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How Puerto Ricans in Florida Could Seal the Fate of the Republican Party

The GOP thought Rubio could help regain the Hispanic vote. But declining Cuban political power in Florida could put a key swing state solidly in the Democratic column.

MIAMI - OCTOBER 21:  Hispanic voters go to the polls for early voting at the Miami-Dade Government Center on October 21, 2004 in Miami, Florida. Early voting began this week in Florida and is under heavy scrutiny after the debacle in the 2000 election.  (Photo by G. De Cardenas/Getty Images)
MIAMI - OCTOBER 21: Hispanic voters go to the polls for early voting at the Miami-Dade Government Center on October 21, 2004 in Miami, Florida. Early voting began this week in Florida and is under heavy scrutiny after the debacle in the 2000 election. (Photo by G. De Cardenas/Getty Images)

ORLANDO, Fla. — State Sen. Darren Soto was the first lawmaker of Puerto Rican descent elected to the Florida Statehouse. Eight years later, he is vying to become Florida’s first Puerto Rican in Congress. But winning the U.S. House seat could be a bit bittersweet for the grandson of a sugar cane cutter: Moving to Washington would mean breaking up his folk-rock band.

The Orange Creek Riders — featuring Soto as guitarist, songwriter, and singer — plays to the citrus farming and ranching culture in this heavily Hispanic and Puerto Rican congressional district sprawling through and past south Orlando. Approximately half of the Democratic-leaning district is of Hispanic background; of that, more than a quarter is Puerto Rican, while just under 3 percent is Cuban.

It’s reflective of a broader shift in central Florida and across the state, where Cuban-Americans have long dominated the Hispanic vote but are rapidly losing ground to Puerto Ricans and other Hispanic groups. The shift will be tested for the first time in Tuesday’s presidential primary, which will be do-or-die for Florida Sen. Marco Rubio, who grew up in Miami and is counting on a strong showing among Hispanics here to keep his White House hopes alive.

Polls show Rubio trailing GOP front-runner Donald Trump by large margins, and many expect Rubio to drop out if he loses. That would highlight a significant flaw in the GOP’s desperate attempt to woo Hispanic voters. Part of Rubio’s appeal to the Republican Party establishment and many of its key donors has been the belief that the senator’s Cuban background would help the party win Florida, and more Hispanic voters. But party elders seem to have made a significant miscalculation: The Hispanic vote is far from monolithic, and Rubio’s Cuban heritage doesn’t necessarily make him any more appealing to the state’s left-leaning Puerto Ricans and other Hispanic groups, or even younger Cubans — particularly if he can’t survive past the Republican primary.

That could spell bad news for the GOP, because battleground Florida’s Puerto Rican population — and its political strength — is on the upswing. With San Juan mired in an economic crisis, a massive wave of outmigration is by some estimates bringing thousands of Puerto Ricans to central Florida each month. The number of Puerto Ricans in Florida recently topped 1 million, and their liberal-leaning population is threatening to rapidly surpass the state’s more conservative Cuban-American community, numbering 1.4 million. Florida’s Puerto Rican population has increased more than 110 percent since 2000.

Since Florida is one of the most important battleground states in U.S. presidential elections, that means Puerto Ricans and Hispanic groups besides Cubans are gaining a stronger voice than ever over who wins the White House. Together, they could turn the swing state into a safe haven for Democrats.

“Over the long haul, I believe it will happen,” said Soto, a 38-year-old attorney who is gearing up for a six-candidate Democratic primary in August. But with a note of caution, he added that Democrats can’t take the Puerto Rican or Hispanic vote for granted. “I would say it’s a loyalty that we’re always going to have to maintain.”

Democratic chances of winning — and keeping more of the state’s Hispanic vote — are getting a boost from Trump’s continued use of anti-immigrant rhetoric. Heading into Florida’s Tuesday primary vote, the GOP front-runner leads Rubio by more than 18 points in recent polls, 41 percent to 23 percent. Trump is also holding events in central Florida — though he has also been met by protests — and flaunting his victories with Hispanic voters in earlier primaries, a slap at Rubio and fellow Cuban-American Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas, the GOP’s first viable Latino presidential candidates.

Rubio spokesman Alex Conant said his candidate was “way ahead” in early voting. “We’re going to do very well in Miami-Dade, Marco’s home county, and then you look at the results in Puerto Rico last weekend where Trump’s showing was pathetic,” he said. “I feel very good about our odds with Hispanic voters here and nationwide.”

