It’s not surprising that the race for the southernmost district of Florida is between two Hispanics who have made climate change one of their key issues.
Like the entire state of Florida, the 26th District has become a purple battleground where voters, Republicans and Democrats alike, worry about rising seas. Much of the district felt the punch of Hurricane Irma last year as it swept over the low-lying Keys and inundated island roads.
Elections can be as unpredictable as a storm’s path. Hillary Clinton won the district by 16 percentage points in 2016, even as its Republican congressman, Carlos Curbelo, sailed to victory with a 12-point advantage.
This year promises to be rockier.
Democrats have a 6 percent advantage in voter registration. The Cook Political Report calls the race a toss-up, and Democrats see the district as a cornerstone in their effort to grab the 23 seats they need to take control of the House in November. It stretches from Miami to the tip of the Keys.
Curbelo, a 38-year-old born to Cuban immigrants, is facing a tough opponent in Democrat Debbie Mucarsel-Powell, a 46-year-old born in Ecuador who is expected to win the Democratic primary in August. A relative newcomer to politics, Mucarsel-Powell has spent 20 years working for nonprofits and colleges. She already has the backing of prominent Democrats, including former Vice President Joe Biden and Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz of Florida.
In 2016, the district hosted one of the most expensive races in the nation. It promises to be the same this year. Democratic donors are already pouring money in. The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee reserved $2 million in TV and radio ads in Miami, and a group of New York progressive donors — dubbed the House Victory Project — identified the race as one of 10 to support, according to The New York Times. The latest campaign finance filings show that Curbelo had about $2 million on hand, compared with $700,000 for Mucarsel-Powell.
Both Curbelo and Mucarsel-Powell have spoken passionately about environmental issues, particularly climate change. Voters see them as being in agreement on the issue, said Susan MacManus, a political scientist at the University of South Florida.
‘We are ground zero’
Co-founder of the Climate Solutions Caucus, Curbelo credits himself for bringing together 78 bipartisan lawmakers for action on climate change.
"When I arrived here in Congress, there were maybe two or three Republicans willing to talk about the issue and acknowledge it," Curbelo said in an interview. "And today we have 39 Republicans on the record acknowledging that climate change is a serious challenge and that Congress has a role in addressing it. We’ve really helped establish a bipartisan dialogue based on science and facts on this issue."
His critics, though, say the Climate Solutions Caucus has not gone far enough and merely provides cover for Republicans in close races. They point to the newest members of the caucus: Of the three Republicans who joined earlier this month, two are in toss-up races, according to Cook.
In an interview, Mucarsel-Powell said that the caucus has failed to introduce any climate legislation. "I think it’s very typical of Curbelo to say a lot of things that sound great," she said. "We need action immediately. We see flooding with 2 inches of rain. We see it around the coast. There was horrendous destruction in Monroe County. We are ground zero."
Curbelo scored 23 percent on the League of Conservation Voters’ scorecard, down 20 percent from last year. The drop is attributed in part to the congressman’s absence during a number of key votes last year in the aftermath of Hurricane Irma.
But Mucarsel-Powell said, "I would expect someone in a climate caucus to have an upgrade on the rating."
The LCV is staying out of the race, and a spokesperson declined to comment. In the past, environmental groups have disagreed about whether to back green Republicans. In 2016, the Sierra Club worked against Curbelo and backed Joe Garcia, the Democrat whom Curbelo had unseated two years prior (Climatewire, Jan. 3).
Asked about his LCV rating, Curbelo told the Miami Herald earlier this year: "I don’t know and I don’t care. I don’t follow NRA ratings, chamber ratings, League of Conservation Voters ratings. I just try to do the right thing on every vote and I usually end up finding out about my scores later come campaign season."
Mucarsel-Powell has personal experience with climate change. She worked at the Coral Restoration Foundation for three years. She has been scuba diving in Florida since 1997, she said, and in recent years, she could "really see the reefs are not as lush as they used to be."
"It is very clear," she said. "One of the things that I saw were farms of corals that are growing … and you can see that there is hope — things that we can actually do to address the effects of climate and the warming of our oceans."
For his part, Curbelo pointed to last summer, when the caucus blocked an amendment that would have eliminated a requirement for the Department of Defense to report on military base exposure to sea-level rise. "We defeated [it by] voting as a bloc," he said. "Now our hope is that this caucus can become an ideas factory — promote good legislation, not just oppose [bad legislation]."
Asked how far he would go to fight climate change — and whether he could support carbon pricing or caps on emissions from power plants — he said the caucus has been looking at all of those ideas.
"I am personally biased toward a market-based solution putting the consumer in charge of something," he said.
‘You could easily lose’
The Climate Solutions Caucus, which was formed in February 2016, has had briefings on the impact of climate change on tourism, expanding energy efficiency and coastal impacts, according to the Citizens’ Climate Lobby. "We are figuring out what could be viable here, if not this Congress, then soon after," Curbelo said.
Danny Richter of the Citizens’ Climate Lobby pushed back against accusations that the caucus is ineffective or merely an attempt to greenwash Republicans in moderate districts.
"In our experience, the caucus has been both active and transformational," he said. "I think the people who are most likely to throw out that greenwashing argument were more likely to say getting something like the caucus was impossible. Now that the impossible is achieved, they are attacking it."
Mucarsel-Powell claimed she would push much harder. She would "not stop working to make an introduction to end subsidies for fossil fuel companies," she said, adding that a coalition of both sides is necessary. "I know it’s not easy. I know it’s complicated, but it is possible," she said.
MacManus doesn’t think Curbelo is vulnerable to attacks on his climate positions. Republicans and Democrats in Florida tend to agree on environmental issues, she said, because the changing climate is happening right in front of them. A poll by the University of South Florida found that Miami respondents said rising sea levels are a top environmental concern.
Still, Curbelo has voted against environmental stances in a number of bills, including to open up oil drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (as part of the tax reform proposal), in support of the Keystone XL pipeline and against clean energy subsidies.
Curbelo’s office addressed Arctic oil drilling by pointing to Curbelo’s interview with Yale University: "I’m upset about that provision as well, and it’s not the only provision in the tax bill that I would have deleted if I could have written it myself, but when you’re weighing broad comprehensive legislation such as an overhaul of the tax code, you really have to consider the bill in its entirety," Curbelo said.
Curbelo envisioned the Climate Solutions Caucus in three stages, his office added. The first was to bring people together to talk and educate. The second — and current stage — is opposing anti-climate legislation. The third is proposing proactive bills.
Last week, the caucus sent a letter — its first — to the Appropriations Committee to oppose any policy riders that undermine action on climate change.
Is the letter an indication that the caucus will take a stronger stance?
"Yeah," Curbelo said. "It shows we are prepared to engage in the appropriations process if we believe there is any attempt to undermine policies that mitigate policies. It is kind of a warning that we are watching."
Politicos, meanwhile, are watching his race.
Recent polling shows that Curbelo has about a 5-point advantage, within the margin of error, according to MacManus.
"If a Republican holds on in this district, the pressure is on other [Republicans] to be more pro-environment," she said. "Brian Mast [a GOP congressman in Florida] is in another competitive district, and even Matt Gaetz [R-Fla.] in the Panhandle. I think what you are going to see if he wins here, environmentalists will point to other parts of the state [and say] if you ignore the environment, you could easily lose."