Trump and Republicans are courting Florida's Latinos. Democrats in the state are worried.

"I feel we have taken our eye off the ball," former Democratic gubernatorial candidate Andrew Gillum said about Latinos who are "necessary to win.”
Image: Donald Trump, Guillermo Maldonado
President Donald Trump, right, embraces Pastor Guillermo Maldonado during a rally for evangelical supporters at the King Jesus International Ministry church on Jan. 3, 2020, in Miami.Lynne Sladky / AP file

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By Carmen Sesin

MIAMI — The Trump campaign events keep coming.

President Donald Trump has made Florida central to his re-election, holding nine campaign rallies in the state since he was elected and zeroing in on Hispanics.

Vice President Mike Pence has also been spending an ample amount of time in Florida. He just wrapped up a rally in Kissimmee as part of the “Latinos for Trump” coalition, pledging to the largely Puerto Rican crowd the administration will support the island after the earthquakes and touting the strong U.S. economy.

In addition to the rallies, Trump has held numerous events in the state addressing its diverse groups, such as Venezuelans and Cuban Americans.

At one of the events, on Jan. 3, Trump launched the Evangelicals for Trump coalition from a South Florida megachurch attended by thousands of Latinos.

Mauricio Tamayo, 52, a member of the congregation, said he didn't like Trump at first.

“I wasn’t used to his style. I thought he was arrogant, but he grows on you,” he said, as audience members raised their hands in prayer.

"He speaks what's on his mind," according to the government employee and Colombia native, who said his 401K has grown "exponentially."

Trump won Florida in 2016 by less than one percentage point and most likely needs to carry the state to win re-election. It’s the state where Trump has the greatest amount of support among Latinos, at around 34 percent.

Supporters pray as President Donald Trump speaks during a 'Evangelicals for Trump' campaign event held at the King Jesus International Ministry on Jan. 3, 2020 in Miami.Jim Watson / AFP - Getty Images file

“Florida is critical,” Mercedes Schlapp, a Trump campaign senior adviser, said.

"We’re investing resources early, we’re building our ground game, and we have a tremendous focus on building up our Latinos for Trump coalition,” the Cuban American native of Miami said.

The efforts by Trump and Republicans to focus on Latino voters — who make up over a quarter of Florida's population and over 16 percent of its electorate — worry several key Democrats in the state who are concerned that their party isn't being aggressive enough.

“I feel we have taken the eye off the ball of the Hispanics that are necessary to win,” said former Tallahassee Mayor Andrew Gillum, who lost a tight gubernatorial race in 2018.

Never forget?

Pushing back on Pence's visit, the Florida Democratic Party unveiled a bilingual billboard this week in the largely Puerto Rican area of Kissimmee, in Central Florida, showing a large image of Trump throwing paper towels at Puerto Ricans after the destruction of Hurricane Maria. The billboards say "Never forget" and in Spanish, "Prohibido olvidar" — the lyrics of an old salsa song some voters may recognize.

Last week, Democratic National Committee Chair Tom Pérez held a roundtable discussion with local leaders in Miami on the administration’s efforts against Obamacare and its impact on Latinos. Florida has the nation's highest number of Affordable Care Act enrollments and nationally, Latinos made the highest gains in coverage under Obamacare.

In contrast to Trump’s and Pence's massive rallies, the event was small and held in a conference room at the Borinquen Medical Center, which serves the community.

A billboard installed by Democrats in Kissimmee, Florida shows President Donald Trump throwing paper towels to residents of Puerto Rico following Hurricane Maria.Florida Democratic Party

When asked if he was worried about the Republicans’ Latino outreach in Florida, Pérez said, “Talk is cheap — his silence in the aftermath of the earthquakes (in Puerto Rico) has been deafening. This is a president who said, 'I’m going to help you Venezuelans.' If he cared about the Venezuelan people, he could enact Temporary Protected Status tomorrow."

Juan Peñalosa, executive director of the Florida Democratic Party, said the party has learned lessons from Trump’s Florida win in 2016 and the state's midterm losses.

