House Republicans see a chance to win back a seat in Florida where Miami-Dade County Mayor Carlos Gimenez has mounted an aggressive challenge to freshman Democratic Rep. Debbie Mucarsel-Powell.
Gimenez, who won his GOP primary Tuesday, has attacked the incumbent by tying her to Washington liberals and labeling her a socialist in a district with a large number of Cuban Americans.
The 26th District, which stretches from southwest Miami-Dade County to Key West, is one of the only House districts held by a Democrat that political analysts have recently shifted toward Republicans. Mucarsel-Powell won by 2 percentage points in 2018, ousting Carlos Curbelo (R) two years after Hillary Clinton carried the district by 16 points.
The Cook Political Report now rates the race as a Toss-up, after previously giving Mucarsel-Powell the edge. Florida Democratic and GOP strategists say the race now looks like a dead heat, but that Gimenez’s ties to President Donald Trump and his fundraising deficit are significant disadvantages.
“Both parties have an equal interest in it,” said Susan MacManus, a professor emeritus at the University of South Florida. “Democrats are hanging on for dear life, and Republicans would love to flip it.”
Cuban-Americans in the district have a historically higher turnout rate than other demographic groups, and Republicans are capitalizing on their concern about socialism, MacManus said.
Gimenez campaign consultant Cam Savage said Mucarsel-Powell is too liberal and partisan for the district. He contrasted that with Gimenez’s role as county mayor that has him working with the county commission “where everyone is technically nonpartisan.”
Republicans have attacked Mucarsel-Powell after her husband’s employer, the Fiesta Restaurant Group, received a $15 million loan from the Paycheck Protection Program intended to help small businesses deal with the economic fallout of the pandemic. Fiesta employed more than 10,000 workers in 2019. Mucarsel-Powell said she opposes big businesses receiving such aid but that it was Republicans who inserted language in the law that allowed larger companies to benefit from the program.
Republicans have also circulated a video showing Mucarsel-Powell saying no one thought she was going to be able to “take on the Republican Cuban establishment that had a hold on Florida politics.”
“Debbie Mucarsel-Powell is one of the most partisan members of Congress who would rather support the socialists in Washington and her Ukrainian oligarch-connected husband than the people of South Florida,” National Republican Congressional Committee spokeswoman Camille Gallo said in a statement.
Robert Powell worked as general counsel for some companies that were partially owned by Ukrainian businessman Igor Kolomoisky, whom the Miami Herald reported in 2018 has been accused of bribery, murder, and embezzlement. When the issue came up in the last campaign, Mucarsel-Powell said they’ve never had any contact with Kolomoisky.
‘Married President Trump’
Gimenez’s response to the Covid-19 crisis in his role as mayor has also become an issue in the campaign. While his handling of the virus was initially well-received, his shift toward Trump’s pandemic “playbook” by hesitating to impose a mandatory mask mandate and shutting down the county again after reopening won’t play well in the district, said Elnatan Rudolph, a political consultant who has worked on GOP campaigns.
Rudolph added that Gimenez throughout his career has been a more moderate and pragmatic politician. In 2016, Gimenez publicly said he would vote for Clinton.
“In his desire to move to the right and be accepted as a Republican, which he’s not, and be more like Trump and DeSantis, he didn’t listen to everything he should’ve done with the pandemic,” Rudolph said, referring to Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis (R). “I’m not sure he gets high grades like he did at first.”
Mucarsel-Powell’s campaign manager Andrew Markoff said Gimenez has become the “face of economic collapse, an out of control pandemic, and death.”
The president endorsed Gimenez in January, hours after he announced his candidacy, predicting on Twitter he “will win big.” Trump’s endorsement could be a disadvantage for Gimenez, said Mike Hernandez, a political consultant who has previously worked for both candidates. Part of the reason Curbelo lost to Mucarsel-Powell in 2018 was independent voters’ dislike of Trump, Hernandez said.
“(Gimenez) has married President Trump in a district that he is incredibly unpopular in,” Hernandez said, “and there’s no way out of it.”
Savage said the mayor has always had a good working relationship with Trump, and Gimenez is “comfortable making decisions knowing he won’t make everybody happy all the time.” He said Gimenez has relied on his past experiences as a firefighter and city manager, and has been listening to experts on his handling of the pandemic.
Expensive Miami Market
Mucarsel-Powell has raised $3.9 million and had $2.8 million in cash on hand as of July 29, while Gimenez raised $1.2 million and had $882,000 on hand. That fundraising advantage is significant in the expensive Miami media market.
“Not only is it one of the most expensive, you have to do bilingual ads,” Rudolph said. “If you spend money on English TV, you have to spend just as much, if not more, on Spanish TV. So it’s costing you double.”
Hernandez said Gimenez already has strong name recognition in the district, and positive media coverage from the pandemic could benefit him.
But he said Mucarsel-Powell’s fundraising will allow her to spend so much more on advertising and urge more turnout from Democrats. He said while it will be a close race, the district is still shifting Democratic with more young Hispanic voters.
To contact the reporter on this story: Samantha Handler in Washington at firstname.lastname@example.org