Elections

Why Florida Remains the Democrats’ Gordian Knot

Democratic Florida gubernatorial nominee Andrew Gillum concedes the race to Ron DeSantis at his election-night rally in Tallahassee, Fla., November 6, 2018. (Colin Hackley/Reuters)
Democrats wonder how their political misfortunes in Florida seemingly defy the laws of political physics.

When President Andrew Jackson dispatched the U.S. Army to Florida in 1835 to enforce a treaty with the native Seminole Indian tribe, a 26-year-old surgeon accompanied the regiment from the state’s northern border with Georgia to as far south as Key Largo. In his journal, Jacob Rhett Motte described the peninsula as a “dreary waste” that was “certainly the poorest country that ever two people quarreled for.”

One hundred eighty-three years later, it’s easy to see why Democrats continue harboring similar contempt for the Sunshine State.

Despite polls showing progressive Democrat Andrew Gillum leading by as much as seven points in the days leading up to last month’s midterm election, Republican Ron DeSantis clinched the governorship, and in doing so, extended the GOP’s 20-year-long governing trifecta in Tallahassee. Next year will also be the first time since the Reconstruction that Florida will send two GOP senators to Washington with Governor Rick Scott’s defeat of Bill Nelson.

What is most perplexing to Democrats is how their political misfortunes in Florida seemingly defy the laws of political physics. Far from being destiny, the state’s demographics have represented a kind of Gordian knot for Jackson’s party. Despite a booming Latino population and going 3–3 with Republicans in presidential elections between 1996 and 2016, Florida is one of just five states where the same party has controlled the governorship and bicameral legislature during that period.

But unlike barn-red Idaho, Utah, North Dakota, and South Dakota, which have not voted for a Democrat for president since 1964, Florida is also of the country’s most competitive swing states, which makes the GOP’s decades-long winning streak a unique feat in American politics.

“The combination of policy, politics, and resources have been the key to our overwhelming success,” said Al Cardenas, the savvy Cuban-born attorney and former chairman of the Republican party of Florida who, alongside former governor Jeb Bush, played a crucial role in turning Florida from a state controlled by southern Democrats into a conservative powerhouse. “It was the most memorable time of my life,” he recalled while noting the rare coalition of conservative retirees, rural voters, and Hispanics who are weary of socialism that enabled the GOP’s success.

Undoubtedly, Hispanics have been an integral part of the GOP’s success and the most heartbreakingly elusive constituency for Democrats. Bush’s own 1998 election as governor came after winning 61 percent of the Hispanic electorate. In 2000, his brother won the state — and by extension, the presidency — thanks to a 537-vote margin that many analysts attributed to his winning more than eight of ten Cuban-Americans in a protest vote against the Democrats following the Clinton administration’s handling of the Elian Gonzalez affair.

Four years later, 60 percent of Florida Hispanics helped Republican Mel Martinez become the first Cuban American elected to the United States Senate in a race that was decided by a percentage point. In 2010, Scott was elected as the state’s 45th governor by dominating the panhandle and southwest coastal counties while winning half of Hispanic voters. That same year, 54 percent of Hispanics voted to send Marco Rubio to Washington.

While the influx of non-Cuban immigrants has pushed Hispanics, as a demographic group, toward the Democrats since 2008, Republicans have managed to mitigate losses with a combination of sophisticated outreach and institutional advantages. Perhaps no election better illustrates the enduring power of the GOP’s evolving coalition and its detrimental implications for Democrats than this year’s midterms.

Throughout the campaign, Democrats openly fretted about the effectiveness of Senator Nelson’s Hispanic outreach, but few observers expected DeSantis to perform as well as he did, even with a Latina running mate. Yet DeSantis and Scott won 44 and 45 percent, respectively, of Hispanics. Their strong performances were driven by a two-to-one (66 to 33 percent) advantage among Cubans who constituted a plurality of the state’s Hispanic electorate this year and were routinely under-sampled by pollsters that predicted Florida would turn blue.

It’s difficult to overstate the importance of Hispanic voters to Republicans in these races. Had DeSantis simply mirrored Donald Trump’s 17-point (57 to 40 percent) advantage over Hillary Clinton among Cuban Americans, the 16-point difference from his actual 33-point margin would have subtracted 79,000 from his statewide lead — and cost him the race.

The Hispanic vote was even more consequential in the Senate election. Clearly, Scott would have also lost had he merely replicated Trump’s support in the Cuban-American community, but what few realize is that by Scott exceeding DeSantis’s Hispanic vote share by a mere percentage point, this contributed an estimated 12,000 votes in his favor in an election he won by just 10,000 votes.

