Four years after getting blown out in Miami-Dade County, President Donald Trump rode a groundswell of Hispanic support Tuesday night to the best margins a Republican presidential candidate has seen in Florida’s most populous county in 16 years.
And the rising red tide lifted all ships.
The Miami-Dade GOP also pulled off upsets in two Democratic-leaning congressional districts that Trump lost by double digits four years ago. Republicans were in position to sweep two state Senate races, one of which was headed to a recount. And they won almost every competitive state House seat on the Miami-Dade ballot — a drubbing that raised questions about whether a significant political shift had occurred in perhaps the most important region of a state that, at least until Tuesday night, was considered a perennial presidential nail-biter.
“It was a bloodbath across the county,” said Raul Martinez Jr., district director and campaign manager to U.S. Rep. Donna Shalala, a Democrat who unexpectedly lost a rematch against a candidate she fended off with relative ease just two years earlier.
The movement toward Trump in Miami-Dade County — a 23-point swing from Hillary Clinton’s 290,000-vote win in the county four years ago — didn’t account for all of the president’s Florida triumph over Democratic nominee Joe Biden. But it nearly doubled his entire margin of victory in 2016.
Voters hit with four years of Democrats-are-socialists attacks by Trump and other Republicans turned away from Biden in a big way. And they rejected down-ballot candidates who’d won easily only two and four years earlier while running on mostly moderate platforms — losses that will shape legislation and priorities coming out of Washington and Tallahassee.
Shalala’s defeat was perhaps the most illustrative of how things shifted. Her Republican opponent, former Spanish-language journalist Maria Elvira Salazar, ran essentially the same campaign that handed her a four-percentage-point loss in 2018. But while the players and the arguments were the same, everything else around the race changed.
Cuban Americans, who appeared to be slowly becoming more liberal, snapped back to the right, consolidating behind Republicans and rejecting Democrats. Other Hispanic voters from Nicaragua, Venezuela and Colombia moved toward the right as well. And in that different climate, Democrats were unable to keep up with the GOP’s ground-game advantage, which harnessed an organic blow-back against social justice issues promoted by an increasingly progressive party.
“We defended what was happening at the border, people dying from COVID, and Black and justice issues. And we paid for it,” said Raymond Paultre, a Florida Democratic strategist. “We ran on our values and we lost. And that’s the hardest part.”
Trump’s significantly improved performance seemed to surprise everyone except his campaign, which knew long ago it was doing materially better with Cuban Americans in Miami, as well as Latino voters from other areas of Latin America. Those numbers became even more pronounced when Black Lives Matter protests broke out in Miami, drawing some leftists who waved flags with the likeness of Cuban revolutionary Che Guevara and spray-painted red hammer-and-sickle images onto walls and statues.
“The socialism? You can’t be playing around with that word,” Salazar said in an interview, following her win Tuesday night. “It’s too acidic. It’s too dangerous.”
In Florida’s 26th Congressional District, U.S. Rep. Debbie Mucarsel-Powell had more money than Miami-Dade Mayor Carlos Gimenez and watched online as Trump supporters booed Gimenez Sunday night at a 15,000-person Trump rally, only to see him win by 2.5 percentage points.
In that race, Gimenez based most of his campaign on the idea that Mucarsel-Powell — an Ecuadorian immigrant — was too progressive for her heavily Cuban-American district.
The attack was predictable: Republicans have accused Democrats of embracing socialism for years, and not just in Miami. The idea that a Democratic president could turn the U.S. into socialist Venezuela is a mainstream talking point in the Republican Party that is now repeated in places like The Villages retirement community in Central Florida.
But Democrats have never figured out how to combat what is, to many, little more than a schoolyard taunt — but one with deep, psychological connections for so many voters who have fled authoritarian regimes.
“It is a culture war that socialism is a stand-in for,” said Carlos Odio, a former White House aide and co-founder of the Latino research firm EquisLabs. “They made it a social norm to be pro-Trump.”
Only four years ago, Cuban Americans and other Hispanic voters in Miami-Dade were lukewarm on him at best. In Mucarsel-Powell’s district, he lost by 16 percentage points. In Shalala’s, he lost by 20. Come 2018, the Trump drag on the bottom of the ballot appeared to help elevate both Democrats into Congress, victories that for the first time in years broke Cuban Americans' near-lock on Miami-Dade’s congressional delegation.
Odio said an analysis of heavily Cuban-American precincts suggests Trump likely won Miami’s Cuban vote by around a two-to-one margin. And Trump competed with Biden to nearly split non-Cuban Hispanics as Trump warned Hispanic voters that Biden was a “puppet” for self-described Democratic socialists U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders and U.S. Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez.
Darker, more twisted messaging around Democrats' policies also permeated social media and Spanish-language radio in Miami, including warnings of street thugs and oppression.
“We’re going against people who have hundreds of shows who are targeting our Latino community,” said Evelyn Pérez-Verdía, a veteran Democratic strategist in South Florida, who is Colombian. “If the socialism label didn’t work, the second option for them was violence on the streets.”
As the dust cleared on a brutal night, Democrats pointed the finger Wednesday at organizing efforts and campaign strategy. A popular target was Biden’s campaign, which only sent staff back out into communities at the very end of the campaign, due to COVID-19. Others credited Republicans' organizing, given that Trump’s campaign basically never left Florida after his 2016 win.
But Cesar Gonzalez, chief of staff to Cuban-American U.S. Rep. Mario Diaz-Balart, said the GOP’s Miami-Dade advantage had nothing to do with ground game efforts during the pandemic. It was all about Trump, socialism, and Democrats' recent history in Latin America, including Obama’s decision to normalize relations with Cuba’s Communist government in 2016.
“For the first time you have a president who was standing up to communism,” Gonzalez said of Trump. “We did a better job of communicating that policy. The naked truth of their policy was coming out. Where do you see a 22 point swing anywhere else in the country? Especially in a major metropolitan area.”
The extent to which Tuesday night’s results were a blip or a trend has implications for Florida in 2022 as Democrats and Republicans gear up for races for governor and the U.S. Senate. Miami-Dade County is a key part of the Democratic base in South Florida, where Demcorats need to run up the score to compete with Republican support in ex-urban and rural counties. Any lasting shift in the voter base — like a conservative swing among newly arrived Cuban immigrants — could throw the balance of the swing state to the right.
The party’s losses in Miami-Dade shook Democrats across Florida, and led quickly to calls for wholesale change in the Florida Democratic Party. Progressives and moderates alike, in parts of the state outside of Miami-Dade, called for total reform.
And back in Miami, Democrats like state Rep. Javier Fernandez, who hired a team of recount attorneys in the days before Election Day only to lose by 12 points, tried to determine how to pick up the pieces.
“People have spoken & clearly said they don’t want what we are offering,” tweeted Fernandez. “Unforgivable part is that no one saw this coming.”
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