Older Cuban-Americans in the state offer support to the presidential candidate; others see him as divisive
Dennis Freytes, an Army veteran and Puerto Rican activist in Orlando, has voted for every Republican presidential candidate going back to Ronald Reagan in 1980. That streak may end if Donald Trump secures the GOP nomination—an outcome he said could prompt him to bolt the party and become an independent.
Mr. Trump “is a divisive figure,” said Mr. Freytes, a supporter of former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush. He said he has been repelled by many of the businessman’s comments about immigrants and Hispanics, such as calling Mexicans criminals and rapists. “That guy will be the ruin of the Republican Party,” he said.
Recent polls show that Mr. Trump is far ahead of his GOP rivals in Florida. Older Cuban-Americans who came to the U.S. soon after the Cuban Revolution appear especially open to his message, according to some Miami Republicans.
“He has a rough way of saying things, but it comes from the heart,” said Julio Martinez, who came from Cuba in the 1950s and was mayor of Hialeah, a city west of Miami with a large number of Cuban-American voters. “He’s here to protect the U.S., which is in danger right now.” Mr. Martinez said he is working to turn out the vote for Mr. Trump in the area and recently signed up scores of Hispanic volunteers at a gun show where the campaign set up a table.
Florida’s March 15 primary will present the first big test of what effect, if any, Mr. Trump’s rhetoric has had on GOP efforts to court all Latino voters, who made up 14% of the state’s GOP primary electorate in 2012. Though Nevada also has a sizable Hispanic population, that state’s Feb. 23 contest involves caucuses with typically low turnout.
Latinos are projected to make up 11.9% of eligible U.S. voters in this year’s presidential election and could sway outcomes in key swing states like Colorado and Nevada, according to a Pew Research Center study released Tuesday.
Interviews with Florida Hispanic Republicans suggest that while Mr. Trump benefits from pockets of support, many regard him with unease, or even hostility. Some said they worry he was pushing other GOP candidates such as Florida Sen. Marco Rubio to adopt harsh rhetoric and more-extreme positions on immigration and other issues.
“Everyone is fed up with politicians, and I can see how he appeals to that audience,” said Nicole Gomez, the 31-year-old president of the North Dade Republican Club in Miami. But “he really exploits that visceral anger” and “his whole demeanor is very repulsive.”
Mr. Trump has repeatedly dismissed concerns about his standing with Latino voters, saying he has a great relationship with them and believes he will win their support because of his ability to create jobs.
Yet many Republican strategists fear Mr. Trump would perform even worse than Mitt Romney’s poor showing in 2012, when he garnered 27% of the U.S. Hispanic vote.
A postelection analysis by the Republican National Committee in 2013 blamed the result in part on Mr. Romney’s call for “self-deportation” as a solution to illegal immigration, a comment that turned off many Latinos. Mr. Trump’s positions, including calls for deporting 11 million people and building a wall on the Mexican border, have been tougher.
“The Republican brand is hurt,” said Alfonso Aguilar, president of the Latino Partnership for Conservative Principles, an advocacy group. Mr. Trump’s “language has been so offensive, the proposals so draconian, that the damage is big.”
A coalition of Hispanic GOP groups, including his, called a news conference last October on the eve of the GOP debate in Boulder, Colo., to rule out support for Mr. Trump. In December, they held a similar event on the eve of the Las Vegas GOP debate to criticize Texas Sen. Ted Cruz for his immigration stances, including opposition to any form of legalization for undocumented immigrants.
A December MSNBC/Telemundo/Marist Poll found that 65% of Latino registered voters viewed Mr. Trump negatively, compared with 21% who saw him positively, by far the poorest showing of any candidate. He fared worse than any other GOP contender against Democrat Hillary Clinton. And 65% of Hispanics said he was hurting the GOP brand.
Many Latino Republicans have expressed misgivings. The GOP has undertaken “all these great attempts to attract the Hispanic community, and he will undo it,” said Anthony Suarez, 62, president of the Puerto Rican Bar Association of Florida in Orlando. He predicted Democrats would seize on Mr. Trump’s language and positions to galvanize the booming Puerto Rican population in central Florida.
Jenny Montes De Oca, a 35-year-old Miami physician born in Venezuela, said this will be her first chance to vote for president after becoming a U.S. citizen in 2012. She registered as a Republican because she identified more with the party’s positions. But if Mr. Trump is the nominee, she said she won’t vote for him. “I don’t know what I’m going to do if that happens,” she said.