The surprising resurgence of Republicans in Miami

When Raquel Regalado was growing up in 1980s Miami, she remembers protesters demanding that immigrants speak English and an inhospitable bumper sticker that asked: “Will the last American to leave please remember to bring the flag?”

These days, Regalado, a county commissioner who is the daughter of Cuban immigrants, delights in what she calls “this fusion that is very Miami”. It is a place where Hispanic immigrants of various stripes have mixed and mingled and intermarried. Bilingualism and multiculturalism are the norm. So, increasingly, is the Republican party.

In one of the more surprising results of November’s midterm elections, Florida Governor Ron DeSantis became the first Republican candidate for statewide office in 20 years to conquer Miami-Dade, the state’s most populous county and a Democratic bastion dominated by black and Hispanic voters.

DeSantis’s 11-point victory in Miami-Dade represented a whiplash-inducing 40-point swing from Hillary Clinton’s 2016 triumph there over Donald Trump, intensifying speculation the governor will mount a White House campaign.

It also confirmed what many on the ground already knew: Republicans now dominate what was, until recently, a vital swing state that has shifted to the right even as conservatives’ grip appears to be loosening on other traditional havens, such as neighbouring Georgia.

It had become conventional wisdom among pundits that the growing numbers of Latino voters in states such as Florida would fill the Democrats’ ranks. Instead, Miami-Dade’s turn could be a sign that Republicans have honed their appeal to more culturally conservative Latino voters, something that could pay dividends far beyond south Florida.

“It’s a surprise because the whole country has been turning more blue and then we turned red. But it’s not a surprise because it’s been building up for a while,” says Maria-Elena Lopez, the acting chair of the Miami-Dade Democratic party.

Raquel Regalado, a county commissioner in Miami and the daughter of Cuban immigrants, says Republicans’ painting of Democrats as socialists is ‘our dog whistle’ © Zak Bennett/FT

The Clinton campaign assumed they would win Florida, and so did not invest adequately in the state, she says. Then the Biden campaign decided they could win without Florida. “Even though they put effort in, they didn’t put a whole lot of effort in,” she says.

“It’s pretty clear at this point: Florida is red,” a Democratic strategist conceded. “To rebuild, it’s going to have to be a completely different approach, and it’s going to take years.”

For Democrats like Lopez, the first step is to determine what went wrong.

To be sure, DeSantis has become a sensation among conservatives — first, on the strength of a response to the Covid-19 pandemic that prioritised keeping the state’s businesses open; and then on his dark genius for picking fights over culture war issues — be it immigration or a “don’t say gay” law that forbids Florida teachers from discussing homosexuality with young children. Still, officials from both parties believe the governor’s electoral success — in Miami-Dade, in particular — has at least as much to do with Democrats’ own disarray.

The party fielded an underwhelming candidate in Charlie Crist, a genial former governor who was once a Republican, and at 66, did not electrify young or black voters. It has allowed the grassroots infrastructure built up in the Obama years to rust. Those failings, in turn, compounded Democrats’ fundraising woes. Money is even more vital in a large state that demands investment in multiple media markets.

“I thought it would just be throwing money away,” says Ira Leesfield, an old guard member of Miami’s personal injury bar and a prodigious Democratic fundraiser, explaining why he declined to open his wallet for Crist.

Changing demographics

Yet what may be most damning for Democrats is the charge that they misread and misunderstood a new wave of Hispanic voters who have come to Miami-Dade in large numbers over the past decade, many fleeing oppressive or corrupt leftwing governments. They hail from Cuba, from where migrants are departing again in record numbers. But they have also come from other Latin American nations, including Venezuela, Colombia, Honduras, Nicaragua and Brazil.

“The headline sometimes is, ‘Oh, it’s the Cubans’. In fact, some of the most dramatic swings were among non-Cuban Hispanics in Miami-Dade,” says Michael Bustamante, a history professor and Cuba specialist at the University of Miami.

