Adios, Republican stronghold

Both parties are courting the swing voters of the state's fastest-growing ethnic group.

Published June 28, 2007

With an enormously popular governor in office and control of both legislative chambers, Florida Republicans have plenty of reason for confidence heading into the 2008 election season.

But there are ominous signs for the Florida GOP when it comes to the state's fastest-growing ethnic group. Consider:

Whether it's temporary disenchantment with President Bush, fallout from the immigration debate or part of a political and demographic shift, Democrats in Florida and nationally are making major strides with crucial Hispanic voters.

If the trend continues, the potential consequences, simply put, could determine which party wins national elections in the 21st century and which loses. By 2020, one in five voters nationwide are expected to be Hispanic and by 2050 that should jump to one in four.

"It's a very strong current in favor of the Democrats, " said Sergio Bendixon, a veteran Democratic pollster of Hispanic voters who is helping Hillary Clinton. "But we need to look at 2008 before I could tell you whether it might last."


Battle for votes

It's no fluke that this weekend seven Democratic presidential candidates will be at Walt Disney World for the annual conference of the National Association of Latino Elected and Appointed Officials. Just look at the presidential electoral map heading into 2008 to understand the need to court Hispanics.

It takes 270 electoral votes to win the White House. If the Democratic nominee next year wins the safest Democratic states (248 electoral votes) on Election Day, then he or she needs to pick up only a few Western states with big Hispanic populations. Just taking New Mexico, Nevada, Colorado and Arizona would put the candidate at a winning 277 electoral votes. Throw in Florida and it's not even close.

Only long shot Republican candidate Duncan Hunter of California accepted the invitation to address the Florida conference of NALEO, a bipartisan group dominated by Hispanic Democrats. But Florida Republican leaders clearly understand the stakes in the battle for Hispanic voters.

Gov. Crist will address the group, as will Florida Sen. Mel Martinez, who also is the Republican National Committee general chairman, as well as state House Speaker Marco Rubio.

Florida Republican Party chairman Jim Greer tried to get on the schedule, but NALEO could not find a slot.

"We are refocusing our efforts on the Hispanic community and we are creating different outreach programs specifically targeting Hispanics, " said Greer, who has named political strategist Pablo Diaz as the Florida GOP's field director.

Greer said he also plans to name Hispanic advisory groups from the Tampa Bay, Orlando and South Florida areas.

Rubio, a Miami Republican, noted that Hispanic voters have most of the same priorities as other voters and predicted both parties will be fighting for their votes long into the future.

"I don't think Hispanic voters are becoming less Republican or less Democratic, they're becoming less partisan, " Rubio said. "They're swing voters."

Indeed, the Hispanic vote in Florida is hardly monolithic politically, and Republicans note that in a terrible climate for the GOP, Democratic gubernatorial candidate Jim Davis still won only half the Hispanic vote in 2006.

Republicans also are better at turning out their Hispanic supporters than Democrats. Among the Tampa Bay area's roughly 140, 000 Hispanic voters, for instance, 36 percent of the registered Republicans turned out in 2006 compared with 29 percent of the Democrats.

But Florida Democrats are improving their voter mobilization efforts, and in the past year picked off one Republican-held state House seat in Little Havana and another one in the Orlando area, where Puerto Rican voters have muscle.

Anti-immigration rhetoric on talk radio and by some Republican candidates is proving to be devastating to Republicans, who between 1996 and 2004 had made huge strides among Hispanics. The GOP share of the Hispanic vote nationally dropped from 40 percent in 2004 to 29 percent in 2006.

"Republicans are in danger of framing themselves for a generation of Latinos as a party of immigrant bashing and harmful policies and harmful rhetoric, " said Cecilia Munoz, senior vice president of the National Council of La Raza, a civil rights and advocacy group.


Immigration reform

Republicans counter that Democrats have also opposed the controversial immigration reform proposal now before the U.S. Senate and that Hispanics are not unified about the best approach to immigration reform.

"Where's this insightful immigration solution from the Democratic side?" Rubio asked. "Where's the compelling Obama or Clinton immigration plan?"

Still, Republicans are the ones being perceived as anti-immigration.

Joe Garcia, a campaign strategist with the New Democrat Network based in Washington and also Miami-Dade Democratic Party chairman, recounted the widespread South Florida publicity when obscure Republican presidential candidate Tom Tancredo likened Miami to a "Third World country."

"I'm willing to write a check, and organize to keep Tom in the race, " Garcia quipped. "He's manna from heaven."


Information from the Associated Press was used in this report. Adam C. Smith can be reached at asmith@sptimes.com or (727) 893-8241.

Fast Facts

» He doesn't sound it

Democratic New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson is the only Hispanic candidate for president, but in heavily Hispanic Florida that heritage isn't helping. A Quinnipiac University poll released Wednesday showed Richardson with 2 percent support, compared with 43 percent for Hillary Clinton, 16 percent for Barack Obama and 11 percent for John Edwards. What gives? The former U.N. Ambassador and U.S. Energy Secretary is cursed with the Waspy name William Blaine Richardson III.

"Right now, Hispanics don't know I'm Hispanic. I'm working on that, " he told the Des Moines Register last week.

» Latino gathering

The National Association of Latino Elected and Appointed Officials 24th Annual Conference will be held June 28-30 at Walt Disney World. Nearly 1, 000 Latino leaders from across the country are expected.

Among the Florida speakers Thursday: State House Speaker Marco Rubio, R-Miami; state Rep. Darren Soto, D-Orlando; Gov. Charlie Crist. U.S. Sen. Mel Martinez, general chairman of the Republican National Committee, addresses the group Friday. On Saturday, Democrats hold a two-hour presidential forum.