TAMPA — In a nondescript strip mall in suburban Tampa, with a green “Space Available” sign still hanging above the doorway, lies a small battlefield in the tug-of-war for Hispanic voters in Florida.
The Republican National Committee Hispanic Community Center is only one room, but its 1,500 square feet represent much more to the GOP. It’s part of a larger effort to prove the party’s year-round commitment to historically liberal minority communities whose voters Republicans say the Democrats have taken for granted.
Hispanics in Florida — a diverse group that includes left-leaning Puerto Ricans, reliably conservative Cuban voters and many others with unique political nuances from Mexico, South America and more — have long trended Democratic overall. But there are growing signs Republicans are turning the tide — and quickly.
According to recently released state data, about 58,000 more Hispanic voters registered with Florida’s Republican Party between 2020 and 2022, resulting in growth that far outpaces the party’s gains among voters of all races. In the same period, Democrats lost about 46,000 registered Hispanic voters. That’s not far off from the rate of its overall statewide losses as the party sheds numbers.
The figures are even more concerning for Democrats when zooming in on some of the party’s stronghold counties: In Hillsborough, the Democratic Party lost about 7% of its Hispanic voters, while in Miami-Dade, the losses stood at 9%. Both are higher than the statewide rate.
“The Republican Party, by investing early and hiring people from the community, have shown that we are here to earn your vote and we’re going to talk about the issues that you care about,” Ronna McDaniel, the Republican National Committee chairperson, said at a get-out-the-vote event last week at the Tampa community center. “We’re going to be here long-term.”
In the past year, the Republican National Committee has opened five community centers in Florida alone, three of which are focused on Hispanic voters, while the other two cater to Black and Jewish constituents. Florida Democrats say they, too, have permanent party offices where they host events across the state, but they are not branded in the same way.
In the Florida governor’s race, a recent Telemundo/LX News poll of likely Hispanic voters found Gov. Ron DeSantis leading Democrat Charlie Crist 51% to 44%, a major swing to the right from similar surveys conducted in 2018 and 2020 by the same polling firm.
Fifty percent of the Hispanic voters polled also said they approved of DeSantis’ chartering of flights of Venezuelan migrants to Martha’s Vineyard, compared to 43% who disapproved. In Florida’s U.S. Senate race, Sen. Marco Rubio led Democratic Rep. Val Demings in the same poll by a seven-point margin.
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Even with the shifts in party registration, Florida Hispanics are more likely to be independent voters than to have registered with either major party. As a result, some political observers have emphasized that the community needs to be viewed as a bloc of swing voters.
Hector Gonzalez, 37, a Puerto Rican native and a veteran living in Riverview, is one of those swing voters.
”I voted for some Democrats in the past, but now I feel more confident with the Republican Party,” he said. “I have concerns about the economy, especially now when there is a risk of recession in 2023. We need to create more affordable housing and improve the health care of our veterans.”
Swords and spoons
When Donald Trump won Florida in 2020, political analysts nationwide pored over the numbers in Miami-Dade County, where he had shaved a significant portion of Hispanic voters to lose by a slimmer margin — seven points — in that large blue county than was typical for Republicans.
Now, some politicos, including Lt. Gov. Jeannette Núñez, are predicting DeSantis could win Miami-Dade outright — which would be an explosive political statement not made since Jeb Bush.
Both the DeSantis and Crist campaigns say they’ve made efforts to connect with Hispanic voters. But a huge gap in fundraising between the two campaigns means DeSantis has had more money at his disposal.
DeSantis’ campaign has spent more on Spanish-language TV ads than Crist’s campaign has spent on all statewide TV ads, NBC News reported Monday.
Núñez, who is from Miami and is the first Hispanic woman to serve as the state’s lieutenant governor, has been a key asset for Republicans in South Florida. Her public schedule has shown her consistently appearing on Spanish-language media throughout the past four years. And during the campaign, DeSantis has run at least 15 different Spanish-language TV ads, plus radio ads using both Cuban and Puerto Rican accents, according to the campaign.
Crist also selected a Latina from Miami as his running mate: teachers’ union leader Karla Hernández-Mats. He has toured the state touting his proposal for an office specializing in helping new Floridians, including immigrants. And he has launched a few Spanish-language ads bashing DeSantis’ stance on abortion and his plan to bus migrants to Delaware. On Wednesday, Crist announced he had been endorsed by six current and former Hispanic members of Congress, who all represent other states.
Evelyn Pérez-Verdía, chief strategy officer of We Are Más, a political consulting firm specializing in Hispanic and Latino engagement, said in general, efforts by Democrats to counteract Republicans’ inroads requires more nuance and long-term commitment than what she sees happening now.
She said symbols like a raised fist or words like “progressive,” while common in liberal American politics, are reminiscent of socialist movements in Latin America, which can trigger the “trans-generational trauma” that expats living in Florida experienced under leftist regimes.
Such cultural mistakes compound the GOP’s messaging linking Democrats to socialism, she said.
”It’s not the fact that we don’t have experts in the party who don’t understand this,” said Pérez-Verdía, who is Colombian-American and in 2020 did work for the Joe Biden campaign. “It’s the fact that they need to listen to them.”
Pérez-Verdía said many Hispanics distrust what they see as extremism in both parties, prompting many not to register with either party and some possibly to skip voting altogether.
“We have to reach out to each community by accent, by subculture, country of origin because when we look at misinformation, that’s exactly what they’re doing,” Pérez-Verdía said. “We have QAnon channels in Spanish, there’s QAnon Colombia. ... We cannot go into a sword fight with a spoon.”
Hispanics are one of Florida’s fastest-growing group of voters, and already represent about one in five eligible voters in the state, which is defined as U.S. citizens over the age of 18. That means a shift of Hispanic voters away from Florida Democrats could present existential questions for that party in the long term.
Gricel Gonzalez, spokesperson for the Florida Democratic Party, said the party recognizes that effective organizing in Hispanic communities requires investments to build trust both in “on and off years.” This cycle, the party launched a statewide long-term strategy, called Blue Shift, which includes a Hispanic outreach program with “culturally competent neighborhood teams,” Gonzalez said.
Victor DiMaio, president of the Hillsborough County Democratic Hispanic Caucus and a political consultant, said he’s not worried. The problem may, in some ways, fix itself, he said.
”If you’ve been around the process as long as I have ... the pendulum always swings back and forth,” he said.
Yet Eli Gonzalez, president of the Hispanic Chamber of Commerce of Pinellas County, said there is a tangible “groundswell” of local Hispanic businesspeople moving toward the Republican Party.
”The conversation has shifted as of four years ago,” he said, citing inflation, DeSantis largely keeping businesses and churches open during the pandemic and what he described as Republicans’ “pro-family” policies.
”A lot of Hispanics were shunned for a long time for even saying they’re Republicans,” Gonzalez added. “But now we’re coming out more.”
Times data editor Langston Taylor and staff writer Juan Carlos Chavez contributed to this report.
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