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Adam Smith: Between Puerto Rico and Trump, here are a few hints that a blue tide could rise in Florida

By Adam C. Smith

We can't know until later when the tides really start shifting in a wave election, but Florida Republicans ought to view two occasions last week as ominous signs for the 2018 election cycle

Early evening Monday, actor, singer and Miami resident Marc Anthony tweeted:

Mr. President shut the ---- up about NFL. Do something about our people in need in #PuertoRico. We are American citizens too.

No, a liberal pop star's tweets don't sway voters. But Anthony's anger reflected growing complaints and concern that President Donald Trump was alarmingly nonchalant about a humanitarian crisis affecting Puerto Rican American citizens — and hundreds of thousands of Florida voters

What happens in Puerto Rico matters profoundly in a state that Trump won by 1.2 percentage points and would have gone the other way with just 57,000 votes flipped. A million Puerto Rican residents, mostly Democratic-leaning, already reside in Florida, and Hurricane Maria's devastation could send tens of thousands more to Florida, which helps explain why Florida's likely 2018 U.S. Senate GOP nominee, Gov. Rick Scott, hustled to Puerto Rico Thursday to show he cares.

And on Tuesday, Democrats bucked conventional political wisdom by winning a special election in Miami-Dade, flipping a state Senate seat from Republican to Democrat.

That Democrat, Annette Taddeo, who was Charlie Crist's running mate in his 2014 campaign against Scott, won a widely watched race against state Rep. Jose Felix Diaz may seem like no big deal. Republicans and Democrats are closely matched in voter registration, after all, and Hillary Clinton crushed Trump in that district last year.

Don't kid yourself. Florida Democrats have not won a single legislative special election in nearly 10 years. This one says a great deal about today's Republican Party under Trump, who clearly dragged down Diaz like an anvil.

Taddeo won in a low-turnout special election in a non-presidential year, precisely the kind of contest that Democrats normally lose.

She did it despite Republicans fielding an excellent candidate and despite Republicans casting more votes prior to election day than Democrats. She won despite Republicans as usual enjoying a big financial advantage and normally doing the basic blocking and tackling and vote capturing better in state elections.

The outcome defied conventional political wisdom in much the same way Rick Kriseman's narrow win over Rick Baker in St. Petersburg's mayoral primary last month shocked most observers.

Democrat Kriseman tried hard to nationalize that officially non-partisan race and Republican Baker, much like Diaz, struggled with how to handle the Trump factor. Baker refuses to say whether he voted for Trump, while Diaz (believe it or not, a Season Five contestant on Trump's show, The Apprentice) scrubbed from his Twitter page a photo of Diaz and the president at an inauguration party.

Overwhelmingly Hispanic Miami-Dade is hardly a mirror of Florida as a whole. Trump is particularly unpopular there, and Diaz faced a spate of unwelcome headlines during the race.

"You had the immigration reform rollout, you had numerous attempts to overturn the ACA, you had DACA (Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals), and then you had the hurricane onslaught which ... also moved climate change and sea level rise to center stage in an area where fish already swim in the streets on sunny afternoons," noted Democratic pollster Tom Eldon of Tampa. "ObamaCare is very popular in Miami-Dade County, especially among non-Cuban Hispanics and NPA voters. It's actually popular among some Cuban voters."

Trump may be toxic to swing voters in swing districts, but all you have to do is look at Republican gubernatorial prospects Adam Putnam and Richard Corcoran genuflecting before Trump to see how much the president still holds sway in GOP primaries.

Putnam once distanced himself from Trump, while Corcoran publicly blasted him as a "repugnant" and a phony cancer on conservatism. Those days are long gone. Now both lavish praise on the president. Scott at least has been consistent in his Trump crush.

"Trump is the poison candy Republicans will gorge on in primaries and die from in competitive general elections. Write it down," Republican strategist and Trump loather J.M. Mac Stipanovich tweeted Tuesday night after Taddeo won.

Standing by the president against his many detractors may indeed prove to be the ticket to winning a primary in the Republican Party of 2017 and 2018. But Taddeo's win is Exhibit A for how those early Trump embraces can play in the general election.

It's far too early to make any assumptions about the political climate 12 months from now. But after Taddeo's win, Democratic strategist Steve Schale of Tallahassee urged his party leaders to step up their candidate recruiting because a lot more seats could be winnable than normally would be.

"Every seat you think is currently out of play, add a few Dem points to the generic performance and see what happens. In other words, a lot of places are potentially in play," Schale wrote on his blog. "We don't know what November 2018 will bring yet, but waves start with having a lot of good candidates out there, and right now, there is work to be done."

The fastest-growing region of Florida is the Orlando area, and Puerto Ricans are a big reason for that. Puerto Ricans are American citizens automatically eligible to vote when living in one of the 50 states. More than a million Puerto Ricans already live in Florida, and they have turned communities around Orlando into Democratic strongholds.

Trump has been tweeting about the patriotism of football players while many Florida voters have been desperately trying to track down relatives on the island. Maria could send many more Puerto Ricans from the island to join relatives in Florida, and the last thing Republicans need heading into 2018 is a critical, fast-growing voting bloc angry at the GOP for how it responded to Maria's devastation.

A year is an eternity in politics, and Florida politics is rarely predictable. That said, Republicans have considerable work to do to ensure that last week is not a harbinger of what's coming in 2018.

Contact Adam Smith at [email protected] Follow @AdamSmithTimes.