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MIAMI — The first of a dozen Democratic presidential debates kicks off Wednesday in Miami, but the party is already engaged in a pitched battle here for the Latino voters who will play a pivotal role in 2020.
"We are acutely aware that the Republicans will not simply roll over and concede the Latino vote," Democratic National Committee Chairman Tom Perez told NBC News in a recent interview.
That's one reason why, he said, Democrats made the "very conscious choice" to set the first clash of White House hopefuls eager to challenge President Donald Trump in the seat of Miami-Dade County, where the population of about 2.8 million is 69 percent Latino, 18 percent African American and about 13 percent white, non-Hispanic.
Florida Latino voter registrations jumped to 2.4 million in 2018, up from 1.7 million in 2014, and Latinos are increasingly registering as Democrats or with no party affiliation — which helped Democrats flip two Republican-held congressional seats in Latino-majority districts and win lower level offices in the midterms.
But statewide, Trump-backed GOP candidates narrowly won the governor's mansion and U.S. Senate race by capturing more than 40 percent of the Latino vote — and the president won Florida in 2016 by a thin 1.2 percent. Both parties view the swing state as crucial to their 2020 ambitions, and, experts said, both sides will face advantages and challenges in appealing to this all-important, ideologically diverse Latino electorate.
“They are going to have more money and more rich donors," Perez said of Republicans, "but they are morally bankrupt, and our key is to communicate how we are getting to issues that matter most."
Targeting the diverse Latino vote
Trump, who officially launched his re-election bid last week in Orlando — the heart of the state's Puerto Rican community — has a following among Sunshine State Latinos that Bertica Cabrera Morris, a Florida-based Republican strategist, said she's never seen before.
At the Orlando rally, "there were 20-some-thousand people that stood under the rain for hours — many of them Puerto Rican and Cuban," she said in an interview.
Cabrera Morris said Latino voters are more concerned about jobs than anything else, and the historically low unemployment rate among Hispanics that Trump consistently touts on the trail is an effective message.
“People have made a big deal about immigration. But this president covers our needs in the Hispanic community better than any other president before," she said.
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Brad Parscale, who is leading Trump's re-election bid, has said the campaign intends to aggressively court the Latino vote in Florida and elsewhere. The campaign is rolling out its Latinos for Trump initiative Tuesday in Miami.
Overall, Latino voters in the U.S. tend to lean Democratic. Democrats point out that Latinos gained the most from Obamacare and favor a bigger role for government in areas such as the environment and education. They also point out Trump's past rhetoricabout Hispanics and his harsher policies toward immigrants from Latin America, including separating children from their parents at the border.
But among South Florida's diverse electorate, where a president's posture on Venezuela and Cuba can have an impact, Republicans hope to make deeper inroads thanks in part to the Trump administration's vocal response to the political upheaval in Venezuela and its backtracking on President Barack Obama’s friendlier relations with Cuba.
Venezuelan politics are why Trump has the support of Andreina Kissane, 43, a curator at an art gallery who arrived in the U.S. in 1994. She has voted Democrat in the past, but was opposed to Obama's relaxing of U.S. relations with Cuba and has come to feel more aligned with the Republican Party.
"No Democrat has been outspoken about Venezuela until now that the elections are approaching,” Kissane said.
Stephanie Valencia, the co-founder of Equis Labs, a Latino political engagement group based in Washington, said Democrats need to "wake up" and invest adequate resources to counter what she called the Trump campaign's "disinformation," such as tagging Democrats as socialists.
"Let's be clear: Donald Trump doesn’t have to win a majority of Latino votes, he just has to win enough to give him the edge in 2020," said Valencia, who served in the Obama administration.
"The Republican investments in Florida over 10 years have the potential to pay off if Democrats do not swiftly and robustly and seriously invest in thoughtful ways of engaging the Latinx electorate in Florida," Valencia said.
Gabriela de Jesus, 28, a graduate student at Florida International University, is a registered Democrat who is eager to see the Democrats on stage as she weighs whom to support in the primary.
The Puerto Rico-born student said affordable education, affordable health care and the environment are key issues for her. She's also hoping the next president can have a better relationship with foreign allies. Republicans, she said, "have done a great job misinforming and misleading the Venezuelan community."
DNC chair Perez said Democrats will counter Republican "spin" that Latinos have been better off economically under Trump. To succeed in Florida, Democrats will focus on the overarching issues of health care, as well as access to jobs that pay decent wages and to a quality education for their children.
"The economy is doing well for people like Donald Trump, but for so many Latinos, working three jobs is the normal for them. Democrats believe one good job is enough," he said.
Perez said Democrats are emphasizing that "the other side" has been taking away health care while Democrats have been trying to preserve it. Without health care security there's no economic security, he said, "and the No. 1 issue with Latinos is health care."
'For the first time Florida Democrats are going to fight back early'
Perez said Democrats will do a better job of "micro-targeting" Florida's Latino vote.
"While there are common concerns," he said, "there are unique concerns to certain Latino communities and to Florida."
Democrats will be talking to Puerto Ricans about Trump's poor performance after Hurricane Maria and how Republicans blocked disaster relief funding, he said. They will ask Venezuelans why Trump has not provided Temporary Protected Status to Venezuelans if "he cares so much about Venezuela."
Juan Peñalosa, Florida's Democratic Party chairman, said the party plans to court new Latino voters as part of a $2.8 million registration effort. He also vowed aggressive outreach to those who register as "No Party Affiliation."
"For the first time Florida Democrats are going to fight back early," Peñalosa said in an interview.
To that end, he said, the state party has already hired a voter protection director and opened a voter protection hotline, as well as launched a weekly Spanish language radio show and hired a press secretary for Spanish-language media as part of its effort to engage Latino voters. On June 10, it deployed 90 organizers to knock on doors in Fort Lauderdale, Miami-Dade County, Broward County, Orange County and the St. Petersburg-Tampa Bay area. He said 44 percent of those organizers are Spanish speakers.
"We think people don't vote not because they are lazy, or don't care, but because no one has asked them," Peñalosa said.
But the GOP has its own plans to peel away support. The Republican National Committee has maintained a team in Florida since Trump's victory there in 2016, training activists focused on reaching Latinos through its "Trump Victory Leadership Initiative" while hosting meet-ups for Puerto Ricans who have recently arrived in Florida, among other initiatives.
"We are building off of our Hispanic outreach efforts from last cycle," the RNC's director of Hispanic media, Yali Nunez, said in a statement. "We have seen an increase in the number of people who recognize that President Trump is delivering for the Hispanic community, and they want to be a part of our grassroots army to re-elect him in 2020,” Nunez said.
Perez said the lesson the Democrats learned in Florida from the 2018 midterms — where the party saw down-ballot wins but tough losses at the top of the ticket — is committing to be a 12-months-a year party with national party resources dedicated to winning Florida and other states in 2020. Florida, he said, is one of several ground zeros.
"While you have a president who has had a knife in your back," said Perez, "we as Democrats have had your back."
Carmen Sesin reported from Miami, and Suzanne Gamboa from Austin, Texas.