Top 1 Magazine

Top One Magazine

Florida Democrats want to win back Latino voters. It could be too late.

TALLAHASSEE, Fla. — Florida Democrats have long taken Latino voters for granted — a decision that contributed to former President Donald Trump’s success here two years ago. Now they’re finally trying to fix the problem ahead of the November midterms.

Party leaders say the steady erosion of support from the key constituency — which in Florida includes a diverse mix of Cubans, Puerto Ricans, Colombians, Venezuelans, Nicaraguans and others — is helping rewire how they campaign in a new era. The party is rolling out a blueprint that calls for crafting political messages similar to those aimed at independent voters, boosting resources for Latino outreach and campaigning sooner within Hispanic communities.

In mid-March, Rep. Charlie Crist (D-Fla.), who is running to challenge Republican Gov. Ron DeSantis, traveled to Puerto Rico for three days to meet with elected officials, local entrepreneurs and union members. State Sen. Annette Taddeo (D-Miami), who is running to become Florida’s first Latina governor, is set to travel to the island in May. A third Democratic gubernatorial candidate, Agriculture Commissioner Nikki Fried, made an early campaign hire in Evelyn Pérez-Verdía, a longtime Democratic consultant who has focused on Spanish language disinformation.

Yet with Republicans making huge inroads with Florida’s Latino voters in recent election cycles — Joe Biden won Latino-heavy Miami-Dade County by just 7 points while Hillary Clinton won it by nearly 30 points four years earlier — it could be too late for Democrats to succeed. Some say the new approach isn’t being adopted widely enough.

“We need to be in more agreement that Hispanic voters in Florida are a universe of voters that are persuadable that Republicans can win, not [Democratic] base voters,” said veteran Democratic consultant Christian Ulvert. “That is critical because of how the party allocates resources differently when trying to persuade a voter to vote for Democrats rather than turn them out.”

Democratic Party officials would not discuss specifically how much they will spend on Hispanic outreach efforts in 2022, but noted a recently announced $2.5 million voter registration drive that will include an emphasis on Latino voters.

It could be a struggle for Democrats. February polling from Suffolk University/USA Today shows that 39 percent of Florida voters approve of the job Biden is doing compared to 53 disapproving. The Biden administration has also made some early missteps that riled up Democrats in the state, including plans to remove a Colombian Marxist rebel group, the FARC, from a list of foreign terrorist groups, a move that was notably denounced by Taddeo, who is Colombian American. More recently, Democrats and Republicans — including DeSantis — hammered Biden over potential talks between the administration and Venezuelan leader Nicolás Maduro over oil exports.

Florida Democratic Party Chair Manny Diaz, a Cuban American former mayor of Miami, said that part of fixing Democrats’ relationship with Latinos is focusing on broader “pocketbook issues” like the economy and health care.

“The party overall, there is a lot of attention on Hispanics, but if you look at the numbers across the country, the party in and of itself has lost ground with working class voters in America,” Diaz said in an interview. “Those are Hispanics and Blacks and whites, and we are no different. For me, reversing the trend we saw with Hispanic voters in 2020 is reversing the brand that has caused us to suffer setbacks with working class voters.”

“The economy, education, health care — those are things that the Democratic Party has focused on in the past year,” he added. “We don’t need to focus on these useless culture wars.”

Republicans have increasingly swayed Latino voters by aggressively branding Democratic opponents as socialists or far-left extremists, an appeal that resonates with Florida’s influential cross section of Latino voters, many of whom fled or had family flee leftist Latin American regimes run by authoritarian strongman leaders.

“The Republicans are a one-trick pony, and that one trick is socialism. But it rings very true,” said Guillermo Grenier, a sociology professor at Florida International University who helps lead the university’s Cuba Poll, which since 1991 has tracked opinions of the Cuban American community in South Florida. “A lot of people respond to that messaging. Even in Cuba, when I go to Cuba, I hear people talking about the Republican Party being the party for Cubans.”

He said Democrats’ approach to Hispanic voters has been “wrought with entitlement,” and based on the outdated idea that, because the party generally opposes Republicans’ hard-line stance on issues such as immigration, Florida’s diverse bloc of Latino voters will support them. But Republicans focus their outreach on more visceral appeals.

“They [Latino voters] want someone who says, ‘’I’ve got the balls to fight for you.’ That’s basically all [former President Donald] Trump did, and it worked,” Grenier said. “The Democratic elite think that just because they are right on the issues, they [Latino voters] will flock to them. But that’s not the way it works, and Republicans know that.”

He says recategorizing Hispanic voters as “persuadable,” and thereby changing how the party communicates to them, is a good start. But Grenier has yet to see real urgency.

“People need to start now,” he said. “The Trump organization was paying canvassers $20 an hour to go door-to-door months before the election, a year before the election. That’s a lot of money.”

In 2018, Sen. Rick Scott (R-Fla.) pushed hard to capture the Puerto Rican vote in the aftermath of Hurricane Maria, when many fled the island and took up residence in Florida. He launched his Senate campaign in the Democratic stronghold of Orange County, and Luis Rivera-Marín, a former lieutenant governor and secretary of state for Puerto Rico, called Scott a “good friend.” Scott traveled to the island eight times and his campaign ran targeted ads telling Puerto Rican voters he would not be afraid to “Fight for You.”

Florida state Sen. Vic Torres, an Orlando Democrat of Puerto Rican descent, said early cycle trips are welcome because Democrats’ outreach efforts in the past have lagged Republicans’.

“We have to engage all the time,” Torres said in an interview. “We need to do it in election years, and off years.”

Scott eked out a roughly 10,000 vote win over former Democratic Sen. Bill Nelson, then the effective leader of the Florida Democratic Party. Scott did exceptionally well with Hispanic voters, a trend that has continued for Republicans since.

“Republicans have been engaging Hispanic voters in Florida for decades,” said Kevin Cabrera, a Republican operative who led Trump’s 2020 Florida campaign. “We know the issues they care about because we listen, and we don’t treat them as a monolithic group; they don’t want socialism, they want to achieve the American Dream and ensure prosperity for future generations.”

The socialism issue resonates, but Republicans also oppose lengthy pandemic lockdowns and are the loudest voices advocating for things like school choice, which is very popular among many Latino voter groups.’

Giancarlo Sopo, a Miami native who led Trump’s 2020 Hispanic advertising operation, also said Democrats will be hurt by their framing of the contentious “Parental Rights in Education” bill, dubbed “Don’t Say Gay” by opponents. The legislation, HB 1557, bans teachers from leading classroom lessons on gender identity or sexual orientation for students in kindergarten through third grade.

“The Democrats have picked the losing side of each of these arguments,” Sopo said. “They maligned Gov. DeSantis’ Covid policies, waged a dishonest culture wars war with HB 1557 that was never going to resonate with Latinos and are perceived as weak on socialism.”

“That’s a losing combination anywhere, but especially in Florida,” Sopo added.

While Democrats are trying to reshape how they win over Hispanic voters, years of neglect are leaving some skeptical that the party is doing enough or moving as fast as it should.

“I have not seen that much. I guess there is still time, but really after Biden saw the biggest collapse of vote share in Miami-Dade County history, I think more should be done,” Taddeo said. “I guess we have learned some lessons from the mistakes of socialism and defund the police, but it would have been better had we just aggressively shut down those lies.”

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