Republicans hope Cubans, warming to Trump, will deliver them Democrats' most vulnerable Florida House seat

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Rep. Debbie Mucarsel-Powell (D-FL) speaks during a news conference on February 4, 2020 in Washington, DC.
Alex Edelman | Getty Images

Rep. Debbie Mucarsel-Powell, D-Fla., was swept into Congress two years ago in a “blue wave” of Democratic victories that featured many stories like her own — a female immigrant of color knocking down a Republican incumbent.

Now Mucarsel-Powell, who holds Democrats’ most vulnerable House seat in Florida, is facing a test of her staying power. She is being challenged by the term-limited mayor of Miami-Dade County, Carlos Gimenez, an immigrant from Cuba who is backed by President Donald Trump.

Mucarsel-Powell’s effort to hold onto Florida’s 26th congressional district is a key element in Democrats’ efforts to retain the majority they obtained in the House of Representatives last cycle.

The district will also feature prominently in Trump’s attempt to defeat Joe Biden with a strategy that is heavily reliant on support from South Florida’s Cuban population, which has warmed to the president in recent years.

The 26th District, which contains Miami suburbs and parts of the Florida Keys, is the third most immigrant-heavy in the country, including many Cuban Americans. The district has a majority Latino population that makes up nearly 70% of its voting age residents, according to the American Public Media Research Lab.

Unlike the majority of U.S. Latino voters, Cuban Americans tend to lean Republican. Mucarsel-Powell, who immigrated from Ecuador, is the first person not from Cuba to represent the area in more than three decades. (The 26th District was created after the 2010 census and redrawn in 2015.)

Susan MacManus, a Florida political analyst, said that an underlying theme of the race was Cuban versus non-Cuban Latina “in a region where country of origin matters.”

“Gimenez has been stressing his experience and stressing his anti-socialism credentials,” she added.

Though there are few publicly available polls of the district, the race between Mucarsel-Powell and Gimenez is expected to be tight. Mucarsel-Powell won against incumbent Rep. Carlos Curbelo in 2018 by just 2 percentage points.

A poll conducted for the Congressional Leadership Find, a Republican spending committee, showed Gimenez up by five percentage points in July. Nonpartisan forecasters estimate that the race leans slightly in Mucarsel-Powell’s favor or else consider it a tossup.

Trump, who needs Florida’s 29 Electoral College votes to have a reasonable shot at victory, is neck-and-neck with Biden in the state, averages of recent polls show. Both Trump and Biden spent Thursday in Florida seeking to energize voters during the last stretch, a sign of the state’s significance to the race.

While the president lost to Democrat Hillary Clinton in the district in 2016 by double digits, the region has a history of ticket-splitting, particularly in favor of down-ballot Cuban Republicans, according to the liberal analyst Matthew Isbell, who is based in Florida.

Trump looks likely to do better in the district than he did four years ago, as Cubans who were wary of his politics have become more supportive of him. The president’s rising fortunes could serve to deflate some of the attacks against Gimenez.

“Heading into 2020, we see that a lot of these Cubans are actually coming back home, quote unquote, to the GOP, and therefore any hope of using Trump as a boogeyman, or an anchor against the Republicans, that won’t work as well,” Isbell said.

Gimenez himself illustrates he phenomenon. In 2016, he endorsed Clinton for president. This time around, he’s touting his ties to the president.

The race has echoes in the presidential contest. Gimenez, for instance, has promoted his record on the economy and has sought to portray Mucarsel-Powell as one of the most liberal members of the Democratic Party. Republicans have suggested she has ties to socialism, and played up a controversy involving Ukraine.

“As Mayor, I delivered the largest tax cut in county history, balanced billion-dollar budgets, protected the environment and more,” Gimenez said in a statement. “Now, I’m running for Congress to bring those lessons in frontline leadership experience to Washington. I’ll bring us together instead of being a partisan mouthpiece.”

Ads produced by Republicans have repeatedly focused on an indirect Mucarsel-Powell family connection to Ukraine. Mucarsel-Powell’s husband, Robert Powell, did legal work for companies partially owned by the Ukrainian billionaire Ihor Kolomoisky. Robert Powell has denied having significant ties to Kolomoisky.