“I don’t think we did our job taking the election seriously. I think that has changed drastically,” he said.

Peñalosa recently told NBC News the party had hired the largest staff of any Democratic state party in the country, with more than 91 employees. They have completed 37,096 volunteer shifts in 2019 — compared to 3,023 in 2015.

In the past, he said, Democrats have lacked well-trained surrogates across the state to help carry their message in the Spanish-language media — something the Republicans have been doing for years. The party now has a Hispanic communications director who is training and booking Latino Democratic surrogates to be on Florida television and radio shows. They have also put more money in Spanish-language media buys and launched a weekly Spanish-language radio show in South Florida.

"Eye off the ball"

The Democrats lost five of six statewide races in Florida, including the gubernatorial and U.S. Senate races.

Republican Rick Scott, the state’s former governor, beat Democratic U.S. Sen. Bill Nelson, after nearly two decades in office. Ron DeSantis won the governor’s mansion after embracing Trump’s message during the campaign, even releasing an ad with his daughter building a wall out of blocks. Democrats did flip two House seats, however, in heavily Latino South Florida.

But there's been frustration and anger after the losses. Part of the reason for the Republican wins was their active courtship of Latino voters.

Annette Taddeo, a Democrat and a Colombian American state senator from the Miami area, is worried Trump could be making inroads with the growing number of Latinos who register with no party affiliation. “And what are we doing? Nothing,” she said.

Taddeo cited Scott’s extensive Latino engagement when he was running for the Senate, saying “he was everywhere." Scott attended the swearing-in of Colombia's president in 2018, visited Puerto Rico numerous times after Maria and set up help for families coming to Florida. Post-election data showed Puerto Ricans in Central Florida helped Scott win office.

Eduardo Gamarra, a Florida International University political science professor, said Republicans "understand diverse groups more than anyone else — Democrats are behind and they have to do a better job of identifying and targeting those groups — and they have to have a message."

In Florida, that means speaking to the state's growing Puerto Rican community about the administration's sluggish response following Maria, mobilizing Cuban Americans opposed to Trump's increasingly hard-line policies against Cuba — including more travel restrictions — and reminding Venezuelans that Trump still has not given them TPS.

Countering GOP's 'socialist' attacks

Days before Thanksgiving, Trump held a homecoming rally in South Florida after changing his residence to the Sunshine State.

Before the rally, Florida Lt. Gov. Jeanette Nuñez, a Cuban American from Miami who is the national co-chair for Latinos for Trump, sat with Schlapp and John Pence, the vice president’s nephew, for a conversation about socialism that was televised on a giant screen and streamed live on social media.

Trump and Republicans constantly equate Democrats with socialism, but nowhere does that message get amplified more than in Florida, where a large concentration of Latinos have fled socialist countries.

Socialism is a “strong, powerful message,” Nuñez told NBC News. She said that every time Trump says at a rally that America will never be a socialist country, “that’s the line that gets the most applause, it’s the one that gets the most reaction.”

Democratic lawmakers, especially in Florida, have been very vocal about their opposition to Venezuela's government.

But Taddeo said “there are candidates that are not doing us any favors with some of their comments, tweets and inexperience when it comes to Latin America, and Bolivia is a perfect example.”

Recently, presidential candidate Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., drew criticism from some for tweeting that he was concerned that Bolivia’s former socialist president Evo Morales, who was pressured to resign in the wake of massive protests over a disputed election, may have been the victim of “a coup.”

Gillum, who was branded a socialist by Republicans during his campaign, warned that on issues like Venezuela, “Democrats have to speak out forcefully against these types of authoritarian regimes or I fear it does a disservice to give Republicans something to hit us over the head about.”

Democrats also have to boost their voter turnout, says Gillum, who has been focusing on this through "Forward Florida Action," his political action committee.

Pérez said that when it comes to Trump, "people are smart, and you can't gloss it over with a few rallies here and there."

But Gamarra notes that Trump has the advantage of incumbency in resources and money, and the Republicans know the election outcome "is going to be less than 2 percent."

"The Democrats should be doing a lot more in Florida," Gamarra said.

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