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Republicans’ Efforts for Hispanic Vote May Pay Off in Florida

The GOP has been working hard to win the Latino vote and the groundwork may be enough to help Ron DeSantis win Miami-Dade, a county that hasn’t voted for a Republican governor since Jeb Bush in 2002.

people sit in the RNC community center holding american
Maigrey Guerra Perez (middle) listens as Hispanic Communications Director of the Republican National Committee Jaime Florez speaks to graduates of a civics course for migrants taking the U.S. naturalization test at the RNC Hispanic Community Center in Doral, Florida, on Tuesday, Oct. 4, 2022.
(Sydney Walsh/Miami Herald/TNS)
(TNS) — Becoming a U.S. citizen was not at the top of Ovidio Rodriguez’s to-do list this year, though the Hialeah resident recently became eligible to apply after leaving Cuba five years ago.

But when one of his co-workers told him that her son was teaching citizenship clinics hosted by the Republican Party, Rodriguez jumped at the opportunity to prepare for the exam.

“I already have all the notes, audio and videos, I know where I have to take the exam. So I already have all the material I need to take it,” Rodriguez said in August during a symbolic graduation ceremony at the Republican National Committee’s Hispanic community center in Doral.

Like his peers at the GOP-sponsored naturalization clinics, Rodriguez won’t be able to vote in this election. But once he receives his citizenship, he says he will consider himself Republican.

“I believe that I should always look at both sides before making a decision. But seeing how terrible things are going since the election that just passed, this representation from the Democratic Party, how poorly they are doing … I just see an incredible similarity to the things that happen in my country and the rest of Latin America,” Rodriguez said.

The RNC’s civics clinics, held in a county that is 72 percent Hispanic, are just one example of how national and state Republicans have been planting the seeds of their party’s future in Hispanic communities in what has historically been the nation’s most populous battleground state.

Despite the party’s efforts to crack down on immigration into the U.S., the the GOP is playing the long game with Latinos, even those who are not yet eligible to vote. And it appears to be working, driving Miami-Dade, the state’s most populous county, to the right and pushing Florida out of reach for Democrats.

This election, there is mounting evidence that Republicans’ ground operation — specifically in Hispanic communities — could help Gov. Ron DeSantis become the first Republican governor to win the county since Jeb Bush, who spoke Spanish, owned a Coral Gables condo and was married to a Latina wife, did it in 2002.

“It’s not only possible, but it’s really on track right now,” said Devon Murphy-Anderson, the co-founder of the Democratic-leaning voter outreach organization, Mi Vecino, which operates year-round in five counties in Florida and conducts polling.

Local Republicans are growing bolder. On the first day of early voting, Miami-Dade GOP Chairman René García declared during a rally at the John F. Kennedy Library in Hialeah that the largely Cuban-American city was home to the “Republican base of the state.”

And Lt. Gov. Jeanette Nuñez — a Miami Cuban American and the state’s first Latina in her role — said last week that she expected Hispanic voters would help deliver the county for her party.

“We have seen so many Hispanics flock to the Republican Party here in Miami-Dade County,” Nuñez said in a get-out-the-vote rally at the Doral community center last week. “And I’m going to make a prediction right now — and those of you that are recording the news, you can quote me on this: We’re going to win Miami-Dade County come Nov. 8, 2022.”

Lt. Gov. Jeanette Nuñez joined a group of leaders from the Republican party, including, from left, U.S. Sen. Rick Scott and U.S. Congresswoman María Elvira Salazar
Lt. Gov. Jeanette Nuñez joined a group of leaders from the Republican party, including, from left, U.S. Sen. Rick Scott and U.S. Congresswoman María Elvira Salazar, during a rally to motivate Hispanic voters to support Republicans at the RNC Hispanic Community Center in Doral, Florida, on Tuesday Oct. 18, 2022.
(Pedro Portal/Miami Herald/TNS)

The Trump Effect

It has been two years since former President Donald Trump won Florida with a groundswell of support from Hispanic voters and ended a trend of narrowly decided top-of-ticket contests in the state. After winning Florida despite getting crushed in Miami-Dade in 2016, Trump scored the best margins a Republican presidential candidate had seen in Miami-Dade County in 16 years.

Though Miami-Dade Republicans have performed well for decades with Cuban American voters, who skew conservative, Trump also found support in neighborhoods settled by Colombians, Nicaraguans and Venezuelans, who historically act as swing voters. Even so, he still lost left-leaning Miami-Dade County to Joe Biden by 7 points.

This year, the explanation for DeSantis’ popularity is twofold: Like Trump, DeSantis’ campaign is investing a lot of time and money in reaching Hispanic voters in South Florida, regardless of their party affiliation; and he is winning over an increasing number of Latino Democrats and Democratic-leaning voters with no party affiliation.

One recent poll by Telemundo/LX News found Hispanic voters favor DeSantis over his Democratic opponent Charlie Crist. A separate survey conducted by Mi Vecino found similar results among Hispanic voters in Miami-Dade County, with 25 percent of Hispanic Democrats saying they would vote for DeSantis and just 20 percent saying they would support Crist.

Hispanic voters who are shifting to the right appear to be swayed by pocketbook issues, even though they are more aligned with the social values of the Democratic Party, said Alex Berrios, also a co-founder of Mi Vecino.

“To me, what this says is that many Latino voters can still be persuaded if the message is delivered,” Berrios said. “The effort has to be made and at this point in the election, that ship has probably sailed. We are pretty close to Election Day.”

