Electoral battle for Hispanics intensifies in Florida

Electoral battle for Hispanics intensifies in Florida
© Getty Images

Republicans and Democrats alike are investing heavily in wooing Florida’s Hispanic voters as they battle over the governor's mansion, a Senate seat and at least four House seats that are up for grabs in November.

Florida’s diverse Hispanic community presents unique campaign challenges, as sub-blocs of Hispanic voters respond to different policy proposals and campaign styles.

Democrats are hopeful they’ll be able to build on a stronger showing in the last presidential election with the traditionally Republican South Florida Cuban-American community. In 2016, Democrats won 50 percent of the Cuban-American vote, an outcome credited to millennials put off by President TrumpDonald John TrumpMichelle Obama says not always easy to live up to "we go high" Georgia certifies elections results in bitterly fought governor's race Trump defends border deployment amid fresh scrutiny MORE's rhetoric.

ADVERTISEMENT

Overall, Democrats have an advantage with Hispanic voters in the state.

According to a report published by the Pew Research Center on Friday, 837,000 Hispanics had registered to vote as Democrats as of Aug. 31, while only 527,000 had registered as Republicans. About 775,000 Hispanics registered with no party affiliation.

That’s in stark contrast to 2006, when a majority of Hispanic registered voters in the state signed up as Republicans.

The shift reflects a generational change among Cuban-Americans, as well as the growth of other Hispanic groups in Florida.

In 1990, Cuban-Americans accounted for nearly half of all Hispanic eligible voters in the state, and Puerto Ricans accounted for 25 percent.

In 2018, those two groups each account for 31 percent of Florida’s Hispanic voters. The remaining 38 percent is made up of people with ties to other countries of origin.

A spokeswoman for Tallahassee Mayor Andrew Gillum (D), who’s running for governor against former Rep. Ron DeSantisRonald Dion DeSantisGillum officially concedes in Florida gubernatorial race Trump: Gillum will be 'force to reckon with' DeSantis transition team zeroes in on possible chief of staff MORE (R), said Democrats are trying to hone their messages to different groups of Hispanic voters issue by issue.

“Every group obviously has its issues. For Puerto Ricans recently arrived due to Hurricane Maria [it's] affordable housing [and] the partnership between the state and the island,” she said.

“Of course that message does not resonate as much with a Venezuelan in Miami.”

The DeSantis campaign did not return a request for comment.

Republican House candidate Maria Elvira Salazar, a Cuban-American and Emmy-winning former journalist, has banked on her Latin American policy expertise to speak to an electorate with strong ties to the region.

She is running to succeed retiring Rep. Ileana Ros-LehtinenIleana Carmen Ros-LehtinenFlorida New Members 2019 House GOP returns to Washington after sobering midterm losses Dem wins leave behind a more conservative GOP conference MORE (R-Fla.), a fellow Cuban American.

At the beginning of the race, Democrats were heavily favored to win the district, which Hillary ClintonHillary Diane Rodham ClintonDems wonder if Sherrod Brown could be their magic man Pipeline paralysis: The left’s latest fossil fuel obstruction tactic Mueller could turn easy Trump answers into difficult situation MORE won in the 2016 presidential race by 20 points.

But Salazar has run a strong campaign and her race against Democrat Donna Shalala is seen as a tight one. It’s led to questions about whether Democrats picked the wrong candidate for the district, while Republicans picked close to a perfect one.

“The Democrats down here in Florida especially are famous for screwing up a two-car funeral,” said David Custin, head of DRC Consulting, a campaign and lobbying firm in Florida.

“That should be an easy pickup seat for them,” he said. “The problem is, they just screw up a lot at putting the right pieces on the chessboard.”

José Aristimuño, president of consulting firm Now Strategies and a former Democratic National Committee (DNC) deputy communications director, said Hispanic voters tend to “fall in love” with charismatic candidates.

“We need to ensure the candidates we put forward represent the community, and understand the community,” he said. “You've got Maria and you got Shalala. Shalala probably represents a little bit more the old school way of thinking.”

Republicans in Florida have traditionally run successful campaigns, and GOP success tends to create more success.

“The Bushes have always been the ones who properly and best communicated with Hispanic voters in Florida,” said Custin, referring to former Gov. Jeb Bush (R) and former President George W. Bush, who twice won the state.

Gov. Rick Scott (R), who is challenging Sen. Bill NelsonClarence (Bill) William NelsonDems seek to overhaul voting rules in Florida legal fight  Election Countdown: Abrams ends fight in Georgia governor's race | Latest on Florida recount | Booker, Harris head to campaign in Mississippi Senate runoff | Why the tax law failed to save the GOP majority Trump's take on midterms: ‘Epic' win in Senate, ‘better than other sitting Presidents’ in House MORE (D) for his Senate seat, is keeping up that tradition, said Custin.

“Not since the Bushes, Jeb and W., have we seen a Republican candidate as effective at communicating with Hispanic voters,” he said of Scott.

Custin said Scott's Hispanic outreach while running for governor in 2010 was “atrocious,” but that he has learned from his mistakes.

“Four years ago he was better, this year he’s got it,” said Custin. “Once you’re governor and you’re in the business of governing and you see the different communities … that is an eye-opening experience and it helps you campaign better.”

As the Hispanic electorate changes rapidly, it’s possible those historic advantages for Republicans could fade.

In Central Florida, both parties are pursuing the large Puerto Rican diaspora, as grass-roots organizers struggle to educate recent arrivals from the island on their voting rights and an unfamiliar political party structure.

Puerto Rico holds elections every four years, and campaigns have a distinct style with parade-like street caravans and a strong sense of party membership to the island's three major political parties.

“We do face barriers,” Rep. Darren SotoDarren Michael Soto14 House Dems vow to withhold Speaker votes over rule reforms Electoral battle for Hispanics intensifies in Florida Trump's Puerto Rico tweets spark backlash MORE (D-Fla.) said in a call with reporters. 

“First, it’s a new political system for Puerto Ricans arriving from the island who are used to the system being based upon status rather than Republicans, Democrats and independents,” he said. “We face barriers with bilingual ballots — many counties have bilingual ballots but not all of them.”

Soto, the first Floridian member of Congress of Puerto Rican origin, added that Puerto Rican registration numbers had traditionally been low, but he sees numbers improving.

“There are about 50,000 evacuees that ended up settling in Florida from Puerto Rico after Hurricane Maria … having worked with these folks, they’re politically active,” he said.

“The bigger story is the 1.2 million Puerto Ricans who were already in Florida before Hurricane Maria ever landed,” he added.

According to the Pew report, voter registration in Puerto Rican-heavy counties varies significantly.

While 14 of those counties have outpaced the state's average growth of Hispanic registrations, the four counties with the largest Puerto Rican population have grown more slowly.

With nearly a third of Hispanics statewide registered with no party affiliation, both parties are tailoring their message to reach all possible subsets of the community.

“It’s no different than when you’re speaking different messages to non-Hispanic whites in the panhandle, south Florida, Broward, or Jacksonville,” said Custin.

“If you’re not customizing your message to different targeted groups of individuals, then you’re not doing your job.”

But Aristimuño, the former deputy DNC communications director, said there's still a way to go for politicians in both parties.

“First and foremost, candidates are not grasping the fact that when you message to a Cuban-Americans, it’s a whole lot different than messaging to Puerto Ricans,” he said.

“You need to study each community and what they’re looking to obtain. Where are the Cubans, A-B-C message to them, the Venezuelans, A-B-C message to them, the Puerto Ricans, A-B-C message to them,” added Aristimuño. “We can’t be lazy, we need to make sure we’re not generalizing everything.”