boosters are bullish not only on his prospects for re-election, but also on his ability to guide the GOP into a new, post-Trump era.
Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-FL) has known Curbelo, whom she endearingly calls “Chuckie,” since he was a teenager. Like Curbelo, she is a consistent critic of Trump and is a part of the most liberal wing of the GOP. But Ros-Lehtinen, who has served in Congress for nearly 30 years, is retiring in January and won’t be in the arena to aid Curbelo’s mission. All she can do is hope.
“Sooner or later, our guys will come around. It may appear to be an island, but he knows that there’s a bridge. He knows that there’s a bridge to that island, and it’s not a remote, isolated island,” Ros-Lehtinen, whose Miami district also borders Curbelo’s, said in an interview.
Sam Accursio, a constituent with whom Curbelo met during a site visit in Homestead, gave his congressman some unsolicited advice as he fights for re-election and for relevance in Trump’s GOP: Take out your boxing gloves, and get ready to use them.
“Keep your mouthpiece in. Because you’re getting slugged around.”