April 29--With the outcome of the governor's race hanging in the balance, Democrats and Republicans are aggressively competing for the support of Florida's Hispanic voters.
Both sides have dramatically turned up the volume in recent days, with each side vying for even the smallest advantage among Hispanics.
"It's the vote that's going to make the difference in who becomes governor," said Evelyn Perez-Verdia, the Weston-based publisher of the website PoliticalPasion.com. "We're the swing vote, the vote that's unpredictable. Hispanics tend not to vote for the party. They'll vote for the person."
The dust-up over the in-state tuition proposal shows how quickly political currents have shifted in Florida. The state's Hispanic population was once largely Cuban-American and largely Republican.
It's now larger and includes Hispanics with many different backgrounds, especially Puerto Ricans, creating a powerful voting bloc that's no longer monolithically Republican -- and can swing from one party to another depending on the election and the candidate.
As the Hispanic electorate has grown, politicians have changed their views and approaches.
"Hispanics are definitely in play in Florida," said Aubrey Jewett, a political science professor at the University of Central Florida. "The Hispanic population has grown so much in the past couple of decades in Florida. The Hispanic vote has gotten so much more competitive."
On Monday, U.S. Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz of Weston, chairwoman of the Democratic National Committee, joined the fray over a state government debate on whether to allow illegal immigrants brought to the country as children to pay in-state tuition, and took a slap at Republican Gov. Rick Scott.
"The governor says he supports it, but he's exercised exactly zero leadership, spent no political capital whatsoever, like he does with most things," Wasserman Schultz said. "This is squarely in the Republicans' court."
The state Republican Party's communications chief, Susan Hepworth, shot back a jab at former Gov. Charlie Crist, the front runner for the Democratic nomination to challenge Scott. "If Debbie Wasserman Schultz wants to talk about 'zero leadership,' she should take a look at Charlie Crist's record," she said in an email.
When Crist was the Republican governor from 2007 to 2011, he opposed in-state tuition for the students known as Dreamers, who were brought to this country where they were young and have gone through U.S. schools and consider themselves as American as people born in the country. Now a Democrat, Crist supports giving them in-state tuition.
When Scott ran for governor in the tea party wave election of 2010, he supported a strict, Arizona-style crackdown to ferret out illegal immigrants in the state. He also vetoed legislation to allow some undocumented immigrants to get Florida drivers licenses. Now he supports in-state tuition for Dreamers.
Among the strategies from the candidates for governor:
--Scott's campaign launched its first Spanish-language ad, called "Oportunidad," of the 2014 campaign season. The $500,000 campaign is running online and in four key broadcast markets: Miami-Fort Lauderdale, Orlando, Tampa Bay and Fort Myers.
--Both campaigns have new websites aimed at Hispanic voters. Scott announced RickScottPorLaFlorida.com on April. 22. The next day, the Crist campaign announced CharlieCrist.com/espanol.
--After waiting more than a year after his previous lieutenant governor resigned, and vetting an array of possible replacements, Scott installed Carlos Lopez-Cantera in the post. Lopez-Cantera, who is Cuban-American, was quickly put to work on the campaign trail.
--Scott has made repeated efforts to align himself with Venezuelans who live in Florida and are concerned about the civil unrest in their home country. And he's been sharply critical of Crist's call to end the decades-long trade embargo against Cuba.
--Democrats have hit Scott hard for his administration's efforts to purge noncitizens from the voter rolls. Democrats charged the cleanup was a ruse to disenfranchise voters who might lean Democratic.
Polling shows Scott and Crist running neck-and-neck, but Crist has an advantage among Hispanic voters.
But Crist needs to do everything he can to gin up support among Hispanic voters. Voting among all demographic groups falls off during mid-term elections between presidential contests, but the falloff is greater for Hispanic Democrats than Hispanic Republicans.
President Barack Obama won the Hispanic vote in Florida in 2008 and 2012. But with Marco Rubio at the top of the ticket in 2010, when he won the race for U.S. Senate, Republicans did well and Scott won the Hispanic vote. And one big problem for Crist, Jewett said, is the Democrats won't have the Obama campaign's money and organization generating the same kind of interest and turnout this year.
Success requires lots of nuance, said Bettina Inclan-Agen, a political strategist with Mercury Florida who's worked on Scott's 2010 campaign, Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney's 2012 campaign, and is a former aide to U.S. Rep. Mario Diaz-Balart, a Miami-Dade County Republican whose district includes part of Broward.
"They want a candidate who talks to them directly and talks about their issues and shows them respect," she said.
Too often, people consider Hispanics as one uniform voting bloc. "You're talking about a community that's incredibly diverse," she said. "The Spanish is different. The food is different. The cultural references are different. Everything is different."
Jewett said two hot-button issues -- comprehensive immigration reform and the in-state tuition legislation -- may not be as salient for Hispanic voters in Florida as for Mexican-Americans in the southwest U.S.
Florida's two biggest Hispanic groups aren't directly affected because Cubans are granted special status and Puerto Ricans are U.S. citizens.
But, Jewett said, "some of the time, some of the conservative talk, language on the immigration issue comes across as anti-Hispanic. Not anti-illegal immigration, but anti-Hispanic. And therefore Cubans and Puerto Ricans take that personally."
Wasserman Schultz appeared Monday with U.S. Rep. Joe Garcia, a Miami Democrat -- and the only member of Congress in the region from either party that independent analysts think will have a difficult time winning re-election this year.
She said the appearance wasn't political, and rejected the notion that the Democratic Party would rather have no action on the tuition measure or immigration reform so they could use the issues to gain political advantage with Hispanic voters. "This is not about politics. It's about principle. And it's about doing the morally right thing."
Juan Garcia, one of the Republicans seeking his party's nomination to challenge Wasserman Schultz this year, said it's exactly the opposite. "This is just politics on her behalf," he said.
Video report on Democratic calls for action on comprehensive immigration reform at SunSentinel.com/BrowardPolitics.
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Distributed by MCT Information Services
Original headline: Democrats, Republicans see Hispanic voters as pivotal in governor's race
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