Bernie Sanders’ remarks about Fidel Castro on 60 Minutes Sunday night continued to set off alarms among Florida Democrats on Monday, as worries spread about the presidential front-runner’s views on authoritarian regimes and the effect on Hispanic and undecided voters in a swing state.
Lawmakers and prominent Democrats across Florida denounced Sanders’ comments, which included a remark that it was “simply unfair to say everything is bad” about Fidel Castro’s Cuban revolution. They said Sanders’ rhetoric will make it harder for him to win statewide in November — and hurt candidates in competitive congressional and state-level races.
Sanders lost the 2016 Democratic primary by 31 percentage points in Florida and Florida Democrats are wary of a party nominee offering anything other than unequivocal condemnation of left-leaning authoritarian leaders like Castro and Venezuela’s Nicolás Maduro.
Christian Ulvert, a Miami-based Democratic strategist who is not working for a 2020 candidate but is personally supporting former Vice President Joe Biden, said Democratic primary voters in Florida remember the state’s previous close elections and worry that Sanders’ comments will unnerve some his own supporters who may agree with him on policy but want a nominee who can beat President Donald Trump.
“That will cause a huge level of pause and concern among undecided voters and those who want to win in November,” Ulvert said.
Sanders’ campaign insisted in a statement that his 60 Minutes comments should not be considered praise for Castro.
“Sen. Sanders has clearly and consistently criticized Fidel Castro’s authoritarianism and condemned his human rights abuses, and he’s simply echoing President Obama’s acknowledgment that Cuba made progress, especially in education,” Sanders communications director Mike Casca said in a statement.
The Sanders campaign said their strategy in the Florida primary and in the general election will be to continue to focus on expanding the electorate by reaching young people, people of color and working class people.
The campaign pointed out that former President Barack Obama said Cuba made “enormous achievements in education and in health care” while visiting Havana in 2016.
But all three of Florida’s House Democrats who represent swing districts, Miami Reps. Debbie Mucarsel-Powell and Donna Shalala, and Central Florida Rep. Stephanie Murphy, criticized Sanders for his remarks on Monday.
“My hope is that after meeting with the exile community, he will recognize that the Cuban regime — and other similar authoritarian regimes across Latin America — are instruments of evil and are not worthy of his praise,” Shalala said in a statement.
Mucarsel-Powell, the first member of Congress born in South America, called his comments “unacceptable.”
Murphy, a Mike Bloomberg supporter whose district was the most competitive in the state in the last two presidential elections, said Sanders “will alienate many Florida voters now and in the general election if he is nominated.”
Not everyone was certain that Sanders’ comments will have a lasting effect. Kyle Kondik, who handicaps House races around the country as the managing editor with the University of Virginia’s Center for Politics, called it “an open question” when discussing how much having Sanders lead the ticket would ultimately hurt Democrats running other races. Kondik wrote an op-ed for the New York Times on Monday which noted that “some voters may split their tickets against the party they believe will win the White House as a way to put a check on the likely winner.”
In 2016, Republicans managed to hold onto two Miami-based House seats despite the presence of Trump — who was unpopular with general election voters in Miami — on the ballot.
Democratic state senators and representatives from Miami-Dade County said Monday that they believe Sanders’ remarks will hurt Democrats in November. The Florida Democratic Party, without mentioning Sanders, issued a statement Monday that condemned dictatorships in “places like Venezuela, Cuba and Nicaragua.”
State Sen. Annette Taddeo, who represents a Miami-area seat that Democrats flipped in 2017, compared Sanders’ remarks to Trump’s 2017 comments calling white nationalists “very fine people” after violent protests in Charlottesville, Virginia.
“Saying a murderous dictator wasn’t so bad because of a literacy program is like saying ‘there were very fine people, on both sides,’” Taddeo tweeted.
Sanders’ history of praising left-leaning authoritarian leaders in Latin America has been well documented. In 1986, he said Cuba made “significant improvements” after Castro led Cuba’s Communist Party starting in 1961. At the same time, he also criticized Cuba’s human rights record.
“If you’re looking at issues like longevity, and quality education, and health care and nutrition, and the ways a poor society like Cuba can provide in a reasonably equitable way for its people, then you see that Cuba, since 1961, is a society which has made significant improvements,” Sanders said in 1986. “Now, obviously, there are some very great shortcomings in Cuban society as well, especially in terms of democratic rights.”
But criticism of Sanders Monday wasn’t limited to his Castro comments.
Rep. Ted Deutch, a Broward County Democrat and Bloomberg supporter who represents a large Jewish community, chastised Sanders for declaring that he will skip next week’s American Israel Public Affairs Committee conference. Sanders said he is concerned “about the platform AIPAC provides for leaders who express bigotry and oppose basic Palestinian rights.”
“I’ll be at AIPAC Policy Conference,” Deutch said in a statement. “And unlike Senator Sanders, I look forward to sharing my views with the pro-Israel Democrats, Republicans, and Independents who will be gathering in Washington next week.”
Sanders consistently trails Biden and Bloomberg in Florida polls. A Florida Southern College poll released Monday showed Bloomberg and Biden effectively tied for first place, with Sanders trailing by single digits. Florida will award 219 delegates based on the results of its March 17 primary, and any candidate who receives 15% support statewide or in one of the state’s 27 congressional districts will be awarded delegates.
Ulvert said Florida Democrats, whether progressive or moderate, are pragmatic voters. The coalitions that carried Sanders to victory in Nevada and New Hampshire won’t be the same in Florida.
“Florida Dems are uniquely positioned because of the role we play in the general election,” Ulvert said. “The lens that people will see the primary candidate will be...different than other states. Senator Sanders’ weekend interview not only puts those electoral votes in grave doubt, some would argue that he’s erased them from the Democratic column altogether.”