Collectively, non-Cuban Hispanics now nearly match Cuban-Americans in Miami-Dade — 32 per cent to 36 per cent of the population respectively. There are now so many Venezuelan-born residents in urban Doral — about a third of the population — that many call it “Doralzuela”.

For all their nuances, many of the newcomers seem to care less about immigration policy than economic opportunity and basic cost of living issues. They have also demonstrated an emotional response to Republican accusations that Democrats are socialists.

Carlos Curbelo greets his constituents in 2018
Carlos Curbelo greets his constituents in 2018. The Republican former congressman says issues such as combating structural racism and police brutality do not chime with immigrants © Lynne Sladky/AP

“Many of them are coming from contexts where they associate socialism, or anything close to it, with what they left behind and why they left,” Bustamante explains. “I think Republicans have been very savvy — really ruthless — in exploiting that.”

Or as Regalado, a Republican, puts it: “It’s our dog whistle. And it works every time!”

Her tone was flippant — but not entirely. People working not only for themselves but to support relatives back home are intensely focused on limiting taxes, she argues, and tend to distrust the sort of government programmes championed by Democrats.

“They don’t want to hear about ‘social projects’,” Regalado explains. “A lot of these groups came from places where they lost their property rights or lost their savings.”

Her own father, Tomás, embodies a Miami ideal of upward mobility that Republicans cherish. He was spirited out of Cuba as a boy on the “Peter Pan” flights that brought thousands of unaccompanied minors to America in the immediate aftermath of the revolution. He spent months in a boys’ camp and, after a career as a broadcast journalist, eventually rose to become a two-term Miami mayor.

To Carlos Curbelo, a Republican who represented part of Miami-Dade in Congress from 2015 to 2019, issues such as combating structural racism and police brutality that have impassioned progressive Democrats do not chime with immigrants who have generally found prosperity and stability in south Florida, and tend to be conservative and patriotic by nature. Even those who are pro-choice are less motivated than Democrats elsewhere about defending abortion rights.

“A lot of people look for explanations in policies — and I just don’t think that’s the place to look,” says Curbelo. “It’s deeper than that. It’s about a description of the country.”

Smoke rises behind a a National Guardsman during race-related riots in Miami in 1980
Smoke rises behind a Florida National Guardsman in Liberty City during the Miami race riots of May 1980 © Kathy Willens/AP

Forty years ago, in Regalado’s youth, Miami-Dade looked like a piece of America that was unravelling. It was roiled by tensions between an impoverished black community, a displaced Anglo elite and fresh waves of immigrants fleeing Fidel Castro’s Cuba. The Miami race riots of 1980 were the result of police beating a black motorist to death. It served as the opening scene in Nicholas Griffin’s chronicle The Year of Dangerous Days.

These days, even as rising sea levels encroach, Miami exudes flashy confidence as the unofficial capital of Latin America and a place of torrid property development. Its skyline is sparkling and ever-expanding. Traffic is growing, too.

“This is a place where people come to begin again,” Regalado explains.

The Trump factor

The same qualities that make south Florida appealing to those seeking a fresh start can pose challenges for Democrats. The transient residents it attracts tend to put down only shallow roots. Labour unions, the Democratic party’s traditional mobilising force, have little grip in its service economy. Meanwhile, many retirees — and now a fresh influx of people who fled to Florida during the pandemic from other states — prize low taxes above all else.

“‘Florida Democratic party’ is a misnomer,” says Leesfield. “There is no Florida Democratic party. It’s not organised. It’s moribund.”

Democrats’ past success, he argues, had generally derived from star candidates, such as former governors Bob Graham and Lawton Chiles, whose personal brands transcended the party. Barack Obama, another political star, carried Miami-Dade in 2008, helped by enormous turnout of black voters and concerns about the financial crisis, and then widened his margin in 2012.

Obama made inroads with a younger generation of Cuban-Americans, far removed from the anger over the failed Bay of Pigs invasion, with his 2014 push for rapprochement with Cuba’s communist government.

