As freshman Florida Rep. Carlos Curbelo gears up for his first re-election bid, there are a number of familiar elements in play: He’s a Republican in a competitive district who has drawn early issue ads from both environmentalists and his own party’s campaign committee.
But there’s a twist: Curbelo is one of a handful of House Republicans to claim admiration from groups like the League of Conservation Voters, a relationship that could potentially boost his chances as he faces what is likely to be one of the toughest re-election fights in the nation next year.
Curbelo represents the Miami-based 26th District, which he won in a close fight with then-Rep. Joe Garcia (D) last year. The district already tilts Democratic — with 53 percent of voters backing President Obama in the 2012 election — but could become even more so under new congressional lines pending before the state Supreme Court.
The court threw out a Republican-authored congressional map earlier this year after ruling that Florida lawmakers had violated the state constitution, which was amended in 2010 to prohibit the redistricting process from favoring particular political parties or incumbents.
The state Legislature subsequently failed to agree to new lines, and the state Supreme Court is set to hear arguments over court-mandated boundaries on Nov. 10.
The shakeup will affect the seats of other lawmakers, including Democratic Reps. Gwen Graham and Corrine Brown, as well as those of Republican Reps. Daniel Webster and David Jolly — and the latter has already opted into the state’s open Senate seat race rather than compete in a more Democratic district.
Webster, who is angling to become speaker of the House, has sought to intervene in the state Supreme Court case, filing a motion yesterday that admits his re-election chances are bleak if the court adopts its new lines.
"The Congressional District of a sitting United States Congressman is being transmuted into a majority minority district in which he stands no chance of re-election, and he has, to date, not been permitted ‘a seat at the table,’" court documents state.
But Curbelo, whose campaign declined to comment for this article pending the state court’s ruling, is expected to fight for re-election, despite the district’s expected uptick in Democratic voters.
Seeking ‘market-driven’ solutions
During an August roundtable in Florida sponsored by Citizens for Responsible Energy Solutions, Curbelo acknowledged that his embrace of climate change policy makes him an outlier in the Republican Caucus.
"Rather than play the blame game, what I have focused on is recognizing that this is a real issue because this is important. Some don’t want to recognize that, and we must," Curbelo said in response to a question about progress on climate change policy in Congress.
But Curbelo, who said he wants to see "market-driven" solutions, added that his current focus on climate change is simply trying to encourage his fellow lawmakers to recognize global warming as an issue to be addressed.
"We’re trying to reach that modest goal of finding a consensus in Congress that recognizes this issue, accepts it and commits to finding solutions," he said.
But Curbelo’s modest actions, including voting against a measure in July that would have allowed states to delay or opt of the U.S. EPA’s Clean Power Plan to reduce power-sector carbon emissions, have earned him praise from the likes of LCV President Gene Karpinski (Greenwire, July 1). At the time, Karpinski said Curbelo "should be commended."
The LCV also sponsored a $20,000 digital media campaign to thank Curbelo and four other lawmakers. Although the campaign is relatively modest compared to some of LCV’s other media efforts, it is significant in that the environmental group rarely praises Republican lawmakers.
LCV Director of Local and Bipartisan Strategies John Reuter said it is too early in the 2016 cycle to determine whether the group would wade into the 26th District race to endorse Curbelo but said "there’s a lot there to like" about the freshman lawmaker.
"We’re excited to keep talking to the congressman and moving the conversation forward on clean energy and climate solutions," Reuter said, praising Curbelo for his support of the carbon emissions program, as well as the reauthorization of the Land and Water Conservation Fund, which expired last month for the first time in its 50-year history.
"There are some issues where we disagree with the congressman, but he’s clearly one of the leaders in the Republican Party," Reuter added, acknowledging Curbelo’s endorsement of offshore drilling.
In a pair of 30-second videos posted to his congressional office’s YouTube account last month, Curbelo is shown visiting an oil rig in the Gulf of Mexico.
"Assets like this are an important part of an all-of-the-above energy strategy that can grow the American economy and make our country more secure," Curbelo states in the first video.
In the second video, he discusses the 2010 Deepwater Horizon oil spill, adding: "We need to continue doing everything we can to make sure that we can drill for oil while protecting the environment."
Enviros’ course unclear
While it remains to be seen whether the LCV or its Action Fund will sponsor issue ads during the campaign season, Reuter said the group would "applaud and recognize" Curbelo for future votes that align with its priorities.
"We will continue to applaud positive actions and recognize them and make sure they’re being noticed by people in the district," Reuter said. "It’s very important that when people stand up and take a principled action and recognize the science and urge action that we’re there to applaud."
But the LCV isn’t the only group to have publicly praised Curbelo’s embrace of climate change.
Curbelo joined President Obama on Air Force One on Earth Day this year to attend the commander in chief’s speech on climate change in the Everglades.
And several months later, the National Republican Congressional Committee quietly released its own radio ad lauding Curbelo’s work to protect the Florida Keys, which are part of his district.
"We need new solutions for new challenges," a narrator states in the ad, according to a report in the Miami New Times. Over the sounds of birds and crashing waves, the ad continues: "Curbelo recognizes the threats our natural treasures face. There’s more offshore oil drilling around us and sea levels rising. We need to protect this beauty, for us and future generations."
During the August roundtable, Curbelo — one of 10 House Republicans to sign a resolution in September encouraging action on climate action (E&E Daily, Sept. 17) — reiterated his concern over rising sea levels and the effect on the Florida Keys.
"If sea levels continue to rise, the Florida Keys are clearly going to be affected. I will never stop recognizing and emphasizing how important this issue is," he said.
Despite Curbelo’s declarations, however, it’s not a given that environmentalists will come to his aid in a tough re-election bid.
The Sierra Club endorsed the Democratic incumbent, Garcia, in the 2014 race. At least one challenger, former Miami-Dade County Democratic Chairwoman Annette Taddeo, is already in the 2016 race.
Notably, the Sierra Club backed former Gov. Charlie Crist (D) in his failed challenge to Gov. Rick Scott (R) last year, when Taddeo served as the Democrat’s running mate and lieutenant governor nominee.
Curbelo is well-armed for battle financially: As of Sept. 30, he reported $1.2 million in his campaign account. Taddeo ended the reporting period with $358,000 in the bank but reported debts of $480,000.
Frank Jackalone, a senior organizer at the Sierra Club’s Florida chapter, said it is too early to determine whether the group would endorse Curbelo’s re-election bid but emphasized that the organization does consider all candidates.
"The Sierra Club is interested in supporting candidates of both parties, and even of other parties, even if they’re a good independent or third-party candidate, we look at them all, and we look at their records," Jackalone said. "If we’ve got a Republican who is a supporter of climate change science and a supporter of federal action to address that — not just mitigation but the causes of climate change — we’re going to take a long hard look at that candidate in our endorsement process. We would love to have more Republicans to endorse."
ConservAmerica Executive Director Rob Sisson, whose group supports Republican environmentalists and invested $21,000 in independent expenditures to back Curbelo’s initial bid, said he hopes to see other environmental groups step up to assist the Republican.
"I would hope that this is one of those candidates that left-of-center environmental groups say, ‘Listen, we could go out and recruit and get a Democrat to run … but here’s a guy, a Republican, who’s working in the caucus. In his first term, he’s already come out as a leader on climate change. It’s probably better for the country as a whole if we get behind this guy and get him re-elected."
He added that support from all segments of the environmental movement could help encourage more climate change advocates within the GOP.
"It helps send a message to Republicans around the country that if you’re pragmatic and approach these things with common sense … there are going to be voters and organizations to support you," Sisson said.