Miami – Back in August, the campaign for Carlos Curbelo, a Cuban-American Republican Congressman running for reelection in a hotly contested race in Miami, warned a pro-Democrat political action committee to stop implying he was falling in line behind his party’s presidential nominee, Donald Trump.
Star Republican attorney Charles Spies, who represents the congressman’s campaign, sent a letter to American for Sensible Solutions that it was selling Curbelo/Trump paraphernalia on its website and social media accounts that “fraudulently misrepresents” his client’s stance on Trump. Curbelo has consistently said he is not supporting the New York billionaire and will not vote for him.
“Exploitation of Mr. Curbelo’s name, likeness and image to promote, advertise and market the social media accounts and the bogus merchandise falsely implies that Mr. Curbelo has granted you and ASSP certain rights to do so,” the letter read. “He has not.”
Contrast Curbelo’s response with Sen. Marco Rubio, who is also running for re-election after he failed to unseat Trump for the presidential ticket. While many prominent Republicans, including Sen. John McCain, have rescinded endorsements for Trump since the release of audio tapes in which he talks about groping women without their consent, Rubio hasn’t followed their lead.
In an Oct. 11 statement, Rubio criticized Trump, but said he would still endorse him. "I disagree with him on many things, but I disagree with his opponent on virtually everything," he said. "I wish we had better choices for president. But I do not want Hillary Clinton to be our next president. And therefore, my position has not changed."
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The widely different approaches Curbelo and Rubio are taking with regards to Trump shows the varying degrees to which Republican politicians – particularly Latino ones – are distancing themselves from the top of the Republican ticket.
Florida GOP insiders tell Fox News Latino that candidates are fretting about how much of a negative impact Trump will have on congressional, state and local races. At the same time, candidates are also leery of alienating the Republican base that wants them to stand by Trump, who won 66 out 67 counties in the March Florida primary, trouncing Rubio by 19 points.
Rudy Fernandez, a former special assistant to President George W. Bush, said every Republican candidate has a legitimate reason to be worried given Trump’s missteps and snafus. “Of course there is concern about the Trump effect down the ballot,” Fernandez said. “However, there are candidates who have well-known identities. I think voters can distinguish them from Donald Trump.”
For instance, Fernandez said, he’s not voting for Trump, but he will cast his ballot for Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, who’s been in Congress for 27 years and is viewed as a moderate. She has also come out against Trump and said she will not vote for him. “I will gladly fill in the bubble next to her name,” Fernandez said. “I think a lot of Republican voters who are critical of Trump and cannot support him can tell the difference.”
Even so, the Miami congresswoman is taking her latest Democratic challenger, Scott Fuhrman, very seriously even though the nonpartisan Cook Political Report, which analyzes congressional races, lists her seat as “likely” Republican.
In September, the congresswoman released a pair of TV ads that viciously attacked Fuhrman for his criminal driving record, including for driving under the influence. One of the hit pieces features a father of a teenage girl killed by a drunk driver and a police officer who responded to the scene. Even though Fuhrman wasn’t involved in the crash, the ad shows him behind bars.
Ben Pollara, a Democratic political consultant working for Fuhrman’s campaign, said Ros-Lehtinen is attacking her opponent in a way she hasn’t done before her entire career. The longtime congresswoman rarely has a formidable challenger and usually coasts to victory whenever she’s up for re-election.
“Every Republican in a somewhat competitive race or district is worried about the Trump effect as it relates to Hispanics,” Pollara said. “Just look at the tight rope Rubio is walking right now. In fact, a lot of Miami Republicans breathed a sigh of relief that he decided to run for re-election.”
Pollara said Rubio helps offset the Trump down ballot effect because he remains a popular politician in Miami-Dade County, which has the most Latino Republican voters in Florida.
A new Quinnipiac poll released on Tuesday shows the Rubio race is too close to call. The poll shows he’s only beating Murphy by 2 points, 49 to 49 percent – though the margin of error is three points. And Rubio's hometown newspaper, The Miami Herald, endorsed his opponent.
The Trump effect could have the most devastating impact on Curbelo, who is in a virtual tie against Joe Garcia, the Democrat he beat in 2014. The district, which encompasses most of Miami-Dade and the Keys, now leans more Democrat, but still has a rich base of Republican voters.
Emiliano Atuñez, a Republican strategist who has worked on congressional campaigns, said Curbelo and Rubio are walking a fine line so they don’t alienate Trump supporters.
“Curbelo embracing Trump would not be good,” Atuñez said. “At the same time, some Republican voters are want loyalty for Trump.”
Still, Atuñez said the belief that Trump will hurt Latino Republicans is all psychological.
“In the end, I don’t think he will drag down other Republicans,” he said. “He’s run his campaign on earned media. Everyone else is doing conventional campaigning, which includes canvassing for voters. All the candidates have a ground game.”
Francisco Alvarado is a freelance journalist in South Florida.