State GOP must show it ‘gets’ Hispanics

Gov. Rick Scott, with his new lieutenant governor, Carlos Lopez-Cantera.
Gov. Rick Scott, with his new lieutenant governor, Carlos Lopez-Cantera.

Florida’s Hispanic voters might be up for grabs. In 2006, most were registered Republican, but that trend has dramatically changed since. In 2012, 645,000 Hispanics were registered Democrat while 476,000 were registered Republican. But a whopping 513,000 were registered Independent, indicating dislike or mistrust of both parties. These Hispanic Independents could almost be treated as a third party as they can tilt the gubernatorial election in any direction.

So it is not surprising that Gov. Rick Scott looked to a Hispanic for his lieutenant governor. Former Miami-Dade County property appraiser and legislator Carlos Lopez-Cantera, a Cuban American, will serve him well.

First, he does no harm, which sounds obvious enough, but some campaigns make foolish choices. Here, this is not the case. Second, he is familiar with the legislative process. As a former Republican majority leader, Lopez-Cantera was influential in working to keep Florida a low-tax state, something that is near and dear to this governor. He can help Scott work together with Republican leaders on political and legislative tactics and strategy. The governor has tended to be a lone wolf.

Finally, bet on Scott wanting Lopez-Cantera to campaign for him vigorously in both English and Spanish with emphasis on the español so that they take the message home. But that, in and of itself, will not be enough.

Hispanic voters tend to be conservative on social issues and more liberal on economic issues. They are church-going, pro-life and pro-traditional marriage — people who favor Keynesian economics.

Republicans have relied on the all-important Cuban-American vote, which up until recently went solidly Republican. But that is changing, and Puerto Ricans in Florida lean Democrat. The game-changer came with the debate on immigration reform. To say Republicans handled it badly is an understatement.

It was a self-inflicted wound that still is in the process of healing. The disparaging tone and language used by some sent the message that they neither wanted nor needed the Hispanic vote. To make matters worse, Scott unnecessarily embraced the controversial Arizona immigration law as a model for Florida, pushing Hispanics further away.

If this Republican ticket wants to win this election, they will need to reintroduce themselves, and the Republican Party, to Florida Hispanics not only in words but with deeds. The platform will make a difference, and Republican House Speaker Will Weatherford can help.

Weatherford is supporting in-state tuition for college-bound students in Florida who have completed high school but do not have legal immigration status. Without this, they would have to pay the higher rate that international students pay to attend the state’s public universities, which they cannot afford. Turning your back on good kids who want to earn an education is foolish and makes it hard to vote for someone whose policies hurt them. Scott would be wise to support Weatherford on this initiative. It is the right thing to do.

The importance of education is not only for Dreamers, polls repeatedly show that it is a major concern for Hispanic families. Given the opportunity, they choose charter over traditional public schools in a heartbeat. Continuing to support school choice and public education, making them all equally accountable, is akin to saying, “We support your family.” The same goes for policies helping the elderly. It is not unusual to see three generations living under one roof in a Hispanic home, it is part of the culture.

The Scott/Lopez-Cantera ticket will have big challenges facing the formidable and likely Democratic nominee Charlie Crist. Crist has hired President Obama’s successful campaign manager, Jim Messina, as a senior strategic advisor to his campaign, joining another Obama alum, advertising guru Jim Margolis. This gubernatorial campaign will likely have an effect on how the 2016 presidential election is run. Whether Crist acknowledges the importance of the Hispanic vote by also choosing a Hispanic running mate remains to be seen.

Hispanic voters care about the same issues as other voters with a sensitivity toward immigration reform. The quality of the candidates and their campaigns, the state of the economy and their ability to provide solutions to current challenges in unambiguous terms is important. Hispanics do not need everything to be said in Spanish. However, they do need to know that the candidate “gets” them. That goes a long way in politics and usually is the way elections are won.

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