Trump has rallied the white vote in Florida, which could carry him to victory in a Republican primary in which Hispanics represent only a small percentage of the GOP vote, said Casey Klofstad, an associate professor of political science at the University of Miami. But a big win among whites won’t be enough to win the general election given that Democrats have a clear and growing edge among the state’s Hispanic population.

Crucially, Puerto Ricans are already U.S. citizens. In 2016, registered Hispanic Democrats outnumber registered Hispanic Republicans in Florida — but for the first time, so do those registering as unaffiliated, including many Puerto Ricans. They are pushing the non-Cuban Hispanic vote to be one of the most sought-after political prizes in 2016.

“Florida is a swing state and elections here are razor-thin margin,” Klofstad said. “If you add even just a little bit into that swing state of folks that are predisposed to be Democratic voters, that can be a game-changer. That’s the way the trends are going. Florida has gone from red to purple to leaning blue.”

Soto believes that Trump’s harsh rhetoric gives Democratic candidates Hillary Clinton and Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders the chance to provide a sharp contrast on issues that include immigration and job creation. “It is a clear way to embrace the Hispanic community at a time when Republicans are at an all-time high of xenophobia, scare tactics, and hysteria,” he said in the interview.

The Cuban political stranglehold on Florida politics is also being threatened by the growth of the state’s Venezuelan and Colombian populations, which are much smaller but rapidly increasing. An estimated 70 percent of eligible Hispanic voters in Florida are Puerto Ricans, Mexicans, and South Americans; just above 30 percent are the generally conservative-leaning Cubans.

They’re rapidly and dramatically altering not only the demographics but the politics of Florida and are poised to put it away for Democrats, for good.

The Florican vote

In Florida, Latinos make up a larger share of the state’s registered voters for the 2016 elections than in prior presidential contests. In 2004, Hispanic voters accounted for 11 percent of registered voters. In 2008, they accounted for 12 percent of the total registered. In 2016, with an estimated 1.8 million Hispanics registered to vote as of “book closing” on Feb. 16, a month out from the primary, they represent about 15 percent of the state’s registered voters, according to the Division of Elections.

There are also more registered Democrats than Republicans in Florida this year, in large part because of Hispanic voters. They accounted for roughly 90 percent of the growth in Democratic registrations since 2006. In that time, the number of Hispanics registered to vote in Florida increased by 61 percent. Those identifying as Democrats grew by 83 percent, and those having no affiliation with either Democrats or Republicans increased by 95 percent. Hispanic Republican registrations grew too, but much more slowly, by 16 percent.

With its large Cuban population, Florida’s Hispanic vote historically has been reliably Republican, with George W. Bush carrying both the Latino vote and the state in 2004. But four years later, and for the first time, more Floridian Latinos registered as Democrats than as Republicans, boosting Obama among Hispanic voters and the rest of the state in 2008 and 2012. That’s even more true today: There are about 200,000 more registered Hispanic Democrats in Florida than Hispanic Republicans: 678,000 compared with 479,000 for the GOP, with 610,000 indicating no affiliation with either party.

By the numbers, Florida’s 1.4 million Cuban-Americans remain the state’s largest Hispanic group, according to data compiled for Foreign Policy by the Pew Hispanic Center. More than two-thirds of them live in Rubio’s stronghold of Miami, Fort Lauderdale, and the West Palm Beach metro area. Their registered voters stand at 786,000 strong.

But Puerto Ricans are quickly closing in. They number about 1 million, including 702,000 registered voters, and are spread throughout the state beyond their central Florida stronghold. The next closest groups, Mexicans and Colombians, trail far behind at 242,000 and 192,000, but they’re also growing at a faster rate.

Mark Lopez, the director of Hispanic research at the Pew Research Center, said the rapid diversification of the Latino vote could have a long-lasting impact on American politics. In 1990, Cuban-Americans represented 46 percent of Hispanic-American adults in Florida, according to Pew; today, it’s shrunk to just over 30 percent. At the same time, Puerto Ricans have increased from 25 percent of eligible Hispanic Florida voters to 27 percent, and other non-Cuban Hispanic groups, such as as Mexicans and South Americans, have increased their share from 29 percent to 42 percent.

One of the key factors undermining the Democrats’ advantage with Puerto Ricans and offering opportunity to the GOP is the sizable growth in unaffiliated voters among Florida Latinos. There are about 610,000 Hispanics not affiliated with either party across the state, but many could swing to the Democratic side of the ledger if Trump wins the nomination and maintains his anti-immigrant stances, which many take as a broad affront to Hispanics in general.

