Why Bush and Rubio Can’t Count on Florida

T at Arlingto nBy S.V. Dáte, National Journal

Changing Hispanic demographics and decline of Cuba-embargo politics could spell trouble for GOP

Cuba UsOne of the biggest political stories of the coming 2016 presidential election happened in Florida last week via an explosion that didn’t happen.

President Obama notified Congress that he intended to take Cuba off a list of state sponsors of terrorism, another step toward normalizing relations with the island nation. One or two decades ago, such an act would have unleashed storms of protest in Miami, with bipartisan outrage among Florida’s elected leaders.

The response last week? Almost nothing. No marches on federal buildings. No mass demonstration on Calle Ocho.

What was one of the most reliable voting blocs for Republican candidates in Florida is no longer unified on what once had been an organizing principle—Cuban regime change. A Florida International University study last year shows that a majority of Cuban-Americans in Miami-Dade County are in favor of ending the embargo, with the younger generations overwhelmingly supportive.

“In ’92, Cubans easily made up a majority of Hispanic voters in Florida, and embargo-era voters made up a majority of those,” said Steve Schale, a Democratic strategist who worked for both of Obama’s Florida victories. “Now, Cubans don’t even make up a majority of Hispanic voters in Florida. It’s an entirely different electorate.”

The upshot for the coming election: Even Florida’s own Republican Sen. Marco Rubio or former Gov. Jeb Bush could have major fights on their hands in a must-win state that they might have taken three or four elections ago without breaking a sweat. And without Florida’s 29 electoral votes, the path to the White House for Republicans is downright bleak.

Bush won an easy 10-point victory for his first term as governor in 1998 and was reelected by 13 points in 2002. But he has been out of office since January 2007—meaning nearly one-in-12 Floridians did not live there during his tenure, according to population statistics compiled by the state’s office of Economic and Demographic Research.

What’s more, of those recent arrivals, some 40 percent are Latino, African-American, or Asian—constituencies that Republicans have struggled with. Even Bush, whose wife was born in Mexico, who speaks fluent Spanish, and who considers himself “bicultural,” saw his share of support from Hispanics fall as the makeup of Florida Latinos became less Cuban. In 1994, when he narrowly lost to incumbent Democratic Gov. Lawton Chiles, Bush took more than 70 percent of the Hispanic vote. Winning his second term eight years later, that figure was below 60 percent.

Bush for decades has urged a hard line against Cuba’s Castro brothers, and he earned the loyalty of many of the early migrants who fled the island when he chaired the local Republican Party in the mid-1980s and then personally ran efforts to register them as Republicans after they became citizens.

Republicans point to rapid growth in areas like the suburbs or Jacksonville or southwest Florida, where most of the new arrivals vote solidly Republican. But they acknowledge the overall trend has been good for Democrats, particularly the growth of African-American and Latino constituencies. And, privately, Florida GOP strategists acknowledge that unless their party embraces an immigration overhaul, they will continue to struggle with Hispanics.

One strategist for a business-lobbying group, who requested anonymity because he is not authorized to speak to the media, said too many Republicans outside of Florida do not understand how much the state has changed in recent years. “Clearly by the way Jeb is handling immigration, he gets it,” he said.

UTAustin_logoAt a New Hampshire event last week, Bush fielded a question from a GOP activist who wanted to know about his “amnesty” plan. Bush responded that reforming immigration was the right thing to do, and Republicans would “keep losing elections” until the party makes it a priority.

Ana Carbonell, a Miami Republican consultant who worked on Mitt Romney’s 2012 Hispanic outreach, said Republican candidates in Florida can do well with Latinos generally, not just Cubans, by making a concerted effort to speak to them. She pointed to current Republican Gov. Rick Scott, who nearly matched Democrat Charlie Crist’s numbers among Hispanic voters. “It’s not unattainable. We saw it in the last election, and it was across nationalities,” she said.

Democrat Schale counters that the coming election is a presidential contest, not an off-year midterm. Democratic turnout in a presidential year, particularly in Florida, is markedly better—and is something neither Bush nor Rubio has ever had to face in their combined four statewide races in 1994, 1998, 2002, and 2010.

Also working for Democrats next November: Hillary Clinton or any other white Democrat will likely beat Obama’s performance with white voters.

“If Republicans cannot fix their Hispanic problem, and Democrats can get close to 40 percent in the white vote, we can win by two or three points,” Schale said.

And as for the pro-embargo Cuban vote, it clearly matters a good deal in Republican primaries, where the elderly exiles are among the most reliable voters. Bush released a statement criticizing Obama’s decision (“President Obama embraced Cuba’s oppressive dictator”) as did Rubio (“The decision made by the White House today is a terrible one”).

Whether their or anyone else’s position on Cuba will matter that much in the general election is an open question. Democrats say their polling suggests that while most Floridians support ending the embargo, they also don’t feel that strongly about it.

But Mauricio Claver-Carone, of the pro-embargo U.S.-Cuba Democracy PAC, points out that the coming presidential election will likely be the first time in decades that a Democrat and Republican are on opposite sides of the embargo question. Even in 2012, Obama supported maintaining the embargo, and only came out with his new position late last year, after his second and final midterm election, Claver-Carone said.

“The fact remains that no anti-embargo candidate has ever won statewide election in Florida,” he said. “And I guess we’ll see what happens.”

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