Cuba fallout threatens Biden's prospects in Florida

Cuba fallout threatens Biden's prospects in Florida
© Getty Images

Political strategists are warning that President BidenJoe BidenBiden to provide update Monday on US response to omicron variant Restless progressives eye 2024 Emhoff lights first candle in National Menorah-lighting ceremony MORE risks losing Florida again in 2024 if he doesn’t step up his response to Cuba following this summer’s historic protests on the Communist island.

Biden has met with Cuban American leaders, instituted harsher sanctions on the Cuban government and is now exploring ways to possibly restore internet access in Cuba, but experts say he still risks losing ground to Republicans on the issue.

Cuban Americans, many of whom turned out for former President TrumpDonald TrumpFormer defense secretary Esper sues Pentagon in memoir dispute Biden celebrates start of Hanukkah Fauci says lies, threats are 'noise' MORE in November, are entering their fifth week of protests in Florida to voice their opposition to the government in Havana. If Biden wants to win them over three years from now, strategists say, he will need to take a different approach toward Cuba.


“I think that the Biden administration is very sensitive and very responsive on the substance of the policy; I wish that they were equally sensitive and responsive on the politics,” said Ana NavarroAna Violeta Navarro'Shark Tank' investor Barbara Corcoran apologizes for comments about Whoopi Goldberg on 'The View' Navarro rips 'dimwit' Trump Jr. on 'The View' for COVID-19 and obesity tweet 'The View's' Navarro tells critics to 'keep on hating' after COVID-19 scare MORE, a longtime Republican strategist based in Miami who supported Biden in 2020, in an interview earlier this week. “The moment is passing, but if and when they get ready to make significant policy announcements related to the internet, either the president or the vice president or the secretary of State, or somebody at that level, should be doing it in Miami.”

The White House announced on Wednesday that Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro MayorkasAlejandro MayorkasThe massive messaging miscues of all the president's men (and women) Buttigieg has high name recognition, favorability rating in Biden Cabinet: survey Meet Ayelet Shaked, Israel's polarizing and powerful Interior minister MORE will travel to Miami next week to speak about Biden’s commitment to the protesters in Cuba and his solidarity with Cuban Americans in Florida.

Biden lost Florida by 3 percentage points in 2020, with 55 percent of Cuban American voters in the state backing Trump.

In Miami-Dade County, where Cuban Americans make up 34 percent of the population, Biden won by just 7 points after former Democratic presidential nominee Hillary ClintonHillary Diane Rodham ClintonCountering the ongoing Republican delusion Republicans seem set to win the midterms — unless they defeat themselves Poll: Democracy is under attack, and more violence may be the future MORE won the county by 30 points in 2016.

Biden’s overall approval rating in Florida is only slightly above water, with 49 percent approving of his job performance and 46 percent disapproving, according to the most recent St. Pete Polls survey.

On specific issues, a July survey from the University of South Florida found that 46.5 percent of Florida voters approve of Biden’s handling of foreign policy, which would include his response to the protests in Cuba.

In the months since the election, Democrats have sought to figure out how to win over more voters in Florida.

“Obviously there was a huge step in the wrong direction from my party in 2020, and so for me, I viewed the response to what’s happening in Cuba as an opportunity,” said Steve Schale, a Democratic strategist who is based in Tallahassee and who ran former President ObamaBarack Hussein ObamaBiden celebrates start of Hanukkah The massive messaging miscues of all the president's men (and women) 'Car guy' Biden puts his spin on the presidency MORE’s Florida operation in 2008. Obama won the state by 3 points that year.

The GOP has had success linking Democrats and Biden to socialism. A Trump ad targeting Latinos in 2020 featured a clip of Biden saying he would be “one of the most progressive presidents in American history,” followed by clips of Cuba’s Fidel Castro and Venezuela’s Nicolás Maduro describing the similarities between progressive and socialist ideologies. The ad concludes by saying “progresista=socialista.”

“A lot of what hurt Democrats in 2020, frankly, was a lack of effective response to just an immense amount of misinformation around the socialism stuff,” Schale said.

The first test of whether Democrats have a better response will come next year.

Schale said that in order for Democrats to win back seats in the 2022 midterms, “we’re going to have to do better in Dade County. The math for Democrats winning statewide gets pretty hard if you’re winning Dade by the margins that we saw in 2020.”

Brad Coker, a pollster at Mason-Dixon Polling and Strategy in Florida, said Democrats “would need to up their votes among Hispanic voters probably 10 to 15 percent above what they got in 2020 to start to balance the scale back in their direction.