Two years later, an annual survey of Cuban-American opinion in the county conducted by Florida International University revealed a shifting of tectonic plates: 72 per cent of respondents favoured diplomatic relations with Cuba, while only 34 per cent supported the longstanding US trade embargo.

Carlos Giménez, Miami-Dade’s former Republican mayor, with Donald Trump. Giménez voted for Hillary Clinton in 2016 — but sought Trump’s endorsement for a 2020 congressional run
Carlos Giménez, Miami-Dade’s former Republican mayor, with Donald Trump. Giménez voted for Hillary Clinton in 2016 — but sought Trump’s endorsement for his 2020 congressional run © Michele Eve Sandberg/Corbis/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

But that hopeful mood turned to disenchantment as many Floridians decided that Obama’s concessions did not yield meaningful reforms in Havana. Their disappointment has hardened as the regime has openly suppressed dissent on the streets. “Cubans here and on the island expected great changes and they never came,” the FIU authors concluded in the foreword to their 2020 survey.

Trump restored the hard line when he took office in 2017, and the FIU poll of Cuban-Americans subsequently found that two-thirds of respondents supported him. With their backing, Trump narrowed the gap in Miami-Dade in 2020 even as Democrats attempted to portray him as a racist and then a Castro-like strongman.

“That message failed miserably,” says Bustamante, who recalled focus groups in which people complained: “‘How dare you! Trump is many things but he’s not that.’”

Maria Puerta Riera, a political-science professor who left Venezuela in 2015 and now teaches at Valencia College near Orlando, has written about the phenomenon of Maga-zuelans. Part of Trump’s appeal to her compatriots, she believes, is not only a matter of policy but rhetoric. Immigrants from Cuba, Venezuela and Nicaragua were thrilled when the former president appeared to join their cause by loudly attacking the likes of Venezuela’s Nicolás Maduro. By contrast, she notes, it was almost impossible to imagine a Democratic leader condemning “the left”.

“There’s an alliance between these communities — Cubans, Venezuelans, Nicaraguans,” she says. “We all share a common enemy.”

Given the trauma and dislocation many have experienced, such voters are incapable of viewing US politics outside the context of the places they left. “That’s the baggage that we immigrants bring,” Puerta Riera says. “Political baggage.”

Trump’s electric appeal was evident on the streets, with caravans of flag-waving Maga supporters jamming the roads during the 2020 campaign and Cuban-American Trump supporters dancing in the streets of Little Havana. It was embodied by Carlos Giménez, Miami-Dade’s former Republican mayor. He voted for Clinton in 2016 — only to then seek Trump’s endorsement for a successful 2020 congressional run.

“Latin Americans, historically, like strongmen. They favour tough leaders, which made Trump so appealing,” Lopez explains.

Remarkably, of those Cubans who arrived in south Florida between 2010 and 2015 and registered to vote, 76 per cent registered as Republicans.

Some were recruited by activists like Armando Ibarra, president of Miami’s Young Republicans club, who convened after Obama’s 2012 re-election to determine how they could replicate his vaunted get-out-the-vote operation.

Even Democrats now marvel at the vigour of their opponents’ year-round campaign. It has focused less on Little Havana, the traditional Cuban-American hub, than other cities such as Hialeah and Doral where the new arrivals tend to congregate.

Ron DeSantis celebrates his midterms victory with his family. His 11-point victory in Miami-Dade represented a 40-point swing from Hillary Clinton’s 2016 triumph there over Donald Trump
Republican Florida governor Ron DeSantis celebrates his resounding victory in November with his family. His 11-point victory in Miami-Dade represented a 40-point swing from Hillary Clinton’s 2016 triumph there over Donald Trump © Marco Bello/Reuters

“What we’ve seen since 2016 is a political realignment,” says Ibarra, who describes an inherently conservative group of voters as now “coming home” to the Republican party. “The Democratic party, I think, has moved too far to the left for many voters, particularly Hispanic voters.”

