Just after 8 p.m, the mood at the Ren a Venue, an event space in the Sunset Strip Plaza in Kendall hosting Carlos Curbelo's election-night watch party, didn't feel particularly celebratory. Fifty or so well-dressed supporters milled around, and "Sweet Home Alabama" blared over a loudspeaker, but the room was more waiting than buzzing.
In one corner, several tables of elderly supporters sat quietly. In the front, near the stage, silver catering trays of plantains, yellow rice, and chicken went mostly ignored. And at the bar, a square-built man in a checkered shirt and jeans sat by himself, nursing a drink in a plastic cup.
"A whiskey to calm the nerves," Luis Simauchi, a print shop owner, said in Spanish. Simauchi wasn't there for himself -- he had just come to wait for his 14-year-old son, Kevin, a Curbelo volunteer. "He likes this," Simauchi said. "He wants to be a politician in the future."
"Fire Joe Garcia!" someone shouted, and for a few seconds the room broke into applause.
A few miles down the road, in another generic strip mall, Joe Garcia's watch party at the Colombian restaurant Casa Vieja was more buoyant. The large restaurant was brightly lit and packed, easily with more than 100 supporters. Waitresses carrying trays of skewered chicken weaved through a standing-room-only crowd, and when the congressman, clad in a dark suit and striped tie, appeared on a stage in front, the place burst into applause. But Garcia wasn't giving a victory speech.
"I just talked to Carlos Curbelo, and I congratulated him on his victory," Garcia said. "I want to thank all of you for what we've done."
Garcia's tone was upbeat, but his voice was emotional -- for the first-term congressman, this was clearly a stinging loss. Throughout a protracted, expensive, and nasty race, Garcia had been polling close, even as analysts predicted a sweeping Republican year. He won in the Keys by roughly a thousand votes.
But at the end of the night, it was the inevitable turnout margin, and at least in part the congressman's own beleaguered history -- his former campaign manager and chief of staff served 65 days in jail -- that will send Curbelo to Washington.
"Joe is truly a nice guy," said Christopher Cummins, a 20-year-old campaign volunteer who took the loss hard. "I'm sure he'll continue to work for the people of South Florida."
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After the congressman's address, he disembarked from the stage to a phalanx of TV reporters and then slowly pressed his way through a thick crowd, hugging and kissing hordes of family members and friends. Once he made it outside, a white Ford SUV pulled up, the congressman climbed into the front seat, and the truck pulled away.
Inside Casa Vieja, the TV sets were still on, and the waitresses kept making rounds, but long-faced supporters began streaming out the door.
The congressman's party was over.