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Have Republicans Already Lost Florida?

Whatever happens in Tuesday’s GOP primary, Trump-style immigration rhetoric will likely doom the party's nominee in November.

Joe Raedle/Getty Images

Earlier this month, Donald Trump stumped in Orlando before a crowd of 10,000 people gathered in the University of Central Florida’s basketball arena, hoping to find favor in a critical swing region of the nation’s largest swing state. But as he launched into a tirade about his rivals’ attempts to “stop Trump,” protesters of color interrupted him. In a scene that had already become familiar, Trump turned around and pointed. “Get out of here,” he barked. “Out!” 

A white man in the audience grabbed and shoved one of the protesters, before security removed the demonstrators. The rest of the crowd waved Trump campaign signs and chanted, “U-S-A!” “You know, we have a divided country, folks,” Trump said when the fracas calmed down. “We have a terrible president who happens to be African American. There has never been a greater division just about than what we have right now. The hatred. The animosity. I will bring people together. I’m going to bring people together. You watch.”

Florida Republicans are not so sure about that.

Even before the votes are tallied in Tuesday’s primary, some of the Sunshine State’s most prominent Republicans fear the GOP has already lost this all-important electoral linchpin for November—and, in a close general election, the party’s hopes for the presidency along with it. Trump may win the Republican primary, as polls suggest—and in the process deal Marco Rubio a deathblow in his home state. But there’s little optimism about the frontrunner’s viability as a general-election candidate in Florida. Or about any other Republican’s chances in November, for that matter.

Few states make a poorer match for the white-hot immigration rhetoric and bloody fisticuffs that have dominated this GOP primary season. Florida is home to the country’s third-largest Hispanic population, and Republicans have dominated state elections for the better part of two decades by making inroads with the increasingly diverse, increasingly independent electorate. Now, party leaders fret that Trump’s incendiary talk of Mexican rapists, deportation forces and border walls—and his rivals’ largely silent acquiescence for much of the cycle—could undo decades of GOP outreach and hamper their fortunes in down-ballot races in the state, including a key U.S. Senate campaign for the seat left vacant by Rubio.

“We’re ignoring the new America for a short-term primary victory, and it’s a high cost for the party to pay,” says Al Cardenas, a former Republican Party of Florida chairman and GOP powerbroker who oversaw the state organization during Jeb Bush’s governorship.

While officials blame Trump for much of the damage, Rubio and Texas Senator Ted Cruz have also been culprits. Both senators have offered law-and-order immigration proposals and have hardened their stances as Trump’s popularity has soared; Cruz has echoed the businessman’s calls to deport undocumented immigrants, while Rubio has focused solely on border security and disowned legislation he helped write that would have included a path to citizenship.

“We are going to pay and pay and pay and pay for this,” says Rick Wilson, a GOP strategist who supports Rubio. “The fact of the matter is that this is a party who had an opportunity this year to show Hispanics an interesting, diverse, compelling party. Instead, what we’re going to show them is a 70-year-old verbally incontinent white man from Queens who bellows about brown people.”

This turn of events is particularly striking for a state party that ascended to power under Jeb Bush, a bicultural, Spanish-speaking governor who campaigned aggressively in minority communities as a “compassionate conservative.” He cultivated such close ties with the state’s Cuban-American community that he was dubbed Florida’s “first Cuban-American governor.”

In the divisive rhetoric of this year’s presidential primary, Florida Republicans hear echoes of the failed 1994 campaign that famously prompted Bush—who lost his first bid for governor in a year when Republicans were winning up and down the ballot—to soften his approach. “Why did Jeb lose when everyone else won?” Mac Stipanovich, a Republican operative who advised Bush’s 1994 campaign, asks rhetorically. “He was too doctrinaire. He was too rigid. He frightened the elderly. He offended minorities and did not reach out to working women and independents. Trump is that guy on steroids.”

Michael McDonald, a professor of political science at the University of Florida who studies voting behavior, forecasts a “hate election,” in which both parties are driven to the polls out of anger and animosity. “If we continue on this trajectory, this will be a very passion-laden general election,” he said. And the cultural clashes will be most pronounced in diverse states like Florida.

Elsewhere, such moments have prompted a sea change in other states’ politics. In the 1990s, for example, California Republicans pushed a ballot measure to deny most government services to undocumented immigrants, complete with grainy black-and-white ads of shadowy figures crossing the border. “They keep coming,” the spots intoned darkly. Latinos responded in kind by registering and turning out in record numbers for Democrats, beginning a decades-long death spiral for the GOP in the land of Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan.