“This town is far too familiar with violent thugs,” the narrator says in one ad, as images of Venezulan leader Nicolas Maduro and Fidel Castro, the Cuban revolutionary, appear on screen. “And Debbie Mucarsel-Powell is far too familiar with violent warlord Ihor Kolomoisky.”

The attacks mirror those lobbed by Trump at Biden. In July, Trump told Venezuelan expatriates at an event in the state that “Joe Biden and the radical left are trying to impose the same system — socialism plus — in America.”

A Spanish language ad that Trump put up earlier this month, titled “Castrochavismo,” links Biden to Castro and the Venezuelan leader Hugo Chavez.

There is some evidence that Trump’s strategy is working, which could be bad news for Mucarsel-Powell. Only a few weeks ago, Trump trailed Biden in Florida by four percentage points, before closing the gap in recent weeks.

Biden, who has largely shrugged off Trump’s attacks — he asked voters in Pennsylvania in August, “do I look like a radical socialist?” — deployed his most powerful spokesperson, former President Barack Obama, to fend off the criticism in an address in Miami on Saturday.

“Some of the rhetoric you’re hearing down here in South Florida, it’s just made up. It’s just nonsense,” Obama said at the campaign rally. “Listening to the Republicans, you’d think Joe was more Communist than the Castros. Don’t fall for that garbage.”

“Joe Biden is not a socialist. He was a senator from Delaware. He was my vice president. I think folks would know if he’s a secret socialist by now,” Obama said.

Carlos A. Gimenez, Mayor of Miami-Dade County, speaks during a press conference relating hurricane season updates at the Miami-Dade Emergency Operations Center on June 8, 2020 in Miami, Florida.
Eva Marie Uzcategui | Getty Images

In her own closing argument, Mucarsel-Powell has focused on health care, and Gimenez’s record on Covid-19 as mayor. She spent more than $1 million on an ad buy last month emphasizing her and Gimenez’s differences on the issue.

In an interview with CBS Miami earlier this month, the congresswoman compared Gimenez’s handling of the pandemic to Trump’s, and slammed his response to the crisis.

“I think that [Gimenez] knows that he has failed in protecting our community from coronavirus. I know that he realizes that both Republican mayors, city mayors here in the county, and also Democratic city mayors have denounced his failure in leading with this crisis,” she said.

Sarah Guggenheimer, a spokeswoman for the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, said that Mucarsel-Powell’s “story is the story of South Florida – coming to America at a young age and working her way from a donut shop as a teenager to become the first South American immigrant to serve in Congress.”

“In her first term she’s delivered for her constituents, providing crucial COVID-19 relief and writing the bill to ensure Medicare Advantage covers COVID-19 testing,” Guggenheimer added. “South Florida knows they can count on Mucarsel-Powell to deliver results, unlike Corrupt Carlos Giménez who’s only ever looked out for himself, his family, and his corporate donors.”

In the final stretch, Mucarsel-Powell benefits from a cash advantage. The most recent data compiled by the Center for Responsive Politcs showed the Democrat had raised more than $6 million, compared to less than $2 million for Gimenez. Mucarsel-Powell also had nearly triple the cash on hand, at $582,098 versus $234,499.

Isbell said that Mucarsel-Powell’s strategy could be effective if it energizes Democrats to vote, particularly non-Cuban Hispanic voters who tend to have lower turnout rates than Cubans.

“The victory in 26 is not just the persuasion campaign but also making sure that you get a good electorate,” he said. “There are a lot of different Democratic pockets in this district that Democrats need to show up to make sure the district stays blue.”

Isbell said that he thinks the race will go toward Mucarsel-Powell, though it will be close. Mucarsel-Powell’s campaign did not respond to requests for comment.

In a statement, National Republican Congressional Committee spokeswoman Camille Gallo said Mucarsel-Powell “will be voted out of office.”

“Whether it’s her record of being one of the most partisan members of Congress, ties to a shady Ukrainian warlord, or the fact her husband’s employer received $15M in PPP loans, it’s easy to see why Debbie Mucarsel-Powell is losing this race,” Gallo said.

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