GOP makes inroads with Hispanics in Florida

Florida Republicans picked up a larger share of Hispanic voters in 2018 than President TrumpDonald John TrumpBiden, Sanders lead field in Iowa poll The Memo: Cohen fans flames around Trump Memo Comey used to brief Trump on dossier released: report MORE did in 2016, suggesting the party is making inroads with a key voting block in the swing state.

Two statewide GOP candidates — Gov. Rick Scott and former Rep. Ron DeSantisRonald Dion DeSantisGillum to speak at gathering of top Dem donors: report GOP opens door to new NC election amid fraud claims Gillum reached out to O’Rourke amid 2020 speculation: report MORE — won their races. Scott will become Florida's junior senator, while DeSantis will succeed Scott as governor.

Scott's campaign spent $4 million on Spanish-language advertising, the most of any entity in the United States over the 2018 campaign cycle.

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“In terms of working Hispanics in Florida, Scott showed how you’re supposed to campaign in Spanish in Florida,” said David Custin, head of DRC Consulting, a campaign and lobbying firm in Florida. “He made the effort and put in the financial commitment and the blood, sweat and tears.”

DeSantis won 44 percent of Florida Hispanic votes in 2018, a 13 percent increase over Scott's 2014 performance, according to exit polling.

Custin said DeSantis was helped by his running mate, Cuban-American businesswoman Jeanette Nuñez, who almost certainly won votes for him in South Florida.

Both races were decided after recounts by less than half a percentage point in a state that is 25 percent Hispanic.

The good news in Florida was a bright spot for the GOP, which saw Hispanic voters contribute to flipping Republican House or Senate seats in Texas, Arizona, Colorado and California.

Some of those results are likely to raise questions among Republicans over whether the party needs to do more to attract Hispanic voters. Nationwide, exit polls show Democrats won the Hispanic vote by 40 percentage points. 

Florida's diverse Hispanic population has long been known as the most Republican, led by Cuban Americans who have a traditional identification with the GOP since the 1960s.

Still, Hispanic voter registration trends over the past decade in Florida heavily favor Democrats.

In 2006, 414,000 Hispanics were registered as Republicans, 370,000 as Democrats and 317,000 as independents. In 2018, 837,000 Hispanics were registered Democrats, 775,000 independents, and 527,000 Republicans, according to the Pew Research Center.

Two major demographic changes have played a part in that shift: Newer arrivals from Cuba and younger Cuban-Americans are less likely to register as Republicans, and the state's Puerto Rican population has ballooned. It’s now roughly equal in size to the Cuban-American population.

An analysis by University of Florida Department of Political Science Chair Daniel Smith, shows that only about 27 percent of Florida’s Puerto Ricans voted early or by absentee ballot, according to a report by the Orlando Sentinel.

It found that about 44 percent of Cuban-Americans in the state voted early or filed absentee ballots.

Low participation among Puerto Ricans would almost certainly have hurt Democrats, who've courted that electorate in part as a counterweight to the GOP-friendly Cuban-American bloc.

Mark Hugo Lopez, director of Hispanic research at Pew, said registration trendlines heavily favor Democrats and independents, though that still leaves space for Republican candidates.

He said different subsets of the Florida Hispanic community could part from the traditional behavior of registering and voting for the same party.

“They may be more likely to vote Republican even if they don’t register Republican," said Lopez.

More people voted in the 2018 midterms than in the 2014 midterms.

In 2014, Scott won the governorship with 2.86 million votes against Democratic Rep. Charlie CristCharles (Charlie) Joseph CristDems to reframe gun violence as public health issue Meet the lawmakers putting politics aside to save our climate Bipartisan group of lawmakers propose landmark carbon tax MORE's 2.79 million votes.

DeSantis got 4.08 million votes in 2018, compared to Democrat Andrew Gillum’s 4.04 million.

“It is interesting that this whole Hispanic surge occurs at the same time as we see a general surge in the general population,” said Lopez. “The Hispanic story was one part of a larger story of high turnout for this last midterm election across the country.”

Florida Republicans, in particular Scott, parted from Trump's rhetoric on immigration and reached out directly to Hispanic voters, even as they also courted a pro-Trump base in the Florida Panhandle.

The more Hispanic-friendly message doesn't seem to have hurt Republicans in the panhandle, where they outperformed Democrats three to one.

But Trump's rhetoric did hurt Republicans in the state's largest population center, Miami-Dade, said Custin.

Trump’s last-minute election calls to abolish birthright citizenship and tighten asylum laws could have scared away some Cuban-Americans. Many Cuban-Americans are asylees from the Castro regime, or descendants of asylees who obtained their citizenship through birthright.

It wasn’t all bad news for Democrats in Florida in the midterms.

Democrat Nikki Fried will become the state's next commissioner of agriculture, and the party gained two House seats and had pickups in the state legislature.

The question for both parties is whether Republicans can continue to hold pace or make gains with Hispanic voters in Florida going forward.

“Florida is the most unique state in terms of its Hispanic composition,” said Lopez. 

Custin said that Florida Hispanics are not solidly in one party's camp — and could be more reactive to changes in rhetoric and policy than other blocs of Hispanic voters around the country.

“Trump could do something on Cuba and South America that’s transformational, or he could insult everybody. You don’t know what’s going to happen,” he said.