In central Florida, where Latinos represented 14 percent of registered voters in 2014, Puerto Ricans comprise more than 50 percent of the Latino electorate. About 45 percent of central Florida Latinos are registered Democrats, but there are twice as many unaffiliated Hispanic voters — 36 percent — than registered Republicans, at 7 percent. Even a small shift in that group toward the Democratic Party could be enough to deliver the region.

But the Republican National Committee and conservative-leaning outreach groups argue that the Latino vote is still up for grabs because of the high percentage of unaffiliated Hispanics like the most recent Puerto Rican immigrants, for whom language can be a barrier to entry, and the political system on the U.S. mainland is far different from that on the island.

César Grajales is the Florida state director for the libertarian Hispanic outreach group Libre Initiative, funded by the conservative billionaire brothers Charles and David Koch. He was born in Colombia, and his family came legally to Miami 15 years ago as political asylees.

“A lot of people say Puerto Ricans are Democrats, but a majority of them are undecided for the 2016 election,” Grajales told Foreign Policy by phone from Puerto Rico. “We’re talking to this community because we believe in economic freedom, not big government, and the island has this problem with their economy right now because of it.”

Still, Trump may only need Florida’s 78 percent white vote to win Tuesday’s Republican primary, said Klofstad, of the University of Miami. “The joke is we go north to go south, with the northern panhandle more like the traditional Old South,” he said. “There’s enough voters there to allow him to carry the day.”

Not monolithic

At a Democratic debate watch party last Wednesday at Sanders’ Miami headquarters in a hip neighborhood north of downtown, Anna Maria Yumiceva, a registered Democrat supporting the Vermont upstart, sat next to a Latina friend, an independent who is backing Trump.

Yumiceva was born in the United States but grew up in Ecuador and returned to Florida for school. She now owns a publishing company in the area.

Her friend was born in Lima, Peru, and declined to identify herself by name because she said her boss was a well-known CEO, and she was concerned that her political views would be conflated with the company’s. She came to Florida for an internship then stayed for work, but it took her years to become a U.S. citizen, a process prolonged by the 9/11 attacks. “A lot of blood, sweat, and tears,” she said.

Yumiceva said Trump’s “build a wall” comments and other alarmist rhetoric are helping galvanize Hispanic voters to turn out against him. “He is cooking up a racist movement,” she said. “He is waking a lot of people up, and Latinos are saying, ‘Let’s go and stop this.’”

Her friend disagreed, saying some of what Trump says about Latinos is true, referring to his comments about lax U.S. immigration enforcement policies in his announcement speech. In the same speech, Trump called some Mexican immigrants “rapists” and criminals.

“I’m tired of politicians,” the friend said. “He says what people are thinking a lot of the time.”

Yumiceva shook her head. “Can you believe we are friends?”

‘Up for grabs’

The following night, at the March 10 Republican presidential debate at the University of Miami, provided a sharp contrast with Sanders’ local watch party. Hundreds of reporters mingled with political operatives and campaign officials, many of whose jobs it is to understand these seismic demographic shifts in Florida and translate them to electoral victory.

Ruth Guerra, a spokeswoman for the Republican National Committee, insisted the independent Hispanic vote “is really up for grabs.” Overall, she said, more Hispanic voters “consider themselves to be conservative” — including several GOP Puerto Rican lawmakers in central Florida who have won recent elections there, and herself, a Mexican-American from Texas.

“And what they’re fleeing from — we’ve just had seven and a half years of it from President Obama,” Guerra said of the Puerto Rican influx. She said Democrats “promised a lot and didn’t deliver.”

Democratic National Committee Chair Debbie Wasserman Schultz and the party’s chief spokesman, Luis Miranda, milled about nearby. Miranda said the DNC is closely tracking the trend of unaffiliated Hispanic voters, particularly Puerto Ricans. But he believes the math is still with Democrats. “We’re just attentive to making sure they understand why the Democratic Party is the part that’s fighting on their behalf,” he said.

Natalie Carlier, the Florida director for the nonpartisan National Council of La Raza, the largest Latino advocacy group in the United States, says she’s been seeing a more diverse Latino electorate this year — and a more active one. Latinos, including Puerto Ricans, have had traditionally low registration and turnout. But Trump and even the rhetoric of other Republican candidates like Rubio and Cruz seems to be mobilizing Latino voters to come out against the GOP.