Florida could be poised for that type of transformation. Once dominated by conservative Cubans in South Florida, the Latino electorate is growing more diverse and more Democratic—driven in large part by a booming Puerto Rican diaspora in the central part of the state. Nearly 400,000 Puerto Ricans have settled in the Orlando area, with thousands coming from the island each month. Still others are relocating from the Northeastern U.S., and they now make up 27 percent of Florida’s Hispanic vote. (Hispanics of other ancestry, such as Mexico and South America, now make up 42 percent, while just 31 percent are Cuban American.) Puerto Ricans in Central Florida played a key role in helping put Barack Obama over the top in 2012, though they also have a strong independent streak.

Among these folks, the Trump message comes across like a warning siren. “We’ve seen comments about Mexican immigrants and an overall nasty tone that really is reminiscent of some of the despots of Central and South America that many Hispanics left behind,” says state Senator Darren Soto, a Democrat who is waging a bid to be the first Floridian of Puerto Rican descent to be elected to Congress.

Wilson, the GOP operative, said he realized the depth of the damage in December during a focus group in which a Cuban-American man said, “Trump calls all of us rapists.” A light bulb went off: If the remarks about Mexicans were offensive to Cuban-Americans, who are generally more conservative voters and often see themselves as distinct from other segments of the Latino community, Republicans are truly in trouble.

While Trump’s rhetoric is driving Latinos away from the Republican fold, Democratic groups are eager to take advantage. Immigration advocates and labor unions have launched aggressive citizenship and registration drives throughout the state. In Soto’s Orlando-area district, Hispanics account for half of all new registrations since July, he said. “I sense a lot of people are registering in the Hispanic community just to vote against Trump” in November, Soto said.

Even so, while Florida Democrats are jubilant about the flagging fortunes of Rubio and the withdrawal of Bush—two candidates widely seen as tougher competition in November—they hardly see Trump as a pushover in the state. Some worry that Trump’s economic populism could siphon off support from disaffected white Democrats. And the billionaire businessman seems to be making good on his promise to expand the GOP base: More than 130,000 Republicans who did not vote in the last two major elections have cast ballots in the Florida primary, according to early voting figures. “This is the kind of state that no matter who the nominee is, nobody thinks they’re going to have a cake walk,” says Ben Pollara, a Democratic consultant and Hillary Clinton fundraiser. “It’s going to be a slugfest.”

That’s exactly what worries some Florida Democrats: Negativity could depress, not galvanize, voters in November. “Do Trump’s comments harm him among Hispanics in Florida? There’s no question in my mind,” says Steve Schale, a Democratic strategist who helped oversee Barack Obama’s Florida campaigns. “But where his head has been, we can make this race so toxic, we can get people so turned off that people don’t vote.”

Democrats are still scarred by the Trump-like campaign that first elected the state’s current GOP governor, Rick Scott. In 2010, the multimillionaire health-care executive billed himself as a self-funding outsider determined to topple the Republican establishment. To win the primary, he appealed to Tea Party voters by calling for an Arizona-style immigration crackdown, and stoked anti-Muslim sentiment by running ads criticizing Obama over the president’s defense of a mosque near the World Trade Center. In the general election, he and Democratic nominee Alex Sink traded barbs over business ethics while he poured millions into ads focusing on the economy. Scott eked out a win in one of the closest races in Florida history.

“People said, ‘I don’t like her, I don’t like him, but at least he’s got a plan for jobs. I’ll vote for the lesser of two evils,’” Schale says. The fear for Democrats is that Hillary Clinton could end up looking like another Alex Sink, one of the two “evils” to choose from. 

Nevertheless, even Scott seems to recognize that Florida is changing. Facing a tough re-election match in 2014, he appointed the state’s first Hispanic lieutenant governor. At Bush’s urging, he signed a bill granting in-state tuition rates to undocumented students. And, in perhaps the most telling sign of political survival, he has offered words of praise for Trump—but not an endorsement.

Of course, the mid-term electorates that gave Scott his victories were older, whiter and more heavily Republican than what we’re likely to see in November— especially with Trump at the top of the GOP ticket. Florida Republicans have learned to modulate their message and capture enough Latinos to win consistently; many were horrified when Mitt Romney advocated “self deportation” four years ago. But Trump and this year’s other contenders have shown no interest in moderating their immigration message, at least not yet. That means Republicans may have to woo those angry white voters in other states to put Trump, or any party nominee, in the White House.

Michael J. Mishak is a reporter at the Washington-based Center for Public Integrity. He covered Florida politics for The Associated Press, and his work has appeared in Politico Magazine, National Journal, and the Los Angeles Times.