It was Ibarra’s group that devised plans for an annual “Victims of Communism Day” in Florida that DeSantis declared on the eve of November’s midterm elections. It looked to critics like a hollow ploy. But Ibarra sees it as a demonstration of bona fides to those who had endured the Castros, Maduro or Nicaragua’s Sandinistas, among other leftist Latin governments. “They understand the governor gets it,” he says. “It’s not a gesture.”

Complexity of immigration

Hispanics were also being mobilised by self-styled “influencers” like Alex Otaola, a Cuban immigrant who has become a popular online personality. His outlandish Hola Ota-Ola! programme generates tens of thousands of views among newly arrived Cuban immigrants on Facebook and YouTube. In addition to entertainment and gossip, it focuses relentlessly on Cuban government abuses and implores viewers to become US citizens immediately — so they can vote for Trump.

By contrast, even some Democrats express frustration that the party has for too long taken Latinos’ support for granted. They were slow to push back against charges of socialism when they began to crop up in 2018 — perhaps because many regarded them as preposterous.

“That’s what changed everything in Miami-Dade,” the Democratic strategist recalls. “That [charge] ‘the Democrats are socialists’ — it was everywhere.” Meanwhile, the looting and disorder associated with some Black Lives Matter and anti-police protests repelled people fleeing lawlessness in their home countries, this person adds.

Evelyn Perez-Verdia, a veteran Democratic strategist in south Florida, believes the party can win Latino voters in the state — and beyond — but she despairs at its tone-deaf messaging.

She tends to wince, for example, when she sees progressives using raised fists in their imagery or the word progresista, which have strong leftwing — even communist — connotations in Latin America.

“It threw red meat to the Republicans,” she says, when Bernie Sanders declared himself a “Democratic socialist” in the 2016 election. “We have people in our party using symbols and words that scare Hispanic voters.” 

People who have just crossed into the US from Mexico are transported on a bus in Texas
People who have just crossed into the US from Mexico are transported on a bus in Texas earlier this year. Cuban-Americans in south Florida have remarked on the ‘perplexing issue’ of immigration and how perceptions vary depending on how people arrive in America © Carl Juste/Miami Herald/TNS/Getty Images

A great mystery — at least from afar — is why Trump’s and now DeSantis’s anti-immigration policies have not alienated more Hispanic voters? Even some top Republicans were dismayed in August when the Florida governor arranged for dozens of Venezuelan immigrants to be flown under false pretences on charter planes from Texas to Martha’s Vineyard, an affluent island off the coast of Massachusetts, to provoke Democrats. Yet that stunt did not seem to harm DeSantis in Miami-Dade.

“It would surprise you to find out how many Venezuelans applauded [DeSantis’s stunt],” says Puerta Riera. “This sense that ‘I came here legally and these guys broke the rules.’”

Even in a city of immigrants, sympathy for their plight can shift depending on when a person immigrated, how they came to America, from where and under what circumstances. Race and class also figure into the picture.

Even Lopez, a woman who was born in Cuba and emigrated in 1960, finds immigration to be “one of the most perplexing” issues, with prejudices among and between different waves of Cuban-Americans. “In Miami, when a boat comes from Cuba, it is glorified,” she says. “Cubans that cross the border from Mexico — nobody gives a damn about them.” Republicans have further muddied the matter by, at times, portraying immigration not as a humanitarian issue but as a weapon used by repressive governments against America.

Regalado says her constituents broadly accepted legal migration, particularly during periods of upheaval in Latin America. But, she believes, many Miami-Dade residents share the same wariness as other conservatives about what Republicans have portrayed as uncontrolled migration for largely economic reasons. “It could be endless,” she adds.

Besides, if DeSantis and his ilk ever did overstep on immigration, they might still recover with a reliable tactic.

Says Puerta Riera: “When Republicans use socialism, stoking fears, it works.”


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