Miranda said he, too, is hearing similar feedback from other advocacy groups. But he maintained that the DNC is being careful not to underestimate Trump. “Whether it’s Ted Cruz or Marco Rubio — they might say it with a smile but they’re saying pretty much the same thing,” he said. “So we can’t just be running on an anti-Trump message.”

When he was 5 years old, Miranda and his family emigrated from Colombia to South Florida as an undocumented immigrant. He was naturalized during the administration of former President Ronald Reagan, the standard-bearer for the GOP’s current generation of self-proclaimed conservatives. While most of the GOP presidential candidates take a hard-line stance on immigration, with several pledging to deport all of the country’s 11 million undocumented immigrants, it was Reagan who signed one of the broadest, comprehensive immigration reform laws, granting residency to some 3 million people in 1986 — including Miranda.

“I was a dreamer before it was cool,” Miranda said, referring to children brought to the U.S. by undocumented immigrants, whom Obama has granted some relief from deportation.

The death of former first lady Nancy Reagan, he said, was a reminder that some of Reagan’s more compassionate conservatism is long gone. “It’s almost burying a chapter of what the Republican Party used to be.”

‘Making noise’

Carlos Guillermo Smith, a first-time Democratic candidate for a Statehouse seat representing east Orlando, could barely get a word in edgewise over the blaring salsa music and about a dozen women surrounding him at a long table at Lechonera Latina, a gas station-turned-Puerto Rican restaurant.

The festive music belied the frustration of the Saturday night meeting. The group — black, white, Puerto Rican — railed against the political class for failing to look out for the community, whether on education, health care, or wages. While Orange County, containing Orlando, has one of Florida’s highest employment rates due to its tourism industry, it also has some of the lowest wages.

Several at the restaurant complained that Sanders and Clinton, the former secretary of state, had focused too much on immigration at last Wednesday’s Democratic debate. Instead, they wished the candidates had talked more about high-paying job creation, affordable education, and Puerto Rico’s economic crisis.

The district Smith hopes to win is home to many Puerto Ricans and other Latinos, as well as many college students. It is increasingly left-leaning but is still considered a swing seat. Smith is currently unopposed for the seat that a Republican vacated to run for a different district, although he expects a GOP challenger soon.

“The electorate in Florida has changed exponentially in the last 10 years, and it has everything to do with the influx of Latino populations and especially those from the island of Puerto Rico,” he said later over a margarita at a strip-mall Mexican restaurant nearby.

Smith is a perfect example. His father was born in a small jungle town in Peru, and his mother is French-Canadian. Smith was born shortly after they moved to Florida from Montreal. “I was almost Canadian, like Cruz,” he joked. He is 35 years old and openly gay, managing governmental affairs for the largest LGBT civil rights organizations in the state, and formerly the head of the Orange County Democratic Party.

His personal narrative may sound somewhat familiar to Rubio, he admits. But just somewhat.

“What I have to say for Rubio is he really does have a great story — he’s a first-generation Floridian, I’m a first-generation Floridian, from immigrant parents. … I can relate to that story, it’s an inspirational story – it’s the American dream,” he said. “The unfortunate part is, from a policy perspective, he’s come to all of the wrong conclusions as a result of that experience.”

Smith is looking to join the Florida Statehouse as Soto is looking to leave it. Rubio is leaving Congress as Soto is looking to join it. It’s a new generation in Florida politics, more reflective of the diversification of the Latino vote across the state and the country.

“At first there was just one: me,” Soto said of being the first Puerto Rican elected to the Florida Legislature.

“We care about immigration as a pride issue, a cultural issue,” he said. “I would say we’re united as far as helping out all Hispanics. … Here, even though Puerto Ricans are unaffected, we are responsible for representing all Hispanics.”

Photo credit: G. De Cardenas/Getty Images

Correction, March 16, 2016: Florida state Sen. Darren Soto is 38 years old. A previous version of this article said he was 28.

Molly O’Toole is a senior reporter at Foreign Policy, covering immigration, refugees, and national security. She was FP’s sole 2016 presidential campaign reporter, on the trail from New Hampshire to Nevada. Previously, she covered the politics of national security for Atlantic Media’s Defense One, where she reported from Congress, the White House, the Pentagon, and the State Department. Before that, she was a news editor at the Huffington Post. Molly has also reported on national and international politics for Reuters, the Nation, The Associated Press, and Newsweek International, among others, from Washington, New York, Mexico City, and London. She received her dual master’s degree in journalism and international relations from New York University and her bachelor’s from Cornell University and in 2016 was a grant recipient of the International Women’s Media Foundation. She will always be a Californian. @mollymotoole

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