With Trump as Candidate, GOP See Cuban-American Support Shrinking

logoBy Beth Reinhard, WSJ @bethreinhard

U.S. Commerce Secretary Carlos Gutierrez.

Donald Trump’s strained relationship with the Cuban-American community is imperiling his presidential bid in must-win Florida and forcing Republicans to consider the nation’s most populous purple state taking on a bluer hue.

Most Cuban-Americans have voted in lockstep with the Republican Party for decades, but that bond loosened in recent years, as younger generations showed less interest in the GOP’s fealty to the Cold War-era embargo against Cuba. That means Hillary Clinton could become the first Democratic presidential nominee to win a majority of Cuban-Americans, potentially shifting the balance of power statewide.

“It’s plausible she gets to 50%, and in a close election, that could tilt the balance,” said Al Cardenas, the former Cuban-American chairman of the Florida Republican Party. “The question is whether Trump is an outlier or if there is permanent damage to the Republican Party in Florida.”

Cuban-Americans have tilted toward Republican since the 1980s, when then-President Ronald Reagan’s anti-Communist fervor emboldened an exile community that had fled Fidel Castro. Trips to Little Havana were a rite of passage for White House hopefuls, who would declare “Cuba Libre!” and sip a cafecito to show solidarity.

Signs of realignment emerged in 2012, when Cuban-Americans in Florida split nearly evenly between President Barack Obama and Republican Mitt Romney, according to exit polls.

This will be the first time in my life that I don’t cast a ballot for the Republican presidential nominee.

—Rudy Fernandez, a veteran of the Republican National Committee

Mr. Trump’s allies say they remain confident he will win this bloc of voters and the state, but they acknowledge the challenges. Of the 2.6 million eligible Hispanic voters in Florida, about 31% are Cuban-American, most of whom live in Miami-Dade.

“It’s brutal being the only one on the circuit,” said Rep. Carlos Trujillo of Miami, the only Cuban-American state lawmaker campaigning for Mr. Trump.

Cuban-American Republicans who have either sworn off Mr. Trump or pledged to vote for Mrs. Clinton include two of the three members of Congress representing Miami-Dade County, the mayor of Miami-Dade and the mayor of the city of Miami.

For me, country first, then party,” says former U.S. Commerce Secretary Carlos Gutierrez says in a television ad for Mrs. Clinton. Mr. Gutierrez is a Republican who served under former President George W. Bush.

The Latin Builders Association, a prominent Miami industry group founded by Cuban exiles, recently endorsed Mrs. Clinton, the first time in its 45-year history it has supported a Democratic presidential nominee.

U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio, a Cuban-American who was forced out of the Republican primary after losing in his home state to Mr. Trump, has endorsed but declined to campaign with the GOP nominee. In a 34-minute speech last week at a Florida Republican Party dinner, Mr. Rubio didn’t mention Mr. Trump once.

Much of Mrs. Clinton’s support in the Cuban-American community appears to be less about enthusiasm for the Democratic ticket and more of a backlash against the Republican nominee.

“This will be the first time in my life that I don’t cast a ballot for the Republican presidential nominee,” said Rudy Fernandez, a veteran of the Republican National Committee, over lunch at a Miami-area restaurant where patrons alternated between Spanish and English as they chatted. “It’s not that I am a fan of Hillary Clinton, but I see Trump as a real, imminent danger to our democratic system.”

At the Miami-Dade Republican Party’s annual dinner last week, prominent Cuban-Americans trickled in, exchanging air kisses and bilingual greetings.

“I have my own race,” said state Rep. Rene Garcia, when asked if he was supporting Mr. Trump.

Florida’s lieutenant governor, Carlos Lopez-Cantera, refused to say whether he was voting for the GOP nominee. “I’m not voting for Hillary Clinton,” he said several times.

State Rep. Jose Felix Diaz, who was a 25-year-old attorney when he was chosen to appear on Season 5 of Mr. Trump’s show “The Apprentice,” said he is torn between his perception of a successful businessman and a candidate who has denigrated immigrants, women and Muslims.

“He’s someone who gave me an opportunity very early on in my career,” Mr. Diaz said. He said he doesn’t know if he will vote for Mr. Trump.

Miami-Dade, where nearly three out of four Republicans are Cuban-American, was the only county Mr. Trump lost to Mr. Rubio in the March primary. Mr. Trump is leading Mrs. Clinton by 7 percentage points among Cuban-Americans in Miami-Dade, according to a new poll by WLRN-Univision 23, a local radio and television affiliate. A Univision News poll in September found Cuban-Americans evenly divided between the two nominees, with 41% for each.

Those figures signal a drastic drop in Republican support from 2004, when Mr. Bush won 78% of the Cuban vote in Florida and set a high-water mark for GOP nominees with at least 40% of Hispanics nationwide, according to the Pew Hispanic Center.

Mr. Trump is trying to shore up the Cuban-American vote in Florida as polls show other swing states are drifting out of his reach.

“The people of Cuba have struggled too long,” Mr. Trump posted on Twitter last week. “Will reverse Obama’s Executive Orders and concessions towards Cuba until freedoms are restored.”

That sentiment represents a turnaround from Mr. Trump’s position 13 months ago, when he approved of Mr. Obama’s opening of diplomatic relations with Cuba. “I think it’s fine, but we should have made a better deal…50 years is enough,” he said in an interview with the Daily Caller.

Last week, Mr. Trump’s campaign dispatched vice presidential nominee Mike Pence to the Miami-Dade GOP dinner with just two days’ notice. The Indiana governor earned a standing ovation for pledging to reverse the administration’s diplomacy toward Cuba.

But that issue doesn’t carry the weight it once did in the broader community. A recent Florida International University poll showed 63% of Cuban-American residents of Miami-Dade oppose the continuation of the embargo, a sweeping change from 20 years ago, when 78% supported the embargo.

Mrs. Clinton favors lifting the embargo, a reversal from her 2008 presidential campaign, when she said Cuba had to move toward democratic reforms before the U.S. should change its policy.

However, as polls showed support for the sanctions dwindling, she wrote in her 2014 memoir that as secretary of state she urged President Obama to lift the embargo.

In her first public appearance in Florida as a presidential candidate in 2015, she said the embargo “needs to go, once and for all.”

If Mrs. Clinton wins the state, Florida would have elected its first national candidate who favors lifting the embargo. Many older Cuban-Americans in the state view the administration’s new relations with Cuba as a betrayal, rewarding the repressive regime while it still denies basic human rights and civil liberties to its people.

Remedios Diaz, a Miami business leader and loyal Republican, left Cuba in 1961, while two of her teenage schoolmates were shot by a firing squad. Her family’s home and the private schools owned by her parents were left behind.

She’s “not in love” with Mr. Trump but can’t vote for a Democrat. “I cannot forget,” she said. “I cannot forgive.”

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