In an interview last week, Berrios said it was “startling” to see how much DeSantis’ campaign has done to reach Democratic voters in Hispanic communities.

“We’re talking to voters and while we’re canvassing, we’re seeing Ron DeSantis’ literature on Hispanic Democrats’ doors,” he said.

DeSantis and his lieutenant governor, Nuñez, have also built a coalition of local supporters. Nuñez is a frequent guest on Spanish-language radio shows and has spent much of her time during the campaign spreading the administration’s agenda in campaign gatherings large and small, and in South Florida beyond Miami-Dade.

At one recent gathering at a coffee shop in Weston, a suburb of heavily Democratic Broward County where half the population is foreign-born, a group of about 30 Latina Republicans held a breakfast-time meeting to talk about the upcoming election. Their guest of honor for the “Mamasitas for DeSantis” event was Nuñez, who criticized Crist and his pick for lieutenant governor, Karla Hernandez-Mats, a teachers union boss who is of Honduran descent.

“Charlie Crist and his running mate, they were in favor of keeping kids out of classrooms, out of schools and I think she’s referred to parents that as you know have had the courage to attend a school board, that they’re crazy, that they’re out of control,” Nuñez told the group of women at Caffe Gourmet, in Spanish. “When we see what’s happening in this country, when we see what’s happening in schools, it’s something that we’re not going to allow.”

The meeting was hosted by Republican Amigos, a grassroots group of GOP volunteers and canvassers that meets out of Weston, often referred to by locals as “Westonzuela” due to the concentration of Venezuelan residents. The group has about 67 active members, one of the founders said.

“We have really good access. And we try to promote activism, which is not giving your opinion, but really doing,” said Marta Mesa, a Colombian-American who has lived in the U.S. for 23 years and is one of the co-founders of Republican Amigos. “There’s a lot of people that have joined that said, ‘We are outnumbered in this area.’”

Republicans aren’t always eager to promote their efforts. After Nuñez left the event with her entourage, organizers who invited a Miami Herald reporter and photographer to cover the meeting said the DeSantis campaign called and demanded they be asked to leave.

Republican U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio shares with supporters during a campaign rally in West Miami
Republican U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio shares with supporters during a campaign rally in West Miami.In West, on Wednesday, Oct. 19, 2022.
(Pedro Portal/Miami Herald/TNS)

A Mixed Bag on Immigration

Republicans’ success with Hispanic voters comes as the party expands its reach throughout the state in an unprecedented way. In September, the GOP reached a new milestone: officially surpassing Democrats by more than one percentage point, according to Division of Elections data through the end of August analyzed by the Miami Herald.

Those gains have begun to show in Miami-Dade, where the percentage of Hispanic voters who were registered with the Democratic Party went down by about 2 percentage points since October 2020, according to a Herald analysis. Meanwhile, the share of voters registered with the Republican Party and those who are not affiliated with any party grew by a little under one percentage point each.

One of the biggest issues splitting Hispanic voters in South Florida is immigration, where the response to the issue varies by country of origin and region of the state.

That seems to be the case with DeSantis’ migrant relocation program. While Cubans approved of the governor’s effort, according to the Telemundo/LX News poll, Puerto Ricans and other Hispanics — including Colombians, Venezuelans, Mexican Americans and Central Americans — disagreed with him on the issue of immigration.

Murphy-Anderson said Hispanic voters surveyed by Mi Vecino had a “visceral reaction” to the effort. She said most thought it was “straight up wrong.”

“However, there were still voters saying I’m going to vote for Ron DeSantis because he is taking action,” Murphy-Anderson said.

That doesn’t mean that DeSantis has not faced pushback. In October, the Spanish-language weekly newspaper, El Venezolano, ran a full-page ad condemning the migrant relocation program, which sent 48 migrants — most of them Venezuelan — to Martha’s Vineyard.

The ad, paid for by The Venezuelan American Caucus, read: Con los Venezolanos no se juega. In English, that translates to “You don’t play with Venezuelans.”

Adelys Ferro, the co-founder of the Venezuelan American Caucus, is skeptical that DeSantis can win Miami-Dade, in part because of his immigration platform.

“In my personal experience, I have not seen what those polls reflect,” Ferro said in an interview Tuesday. “I am not saying that they are not true, I want to make that clear, but what we see on the ground is that people were sad and outraged about what happened.”

Many of those people she has talked to are not eligible to vote, Ferro said. Those who are eligible “were disgusted” by the migrant relocation effort.”

“I think it is important to emphasize that even when there are different opinions about what Gov. DeSantis did, what he did was wrong. What he did was playing politics with human beings,” she said.

Still, the swell of support for Republican policies throughout South Florida is noticeable for longtime residents of the area. Tomás Regalado, Miami’s Cuban-American former mayor, said he believed support for DeSantis was likely more a result of everyday issues like inflation than of DeSantis as a political figure.

“DeSantis hasn’t campaigned here as much in the Hispanic community, and neither has Charlie Crist, by the way,” said Regalado, who is Republican.

If DeSantis wins Miami-Dade County, Regalado said, it will likely draw comparisons to Bush, the last Republican gubernatorial candidate to win in Miami-Dade. But far from having similar styles, Regalado believes another advantage for DeSantis in this environment is that Hispanics tend to place blame on economic issues on the federal government, rather than any other political figure.

“DeSantis is lucky that for so many Hispanics, Democrats have failed,” he said. “DeSantis is simply a conduit to express the frustrations of so many.”

©2022 Miami Herald. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.
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