Those additional votes were, in no small part, the result of years of Scott and other Florida Republicans consistently courting Hispanics. In the 15 months since Hurricane Maria devastated Puerto Rico in September 2017, Scott has made eight high-profile visits to the island in support of relief efforts. He and Lieutenant Governor Carlos Lopez-Cantera also awarded Venezuelan dissident Leopoldo Lopez with the state’s medal of freedom last year. This summer, Scott welcomed then President-elect Ivan Duque of Colombia during a “thank you tour” in Miami.

“We’ve made inroads with Hispanics by engaging them on a diverse range of topics they care about, instead of treating them as a single-issue monolith,” said Armando Ibarra, the head of the Miami-Dade Young Republicans, while pointing to a series of media-friendly events he organized in support of human-rights activists in Latin America. “Democrats only want to talk about immigration. This limits their appeal in Florida since most immigrants here are typically not impacted by border policies,” he added, referring to the fact that Puerto Ricans, who are Americans by birth, and Cuban Americans, who have enjoyed immigration privileges since the 1960s, represent more than 60 percent of the state’s Hispanic voters.

Ibarra’s point is consistent with a November 2018 election eve poll that found that Florida Hispanics were less likely than whites to say that immigration was the top issue facing their community and nearly five times more likely to list border security as their top priority.

Even Democrats acknowledge that their party’s Latino outreach misses the mark. As a frustrated operative bemoaned to me, “We need to go beyond our comfort zone and start visiting churches, community centers, and being more visible around Latin American issues. Outreach needs to be a priority for the party brass. Employing a couple of people with Hispanic surnames is nice, but it’s not enough.”

The complexity of Florida’s Hispanic electorate can seem staggering to Democratic strategists who must reconcile their party’s national leftward shift with a local electorate that is suspicious of the Left given the large number of residents who fled socialist regimes. The result is a Hispanic voting bloc that is ideologically closer to Jack Kennedy than today’s progressive Democrats who increasingly resort to policies and messages that are not unlike those promoted by leftist Latin-American politicians.

“The DNC’s embrace of ‘democratic socialism’ and identity politics really turns off a lot of people in my community who came to America seeking refuge from collectivist, big government models in their countries,” Congressman Carlos Curbelo of Miami told me. “Hispanics want good public schools and Medicare for our seniors, but we don’t resent success, on the contrary. We aspire to attain it.”

The discernible distinction between traditional liberalism and today’s progressives is both germane to understanding the Democrats’ problems in Florida and apparent in survey and electoral data. In the 2016 Democratic primary, Clinton trounced democratic socialist Bernie Sanders by a three-to-one margin in the state’s majority-Hispanic counties. Just last month, twice as many Florida Hispanics told pollsters they prefer politicians to focus their efforts on cutting taxes and curtailing government than addressing income inequality.

It’s not just anti-Castro Cuban exiles who resist leftism. Among Colombians, for example, the word progresista is closely associated with a now defunct political party led by Gustavo Petro, a former guerilla member, Hugo Chávez devotee, and failed presidential candidate who was soundly rejected by nearly 90 percent of U.S.-based expats. Not surprising, several Republican candidates earned over 40 percent of the vote against self-described progressives in The Hammocks, a heavily Colombian-American neighborhood in the suburbs of southwest Miami-Dade County. While not a majority, this is far better than how the GOP fared — in the twenties and teens — with Latinos in other states.

Looking ahead to 2020, there are warning signs for Republicans, though. Last November, the GOP saw its performance decline in key suburban areas surrounding Jacksonville and Tampa and lost two U.S. House seats in South Florida. It’s also evident from the data that at least part of the Republicans’ 2018 wins can be attributed to lower turnout among non-Cuban Hispanics, a growing share of voters that tends to support Democrats.

“The demographics are shifting in Florida, just like they are elsewhere, and they will eventually catch-up with us, so we need to stay on the tip of our toes,” Cardenas added. He’s right. If Trump and Clinton had earned the same percentages as DeSantis and Gillum, respectively, across the state’s 67 counties, Trump’s statewide victory margin would have been cut by over 80 percent. If, in addition, you adjust for a Hispanic electorate that typically votes more Democratic in presidential years, then Clinton would have carried Florida by 75,000 votes.

Whether Democrats can win Florida in 2020 and future elections remains to be seen. Like Alexander the Great who, according to legend, untied the Gordian knot by cutting it in half, the Democrats could find their own loopholes to address their electoral woes and seize control of Tallahassee. This would almost surely require modest inroads with whites and moderately higher turnout rates among non-Cuban Hispanics. Sounds simple but it’s easier said than done.

Taking back Tallahassee demands significant investments, sound strategies, and some luck. In other words, the Democrats need the right “sword” to slice the electoral knot before them. They haven’t found it yet, but they will eventually. Conservatives would be wise to prepare for when they do.

Giancarlo Sopo — Giancarlo Sopo is a public affairs strategist and writer. His political commentary has been featured in USA Today, the New York Times, Fox News, and Univision.

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