The headlines have not been kind toward Rep. Joe Garcia, D-Fla., over the past two weeks, and they could get uglier later this month with a viable Republican challenger looking more likely to get into the race.
Carlos Curbelo, a former political consultant and member of the Miami-Dade School board, was in Washington this week, where he had a two-hour meeting with the National Republican Congressional Committee and spoke at the Faith and Freedom Coalition's Road to Majority conference. He also sat down with Sen. Marco Rubio, a former client with whom he has discussed the race a few times. Though Curbelo said Rubio has been supportive, he does not expect the senator to make an endorsement in the Republican primary. "He certainly thinks we have a great shot at winning," Curbelo said. "Even before all these scandals, he thought that district was winnable for a Republican. So we'll be keeping in touch with him and asking him for advice and guidance."
Curbelo also met with several potential consultants and vendors during his trip to Washington. He has already brought on McLaughlin & Associates, which accurately predicted former GOP Rep. David Rivera's loss in the district last year, to do polling for his own exploratory effort.
Though he said he has yet to make up his mind about challenging Garcia, Curbelo repeatedly emphasized in an interview that he is "very, very seriously considering" a bid and will likely make a decision in the next two or three weeks. "I'll just tell you for now that all the indications that I've received up to now are very positive," Curbelo said, adding that his team has conducted some polling since the scandals surrounding Garcia's campaign came to light and will likely release the results in the near future.
Curbelo could be a strong contender for the seat. The son of Cuban immigrants, he favors immigration reform and isn't afraid to stand up to his party on the issue, as his did at Friday's Faith and Freedom Coalition conference. That could be helpful in a Hispanic district, rated as R+1 by the Cook Political Report. He also has the backing of several high-profile Republicans in the state. In announcing an exploratory committee last month, Curbelo listed nearly 30 big Florida names as members of his finance team, including a few members of Jeb Bush's inner circle, former Sen. George LeMieux, former state House Speaker Dean Cannon and political writer Justin Sayfie. That list was widely seen as a message to other potential candidates to stay out. "I sent out a release and I wanted people to know that," Curbelo said, in an interview at the Faith and Freedom Coalition conference. "But you can't, you know, people are going to make their own decisions. They'll have to explain them."
Garcia is one of the NRCC's top targets this cycle. He won the seat in 2012 with more than 53 percent of the vote, a half-point above President Obama's total in the 26th District. But his opponent, Rivera, was hurt by accusations of illegal campaign activities -- the same kinds of accusations Garcia now faces.
Just two weeks ago, Garcia fired his chief of staff, Jeffrey Garcia, and put his communications director on administrative leave, after both were implicated in a failed absentee ballot scheme. Since, Jeffrey Garcia, who is not related to the congressman, has been accused of pushing a spoiler candidate into the Republican primary during Garcia's 2010 race. Both Jeffrey Garcia and the communications director have ties to another political operative who was accused this week of perpetrating a separate absentee ballot scheme in the Miami mayoral race.
Congressman Garcia has said that he was not involved in either scheme and denies that the alleged spoiler candidate wasn't a legitimate entrant. Investigators have yet to link him to those cases, but Republicans say that may not matter. "I think that if at the end of the day he had nothing to do with it, which a lot of people don't buy because he's always been really hands-on with his campaigns ... then it doesn't really show much for his leadership skills. ... I think that if he's the absent-minded professor, I think that calls into question, 'then what is he doing?'" said NRCC spokeswoman Katie Prill.
Curbelo acknowledged that the scandals will be a factor in the race but insisted that they haven't affected his decision, noting that he was already "very, very interested" in challenging Garcia before the news broke. Curbelo announced an exploratory bid for the seat fewer than two weeks before Garcia fired his chief of staff. "It's very unfortunate for the community, it's unfortunate for the district, it's embarrassing," Curbelo said of the scandals. "But without a doubt it has helped our efforts. There's a real desire out there to turn the page on -- I guess we're going two or three years of just scandal and controversy associated with that district."
It won't all be smooth sailing for Curbelo. The scandals could easily fade within the next 17 months, and with unpopular Gov. Rick Scott running at the top of the ticket, Curbelo could see a drag in his own numbers. Curbelo admitted that Scott's polling is "discouraging," but argued that Scott's policies poll well and that the governor could turn the election around if he shifts the focus from politics to policy. "Do I wish the governor was at a 60 percent approval? Yeah. But he's not," Curbelo said.
For now, Curbelo says he is thinking about the impact the 26th District race will have on his family, particularly his young daughters, ages 1 and 3, respectively. But there could be another complicating factor: Former Miami-Dade City Commission chairman Joe Martinez and state Rep. Jose Felix Diaz, who could also be strong contenders for the seat, are close friends of Curbelo's. Curbelo said he has discussed the race with Diaz, who also met with the NRCC, but declined to comment further.