The biggest wave of protests since the Cuban Revolution of 1959 comes as Democrats and Republicans are gearing up for several high-profile races next year.

Sen. Marco RubioMarco Antonio RubioRepublicans struggle to save funding for Trump's border wall Rubio: Dropping FARC from terrorist list threatens Colombians, US security This Thanksgiving, skip the political food fights and talk UFOs instead MORE (R-Fla.), whose parents immigrated to the U.S. from Cuba in 1956, is likely to be up against Rep. Val DemingsValdez (Val) Venita DemingsSununu exit underscores uncertain GOP path to gain Senate majority Democrats brace for flood of retirements after Virginia rout Rep. Brown to run for Maryland attorney general MORE (D) in November 2022. For now, though, he has been vocal with his dissatisfaction with Biden’s response to the protests in Cuba.

“Sen. Rubio has always been consistent on what U.S. policy should be in Cuba and his position has been popular with Floridian voters in the past,” said Alex Conant, who served as the communications director for Rubio's 2016 presidential campaign. “When we were running for president, one of his best moments was when he was talking about Cuba at the debate in Florida. So to the extent that Cuba policy is an issue in the midterms, that clearly plays to one of his strengths.”

Rubio and Florida Gov. Ron DeSantisRon DeSantisDemocratic frustration growing over stagnating voting rights bills A sad reality: In a season of giving, most will ignore America's poor Walt Disney World pauses vaccine mandate after DeSantis signs new legislation MORE (R), who is also up for reelection next year, last month went on a live broadcast of Sean HannitySean Patrick HannityVigilantes are not patriots Trump says Rittenhouse met with him in Florida Cheney knocks Ted Cruz: 'A real man would be defending his wife' MORE’s Fox News show, outside a popular Cuban restaurant in the heart of Miami’s Little Havana, during which DeSantis said Biden has “basically just been sitting there doing nothing.”

It’s a message the GOP has repeated in the weeks following the protests.


“I think the Republican Party has become masters at capitalizing on Cuban-related issues for domestic political purposes,” said Michael Bustamante, a professor of Cuban American studies at the University of Miami.

Strategists from both parties say some Republicans have been circulating the idea of military intervention in Cuba as a way to rally the base, leaving Biden in a difficult position.

“I think some Republicans are pushing the idea of intervention knowing that that’s not going to happen and knowing that Biden is not going to do that. So they’re irresponsibly building up the expectation for the Cuban American community with an impossible goal. There isn’t going to be a military intervention,” said Navarro, who served as U.S. ambassador to the United Nations Human Rights Commission in 2001.

Since the protests started, Biden has ordered sanctions against three separate Cuban government officials, along with the Cuban National Revolutionary Policy and the “Black Beret,” a special unit of government forces. But the actions have been seen as being more symbolic than hindering.

The Democratic National Committee (DNC) on July 24 launched a digital ad campaign in Florida, in Spanish and English, to highlight Biden's position.

“The DNC is committed to using our resources to speak directly to the Cuban community in South Florida to make sure they know that President Biden and Democrats have their back,” DNC Chairman Jaime HarrisonJaime HarrisonOn The Money — Biden's battle with inflation Democrats start blitz to sell infrastructure Media narrative got education's role in Virginia election backwards MORE said in a statement accompanying the ad campaign.


While some political experts say Biden is doing everything he can to support the protesters in Cuba, they also say he needs to do a better job at showing Cuban Americans that he empathizes with their pain. Biden’s lone visit to Miami was in the days after the Surfside Tower collapse.

“One of Joe Biden’s greatest strengths is being able to console people and embrace people in moments of grief,” said Navarro. “Right now, the Cuban American community is grief stricken by feeling impotent as protesters in Cuba are being beaten, killed and jailed. Joe Biden has done some, but I wish he would do more to address the heartbreak and put his arms, physically, literally, around the Cuban American community.”

“I think this is a make or break moment for the midterms,” she added.

But if those elections were held today, some pollsters say Democrats would do even worse with Hispanic voters in Florida than they did in November.

“I think that the Democrats' problem now is they are kind of doing the things that Hispanic voters feared. You’re seeing a lot of government spending, government centralization, government control, whether it be the mask mandates or what are probably going to be higher taxes,” Coker said. “I think in 2022, DeSantis is probably going to do as well among Hispanics as Trump did.”

“For Democrats to win now, they have to come back even more than on Election Day,” he said.

Updated at 9:07 a.m.