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In Florida on November 4th, Barack Obama made historic inroads with the Hispanic vote. In southeastern Congressional districts, three Cuban American Republican incumbents, Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, Mario and Lincoln Diaz-Balart faced credible Democratic challengers; Annette Taddeo, Joe Garcia, and Raul Martinez.
With a state economy in crisis, intense voter registration and GOTV, not to mention huge public disapproval of Congress and President Bush, Democrats reasonably hoped for inroads. It was not to be.
In the 25th Congressional District Mario Diaz Balart defeated Joe Garcia, former head of the Miami-Dade Democratic Party and past director of the Cuban American National Foundation, 52.8 to 47.2 percent. In June, Democratic pollster Bendixen and Associates pegged Diaz-Balart 44 percent, Garcia 39 percent, with 17 percent undecided.
In the state’s 21st Congressional District, Lincoln Diaz-Balart defeated former Hialeah mayor Raul Martinez, 57.8 to 42.2 percent. Bendixen had earlier predicted 41 percent Diaz-Balart, 37 percent Martinez, with 22 percent undecided.
In the 18th Congressional District Ileana Ros-Lehtinen defeated newcomer Annette Taddeo, with 57.7 percent of the vote to 42.3 percent. Bendixen had Ros-Lehtinen at 58 percent in June, 31 percent Taddeo, 11 percent undecided.
Fernand Amandi, of Bendixen and Associates, says, “The opportunity was in the non Cuban Hispanic vote and particularly in the Anglo vote. That is where a more aggressive and tactically savvy efforts could have made a difference.”
Martinez lost both the Cuban and Anglo vote by a significant margin. According to Amandi, “Martinez had a wonderful story to tell about his successful tenure as mayor of Hialeah—instead his campaign decided to communicate with attack ads and response ads. His strategic mistake was allowing the incumbent to define him as a caricature.”
But in Cuban American politics, especially in Hispanic media, caricature counts. So do old grievances. Martinez has long experience waging political campaigns. It was his first loss after 27 years in public office in Hialeah, the second largest municipality in Miami-Dade County. Amandi says, “Negative messages don’t work without first defining yourself. You have to give a rationale for your candidacy and issues and campaign message, making a case first for who an incumbent is and why he shouldn’t be re-hired.”
During the campaign, the Republican incumbents declined repeated interview requests by The New York Times. In a public forum, Congressman Mario Diaz Balart said he wouldn’t speak to the Times because it was a “biased newspaper.” More to the point, Diaz Balart’s core constituency—older Cuban Americans—don’t read the Times and the swing votes in his district, Anglos who are mostly Democrat, do.
According to Amandi, “These three campaigns waited until the very end to create the rationale for their candidacies in the effort to conserve funds. If they had been on television earlier, it would have allowed them to define themselves first in the minds of the voters. I don’t think a more aggressive effort with Cuban American outreach (by the challengers) would have paid dividends. The Cuban American vote is still at its core a Republican base vote.”
The Miami Herald reported, “… in all three congressional contests, the subject of Cuba—be it the decades-old embargo, lifting travel restrictions or Fidel and Raul Castro—rarely rose on the campaign trail or over the television airwaves.” (Obama wins Florida’s Hispanic Vote, November 5, 2008). That is not exactly the case.
Among Cuban Americans who might have been persuaded to vote for the challengers and narrow the gap, there was in varying degrees antipathy expressed through whisper campaigns, the settling of old grudges, rumors of business relationships with Cuba and grievances tied to the Elian saga. Among the challengers, these undoubtedly hurt Martinez and also Garcia.
Most telling, was not the support of big name Dems like Nancy Pelosi in Miami to rally the troops but the absence of Senator Robert Menendez, the most senior and powerful Cuban American in Congress.
Despite the outcome, the long-time reliance on attack ads and vituperative slander on Spanish language AM radio may have run its course. The Herald reports, “Statewide, Hispanic Democrats now outnumber Hispanic Republicans, 513,000 to 445,000.” In Miami-Dade, polls show that young Cuban American voters and non-Cuban Hispanics, the growing demographic, have nearly matched older Cuban Americans.
Although recent election results did not change the composition of the Florida legislature; Republicans still dominate 76-44 in the House and 24-16 in the Senate, Republican strategists have reason to worry.
The biggest losers in this election are economic interests tied to suburban sprawl and production homebuilding, the durable source of Republican political campaign contributions and advertising in Hispanic media. During the housing bubble, the industry was bullet-proof and could do no wrong. But a tidal wave of foreclosures and buried housing values make the heavy-handed influence of land speculators and campaign contributors toxic to young Cuban Americans and non Cuban Hispanics.
However pleased Republican may be with defending its Congressional seats in South Florida, the rationale for bipolar messaging—one message on Spanish language media and another for Anglos and African Americans— may have run its course. The rigid orthodoxy that prevails in places like Hialeah, Kendall, Westchester and Little Havana win county and district legislative races today but carry no weight nationally, given the clear shift in the Hispanic vote toward Democrats.
Although Obama won Florida, 50.9 percent to 48.4 percent; he carried 57 percent of the state’s Hispanic vote and virtually tied the national margin of victory in Miami-Dade, Florida’s most populous and politically influential county. For Democrats in South Florida–aiming to those Congressional districts, gerrymandered as they are–much depends on the recruitment and rise of a new generation of Hispanic aspirants to public office; without the burden or baggage of the past.
The Republican legislature, whose yearly sessions are marked by outlandish demonstrations of fealty to right wing, conservative causes—ought to take note. Among Hispanic voters, change has arrived, fundamentally rearranging Florida politics—at the center of the nation’s political contests—in years to come. Florida’s Republicans might not like to hear it, but in Miami where the nation’s Republican governors are meeting today, the writing is on the wall.
ALAN FARAGO, who writes on the environment and politics from Coral Gables, Florida, and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org