The political battle for Florida’s Latino vote

Rick Scott in Tampa
Gov. Rick Scott - running for the U.S. Senate - courts the Hispanic vote at La Casona in Tampa last spring. Mitch Perry photo

Two events invoke the importance of capturing the Latino vote in Florida this election year – and specifically from the burgeoning Puerto Rican community.

The first took place on May 1 in West Tampa, where a crowd of local Republicans squeezed into the main dining space of a local restaurant called La Casona. They were there to hear Jenniffer Gonzalez, Puerto Rico’s Republican congressional representative, endorse Florida Gov. Rick Scott for the U.S. Senate. Just an hour before, a group of local Democrats huddled in the same restaurant with Luis Miranda Jr. (father of “Hamilton” playwright Lin-Manuel Miranda) reviewing data Miranda collected from focus groups on Puerto Rican voters. With Florida’s elections so often decided on tiny margins, both parties considered this demographic critical for success.

Flash forward to this past Monday in Orlando, when Puerto Rican Governor Ricardo Rossello endorsed two Democrats: U.S. Sen Bill Nelson over Gov. Scott in the Senate race, and Andrew Gillum over Republican Ron DeSantis in the Florida governor’s race. In response, DeSantis and Scott hurriedly released lists of their own Puerto Rican supporters.

Puerto Ricans are only one part of Florida’s considerable – and diverse –  Hispanic population, but they now rival the number of Cubans as the state’s largest Latino group. They started moving to Florida at the beginning of the decade after an economic slowdown on the island; hundreds of thousands more fled to Florida after Hurricane Maria last year.

As of 2016, there were more than 5.1 million Hispanics in Florida, making up about 25 percent of the state’s population. More than 2.1 million are registered to vote this year, roughly 17 percent of all Florida registered voters (according to the National Association of Latino Elected and Appointed Officials)

Polling Florida’s Hispanics has delivered some contradictory results in terms of which candidates they support, but, as a group, they identify  health care and the economy as top issues. Immigration ranks high as a concern – more in terms of respect for Hispanics in general rather than legal issues in Florida.

One problem for Republicans nationally and in Florida is the toxic rhetoric attached to immigration, says Patrick Mantegia, the editor-publisher Tampa’s La Gaceta, a trilingual newspaper published in English, Spanish and Italian.

“You have a respect issue, and that spreads to the other (Latin) populations,” Mantegia says, “so that means the guy watching Fox News thinks all of a sudden that the guy behind the counter who is Hispanic is an illegal immigrant, disrespecting the system and is a member of a gang who kills people. So I think that’s where some Hispanics have a problem.”

It didn’t help Republicans when President Donald Trump kicked off his national campaign by insulting Mexicans crossing the border, charging that they are “bringing drugs. They’re bringing crime. They’re rapists. And some, I assume, are good people.”

He then alienated Puerto Ricans with his recent tweet disputing the report that nearly 3,000 Puerto Ricans died from Hurricane Maria, a statement that compelled Florida Republicans DeSantis and Scott to issue rare responses distancing themselves from the president.

“I think the president is starting to overwhelm his efforts with this negativity, and that negativity is being carried by all Republicans,” says editor Mantegia.

Trump is not popular among Puerto Ricans – a poll of 1,000 Puerto Ricans commissioned by Florida International University political science professor Eduardo Gamarra showed that more than 70 percent had a “bad” or “very bad” opinion of the president.

That sentiment is questioned by some Republicans.

Jonny Torres worked on Hispanic outreach for the Republican Party of Florida for more than two years and is a member of the Tampa Bay Young Republicans Club. He emphasizes how immigration isn’t as huge an issue with Latino voters in Florida as it is in other states,  and doesn’t believe Trump will be “much of an anchor” to weigh down DeSantis and Scott.

Scott has tried to assert his independence from the president on the campaign trail, while DeSantis’s candidacy is so linked to Trump it may be more difficult to separate himself.

Torres says he’s advised party officials that while it helps if candidates can speak a little Spanish or have some knowledge of the community, the most important attribute to win over Latino voters is to listen and take part in their stated priorities, something that he says he’s seen Scott do for years now, specifically on the issue of Puerto Rico.

“He has built those relationships. He has earned that trust. He has earned that rapport with the community,” Torres says.

Gov. Scott worked hard for the Puerto Rican vote, visiting the island eight times, post-hurricane. He also made $1 million available in Florida to help Puerto Rican families find jobs and opened up three disaster relief centers in Orlando and Miami after the storm last year.

But the island governor’s endorsement went to Nelson in the end. Rosello cited Nelson’s “longstanding relationship” with Puerto Rico, and said Nelson’s support for Puerto Rican statehood, after-storm federal funding, and Medicaid reimbursement funding made him the man to support.

Broward County-based political consultant Evelyn Perez-Verdia notes that until recently, Nelson had been relatively dormant on communicating with Latino voters in South Florida, but has now stepped up his game by tweeting in Spanish and sending out bilingual mailers over the past month.

In the Florida governor’s race, Republican DeSantis took an early lead in polls of Hispanic voters in his match up against Democrat Gillum. Later polls now have Gillum in the lead among Hispanics.

DeSantis began his campaign by trying to seize support from the most traditional GOP part of the Hispanic vote, the Cuban exile community in Miami-Dade County – by selecting outgoing state Rep. Jeannette Nunez to serve as his running mate. If elected, she would become the state’s first Cuban-American female in the Lieutenant Governor’s job. The current Lieutenant Governor is Carlos Lopez-Cantera, a Cuban American from Miami.

DeSantis held rallies in Miami’s Little Havana, where he accused Gillum of being a socialist – fighting words for the Cuban and Venezuelan natives in the community.

Political consultant Perez-Verdia lives in Weston, which has so many Venezuelans that she jokingly calls it “Westonzuela.” She says “it’s clear that what they’re (the Republicans) are doing is creating fear,” referring to the anxiety that socialism brings to Cuban and Venezuelan voters’ dark memories of the Castro brothers and Venezuelan’s current leader, Nicholas Maduro. “It’s one way to get somebody to vote when they don’t really realize the policies of the person.”

When it comes to political organizing, Florida has never seen so much attention paid to Latino voters.

Republican Party of Florida officials say they have engaged with an estimated 200,000 Puerto Ricans who have relocated to Florida – offering voter registration efforts, music and faith festivals and events highlighting charter and private schools.

“All these efforts have the number-one objective of expanding the party by not only speaking their language, but also by enthusiastically organizing on the ground within their own communities –neighbor to neighbor,” Republican Party of Florida Chairman Blaise Ingoglia said in a statement.

Ingoglia complains that Democrats take Hispanic voters for granted. In a recent Latino Decisions poll, more Hispanics (51 percent) said they’ve been contacted by the Republican Party than by the Democrats (34 percent).

National progressive groups like For Our Future and Mi Familia Vota are on the ground in numerous Florida counties and working hard for the Latino vote.

The Democrats are also investing a lot – both at the state and federal level. The Florida Democratic Party says it has employed more than 50 bilingual staffers who are organizing in “Hispanic heavy turf.”

The Democratic National Committee committed to spending $100,000 on Latino engagement in Florida this summer, and spent $150,000 for a program to buy cell phone numbers of Puerto Ricans in Florida to register them to vote and encourage them to vote Democratic.

The national party recently added another $52,000 to the state Democratic party’s coffers. Their plan? Hire more organizers to hit the ground in Florida’s African-American and Latino communities.



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