WASHINGTON — South Florida Rep. Donna Shalala was quick to lash out against Bernie Sanders on Twitter.
It was Sunday night, and Sanders — fresh off a decisive win in the Nevada Democratic caucus — said it’s “unfair” to contend that everything was bad about the late Cuban dictator, Fidel Castro. “When Fidel Castro came into office, you know what he did? He had a massive literacy program. Is that a bad thing? Even though Fidel Castro did it?” Sanders said on 60 Minutes.
Soon after, Shalala fired off a tweet: “I’m hoping that in the future, Senator Sanders will take time to speak to some of my constituents before he decides to sing the praises of a murderous tyrant like Fidel Castro.” Her tweet contained an image of a cute kitten accompanied by the text, “C’mon, bro.”
Shalala, who was a Cabinet official in Bill Clinton’s administration, was joined by a chorus of other Florida Democrats who assailed Sanders’ comments about Castro, signaling their revulsion for the former Cuban leader but also distancing themselves from Sanders as he solidifies his status as the frontrunner for the Democratic presidential nomination.
Sanders, a self-proclaimed “democratic socialist,” has trailed behind more moderate candidates — including former Vice President Joe Biden and former New York Mayor Mike Bloomberg — in recent Florida polls.
The Vermont senator was clobbered by Hillary Clinton in the state’s 2016 Democratic primary and he hasn’t snagged any 2020 endorsements from Democrats in Florida’s U.S. congressional delegation.
There’s broad concern among Florida Democrats that Sanders is “not the strongest choice,” said Aubrey Jewett, a political science professor at the University of Central Florida.
“Overall among Democrats in Florida, Sanders does not seem real popular,” said Jewett. “For some, it is specifically because of his ideology.”
Sanders has rankled some Democrats across the country who fear that the left-leaning policies he champions, such as Medicare for All and the Green New Deal, would alienate moderate voters and ensure President Donald Trump’s re-election if Sanders were the Democratic nominee.
There’s also a fear that his nomination could jeopardize congressional candidates down the ballot, including vulnerable U.S. House incumbents.
That sentiment exists in Florida, where having Sanders at the top of the ticket in November “may be a drag on down-ticket races” Jewett said.
His Castro comments appear to have heightened those fears.
“Certainly, if you’re in South Florida in a district” with any sizable number of Cuban voters, “this really would make it difficult to get elected unless you denounce that statement, because so many Cuban voters just have a visceral dislike of Castro,” Jewett said.
Rep. Stephanie Murphy, a moderate Democrat from Central Florida, piled on Monday.
She wrote on Twitter that Sanders’ comments about Castro are “ill-informed & insulting to thousands of Floridians. Castro was a murderous dictator who oppressed his own people. His ‘literacy program’ wasn’t altruistic; it was a cynical effort to spread his dangerous philosophy & consolidate power.”
And Rep. Debbie Mucarsel-Powell, a freshman Democrat from South Florida, called Sanders’ comments “absolutely unacceptable.”
Mucarsel-Powell, who flipped a Republican-held seat in 2018, said on Twitter that the “Castro regime murdered and jailed dissidents, and caused unspeakable harm to too many South Florida families. To this day, it remains an authoritarian regime that oppresses its people, subverts the free press, and stifles a free society.”
Shalala, Murphy, and Mucarsel-Powell have all been listed as top targets by the National Republican Congressional Committee, the House Republicans’ campaign arm.
Florida Republicans (including Gov. Ron DeSantis) were also quick to assail Sanders for his comments.
“Likely Dem nominee praised the supposed ‘achievements’ [of the] Castro regime,” wrote Sen. Marco Rubio. “And he’s wrong about why people didn’t overthrow Castro. It’s not because ‘he educated their kids, gave them health care’ it’s because his opponents were jailed, murdered or exiled.”
Freshman Republican Rep. Greg Steube of Central Florida said of Castro, “It’s true, he totally transformed Cuba.” Of Sanders, he added, “We cannot let this man become president.”
Of Florida’s 13 Democratic members of Congress, six have endorsed presidential candidates, according to a roundup compiled by the website FiveThirtyEight. Four have endorsed Biden, including Reps. Al Lawson, Charlie Crist, Alcee Hastings, and Frederica Wilson. Reps. Murphy and Ted Deutch have endorsed Bloomberg.
Sanders also enraged critics on Sunday when he announced he would not attend an annual conference held by the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, saying the organization gives a platform for “bigotry.”
Deutch issued a written statement Monday criticizing Sanders’ remarks and saying he plans to attend the conference, whose participants will include “proud Democrats like me who strongly support Israel and also reject bigotry in all forms.”
Florida’s Democratic primary — set for March 17 — is late in the cycle, two weeks after Super Tuesday. But given the large field of candidates still vying for the Democratic nomination, it’s possible that the state could play a larger role than usual in picking the nominee.
And the Sunshine State will undoubtedly be a coveted prize come November, when the Democratic nominee will look to put it back in the blue column. Trump beat Clinton by just 1 point in Florida in 2016.
Florida has sided with the winner of the presidential race in all six of the last elections, Jewett noted, voting three times for Democrats and three times for Republicans. And with 29 electoral votes, Florida is tied with New York for the third-most electoral votes in the nation (trailing California and Texas with 55 and 38, respectively).
“I do think Florida is the most important swing state,” Jewett said.