MIAMI — Florida Democrats are fretting over Republican Gov. Ron DeSantis’ popularity among Latinos, saying they are boosting his chances of becoming the first Republican governor in 20 years to win traditionally blue Miami-Dade County and therefore propelling his chances of a successful presidential run in 2024.
Miami-Dade, the state's most populous county, is 70% Hispanic. The last time a Republican governor won Miami-Dade County was Jeb Bush in 2002. Unlike DeSantis, Bush held press conferences in fluent Spanish and his wife is Mexican-born.
DeSantis is an “outlier” among Republican governors, said Fernand Amandi, a Democratic consultant and pollster in Miami.
“DeSantis overperforms here in a way that you don’t tend to see Republican candidates perform elsewhere with Hispanics,” he said.
Cause for concern
DeSantis has raised over $100 million for his re-election campaign, a staggering number for any gubernatorial candidate. Many of the donors are eyeing DeSantis as a potential 2024 presidential candidate.
The governor is being challenged by former Democratic congressman — and previous Republican governor —Charlie Crist, who is behind in the polls.
Faced with this, Florida Democrats have expressed frustration and anger over their limited resources and money from national donor groups. Some feel that Democrats have ceded Florida to Republicans after their defeat in the 2020 election.
“If Ron DeSantis wins the Latino vote in Florida, which has been a GOP project now for the past decade," said Democrat Devon Murphy Anderson, co-founder of the voter registration organization Mi Vecino, "Ron DeSantis is going to go directly to his donors and say, 'I can win the presidential nomination and I can beat the Democratic nominee in 2024 because I can win the Latino vote.'"
Hillary Clinton won Miami-Dade County by almost 30 points in 2016, but Biden won the county by only 7 points.
When Clinton won, "Republicans looked at that and instead of throwing their hands up, walking away from the county, and saying this is always going to be a blue base, they doubled down in their investment there," said Murphy Anderson.
She said that after Republicans improved their margins in 2020, “Democrats threw their hands up and said, 'Latino voters are lost, it’s over — it’s a wrap for us there.'”
Mi Vecino co-founder Alex Berrios said the Democratic Party at large has not done a great job consistently messaging Latinos about their successes, including "articulating what Joe Biden has done to reduce gas prices, all the infrastructure investment" that is benefiting the region.
Berrios and Murphy Anderson said they have held over 2,000 conversations with Hispanic voters in Miami-Dade. Aside from high enthusiasm for DeSantis among Republicans, about 29% of those with no party affiliation and 25% of Democrats said they were voting for DeSantis.
Berrios said that when voters tell him they are voting Republican because of the economy, he asks them what has improved in their job or income in four years with DeSantis as governor. "They usually don't have a response," he said.
Controversial policies — and support
Some of DeSantis’ policies have drawn controversy and generated national headlines, including his support of the Parental Rights in Education law — dubbed the “Don’t Say Gay” law by critics — and his move to send two planes full with mostly Venezuelan asylum-seekers to Martha’s Vineyard in Massachusetts and other locations.
Samantha Ramirez, communications director for Crist, said DeSantis is a "fake ally to our community, someone who smiles in your face but turns around and threatens to bus Cubans to Delaware and spends his time flying asylum-seekers across the country to score political points. He acts like the very dictators our communities fled from, that’s why Floridians are ready to get behind Charlie Crist."
But those stances, say supporters, have contributed to DeSantis’ popularity.
“The key takeaway that I hear from Hispanics over and over again, is some variation of ‘he has cojones,’” said Republican strategist Giancarlo Sopo.
Helen Aguirre Ferré, the executive director of the Republican Party of Florida, said Hispanics appreciate a leader who “is unafraid to make decisions, even though it may go against the grain of the establishment.”
Florida International University political science professor Eduardo Gamarra doesn’t think the governor’s controversies have swayed many voters against him and said he is popular among most Latino subgroups, citing private polling.
He said the migrant controversy may ratify the perception already held by voters.
On the "Don't Say Gay" law and other school-related issues, Gamarra said the messaging by Republicans, using the term “parental choice,” may have worked in their favor with Latino voters, who are generally OK with vouchers and charter schools.
“They have managed to say it’s not the teachers, but it’s the parents who have the right. And the research we’ve done tells us that Hispanics like those messages,” said Gamarra. “You can say it’s conservatism, but I think it’s just something that comes from the way in which the messaging has been developed.”
Republicans have even improved their margins with Puerto Rican voters who lean more Democratic and have a lower approval of DeSantis, according to Gamarra.
Luis Figueroa, 35, came from Puerto Rico in 2017 because of the economic situation there and settled in the Orlando area.
Figueroa, who works in real estate, said when he first voted he was an independent and voted for a Democrat. He then changed his registration to Republican.
“He’s a common-sense guy, he’s a conservative," Figueroa said of DeSantis, "and the financial policies he has put in place have been one of the most favorable policies to make Florida a place where businesses can succeed.”
He said some Democrats around him are splitting their vote in favor of DeSantis. His uncle, a Democrat, has a sign for DeSantis outside his house, another one for Rep. Darren Soto, D-Fla, and another one for a Democrat running for a school board seat.
Still, for many Latinos DeSantis is not an option. Cuban American David Enriquez, 25, a Democrat and representative organizer for a health care union in Miami, says democracy is important to him.
“So many of us have had to flee from our home country because of a breakdown in the rule of law, whether it be a left-wing dictatorship or a right-wing dictatorship,” he said. “DeSantis has taken on ‘the big lie,’ which I think is, in the short run, one of the greatest threats to American democracy."
Enriquez said the GOP has a failed economic policy and refuses to accept the climate change disaster that is impending for a state like Florida.
He likes that Crist is focused on supporting labor unions and said his choice for running mate — Karla Hernández — “made a big difference in my heart.”
In 2018, 44% of Hispanics in the state voted for DeSantis, according to Pew Research Center. But even before that election, Trump had already begun to drum up support among Latinos in the state, with an unprecedented level of direct engagement with Latino voters.
When the 2020 election rolled around, Trump won the state and the GOP flipped two House seats as well as five state seats.