Posted on Sun, Aug. 12, 2007
BY BETH REINHARD
Hispanic voters in Miami-Dade County, regarded for years as a solidly Republican catch for statewide and national candidates stumping in Florida, are increasingly becoming free agents.
Less than half of the county's Hispanic voters are registered Republicans, down from 59 percent less than a decade ago, The Miami Herald found. Like newer voters elsewhere in the state and the nation, more Hispanic voters are rebuffing political parties: One out of four in Miami-Dade are registered as nonpartisan. In Broward County, one in three Hispanic registered voters are unaffiliated with either party.
''It's a trend that I've seen happening, and obviously it concerns me,'' said Jose ''Pepe'' Riesco, vice chairman of the Miami-Dade Republican Party. ``It's a problem we can't run away from.''
Those independent voters tend to be younger Cuban Americans or naturalized citizens from Central America and South America, many of whom worry more about securing healthcare than toppling Fidel Castro, according to more than two dozen interviews with voters and Hispanic leaders.
But the shift is occurring even in the Cuban-American community at large, a bedrock for Republicans from George W. Bush to Jeb Bush, who cultivated their loyalty with fiery anti-Castro rhetoric and friendly Spanish-language ads.
The political current has far-reaching implications for the most wide-open presidential race in more than half a century. Hispanics are the fastest-growing part of the electorate, and in Florida -- the nation's largest battleground state -- they are expected to represent as much as 15 percent of the 2008 vote.
''It remains to be seen which party is going to attract them in the long haul, and neither should feel comfortable,'' said Jorge Mursuli, executive director of Democracia USA, a nonpartisan group that registers Hispanics to vote.
AN EDGE IN THE STATE
Statewide, about 37 percent of the Hispanics in Florida are registered as Republicans, compared with about 33 percent registered as Democrats. The remaining 30 percent are independent or belong to minor parties, according to the Florida Division of Elections.
Those percentages don't include ''inactive'' voters who have not participated in the last two general elections. An analysis by the Florida Democratic Party over the past 18 months that includes inactive voters shows that at the current pace, Hispanic Democrats would outnumber Hispanic Republicans statewide before the 2008 election.
''That's huge, because this is the state Republicans point to as a model of their Hispanic outreach,'' said Florida Democratic Party spokesman Mark Bubriski. ``Clearly, the Bush era is dead.''
Florida Republicans initially confirmed the Democrats' numbers in interviews and e-mails, but later disputed them because they include inactive voters. And even if Hispanic Democrats do eventually outnumber Hispanic Republicans, they said, the GOP will make up for it with a robust turnout.
''While this short-term trend is something we're working on, we remain very confident in our strength in the Hispanic community,'' said Florida GOP spokesman Jeff Sadosky.
Signs of the trend are apparent at the Democracia USA voter registration drives at Calle Ocho in Little Havana, Milander Park in Hialeah, and various Latin American festivals throughout the year at Tamiami Park in Miami. Of the 56,000 Hispanic voters it registered last year, 45 percent registered as independent.
According to the latest Florida International University poll of Cuban Americans in Miami-Dade, 65 percent support a dialogue with the Cuban government, up from 40 percent in 1991. In another recent survey conducted for Democrats of two heavily Cuban-American congressional districts in Miami-Dade -- represented by Republicans Lincoln Díaz-Balart and his brother Mario -- voters rated getting rid of Castro sixth among their concerns. Their top priority for Congress: getting out of Iraq. President Bush's approval rating was 39 percent, only a handful of points higher than in national polls.
''There has been a seismic shift in the political views in these districts,'' said Democratic political consultant Jeff Garcia, who conceived the poll. ``All the discontent you are seeing in the country -- it's here now, too.''
Orlando Valdes registered as nonpartisan on the Fourth of July, one month after he became an American citizen. The 40-year-old air-conditioning repairman, who arrived from Cuba seven years ago, lives in Hialeah with his wife and his two daughters, who attend public schools.
He opposes the Bush administration's restrictions on travel to Cuba and said the U.S. economic embargo on Cuba isn't ''the point.'' The war in Iraq, healthcare and education matter most, he said.
''I don't care whether it's a Democrat or Republican, I want to see the best person for the position,'' Valdes said. Asked about his community's traditional ties to the GOP, he said: ``You can feel it in the air. People are thinking different.''
The nationwide firestorm over immigration could also have repercussions for the GOP. Conservative Republicans helped quash legislation that would have allowed undocumented immigrants to seek citizenship.
Maria Patarollo, who was born in Colombia and lived in Venezuela for 30 years, followed the debate. The 53-year-old resident of northern Miami-Dade said Democrats seemed more interested in addressing immigration, although she recently registered as nonpartisan.
''I have never, ever liked politics,'' she said.
Even in Hialeah, where Cuban-American politicians boast that they live in the most Republican city in Florida, residents are increasingly checking nonpartisan when they register to vote. The city is 53 percent Republican, down from 61 percent in 1998.
City officials seem unaware of the change. Mayor Julio Robaina estimated that 72 percent of his constituents were Republicans.
''I think we're like at 90 percent Republican or something ridiculous like that,'' said City Council member Vivian Casáls-Muñoz, speaking over the din at Tropical Restaurant before a visit from GOP presidential contender Rudy Giuliani.
The Miami Herald found higher Republican registration in 25 precincts with dense Cuban-American populations than in the overall Hispanic community, but it's on the decline. An average of 22 percent of the voters in those precincts in Hialeah, West Miami and Sweetwater are independent, up from 17 percent five years ago.
''As the community assimilates more and more, it's not surprising that it looks more like the rest of the country,'' said Cuban-American political consultant Carlos Curbelo, who worked on Republican Gov. Charlie Crist's campaign last year.
Amid the nationwide backlash against the GOP in 2006, Hispanics in Florida favored the Democratic candidates at the top of the ballot for the first time in 30 years, exit polls show. Hoping to build on that success, the state Democratic Party has tapped Luis Garcia, the only Cuban-American Democrat representing Miami-Dade in the Legislature, to serve as vice chairman.
When thousands of Hispanic leaders convened at conferences in Orlando and Miami this summer, the Democratic presidential candidates were there to court them. At the Orlando event, Democratic front-runner Sen. Hillary Clinton seized on remarks by potential GOP rival Fred Thompson that seemed to suggest that Cuban immigrants posed a terrorist threat. (He was actually referring to spies.)
''Democrats have resolved that we are not going to make the mistakes of 2000 and 2004, when for all practical purposes, the Hispanic vote was written off,'' said Miami pollster and paid Clinton advisor Sergio Bendixen.
Said Miami-Dade Democratic Party Chairman Joe Garcia, former executive director of the Cuban American National Foundation: ``If Hispanics can help bring Florida into the Democratic camp, there's no math in the world that will give Republicans the White House in 2008.''