Gov. Rick Scott’s reelection campaign hit a speed bump recently that stops its positive momentum and could possibly derail the campaign’s effort to reach out to Florida’s Hispanic voters.
Facing a tough re-election against former Gov. Charlie Crist, Scott stumbled badly in dealing with the resignation of Mike Fernandez as the campaign’s co-finance chair. The abrupt resignation of a prominent Hispanic businessman blasting the campaign’s Spanish-language advertising and accusing aides of mimicking Mexican accents presents a defining moment for Scott’s reelection campaign.
The Scott campaign must decide if it is indeed interested in mounting a serious Hispanic campaign or if it will concede Florida’s sizeable Hispanic vote to Crist.
Fernandez’s resignation resurrects concerns among some Hispanic voters that the governor is anti-Hispanic. The tragedy for Scott is that he was making significant progress with Hispanic voters before the incident occurred. The governor made a brilliant strategic move by appointing Miami-Dade County Property Appraiser Carlos López-Cantera as his lieutenant governor. Scott also announced his support for a Senate bill to provide in-state tuition for undocumented students who attended and graduated from Florida high schools.
These positive moves will be in vain if the campaign fails to deal with this Mexican-accent issue. This stumble reinforces a perception among Hispanic voters that many Republican candidates are anti-Hispanic. This perception is especially problematic for Scott given his support in the 2010 election for Arizona’s unconstitutional immigration bill. Scott also dropped the ball with the Cuban-exile community over his less than enthusiastic support for a bill banning Florida governments from doing business with companies that do business with Cuba.
Ironically, the governor is failing with Hispanic voters on the symbolic issues. The Cuba bill and the Arizona law are both unconstitutional, and similarly there are no policy consequences if immature campaign aides are mimicking over-the-top Mexican accents. But it does paint a very unflattering image of the governor that if not corrected will cost him most of the votes in the Hispanic community and quite possibly the election.
The misfortune for Scott is that if he can overcome the immaturity of his own campaign he has a strong case to make in the Hispanic community. The strong Florida economy and the creation of jobs, the stabilization of the housing market, low taxes and the governor’s efforts to keep tuition down at state universities serve the interests of all Floridians, but especially working- and middle-class Hispanics. Scott’s strong record gives him a golden opportunity to improve his performance among Hispanic voters from 2010.
In fact in a Miami-Dade poll conducted before the Fernandez incident showed Scott was significantly ahead of Crist among the county’s Cuban voters, 56 to 25 percent, but trailed badly among the non-Cuban Hispanics, 60 to 25 percent. Overall, the governor trailed Crist by 13 percent in the county, which translates to a 65,000 margin for Crist, almost identical to Sink’s performance in 2010 when she won Miami-Dade by a 69,720-vote margin. It is critical for the governor to keep Crist’s margin below 80,000 in Miami-Dade.
The Scott campaign needs to take immediate action over the Mexican accent incident in order to signal to Hispanic voters that they are respected by the governor. I recommend an internal investigation of the incidents, an open and transparent report to the press, and the disciplining of guilty party (if any).
Failure to do this puts the campaign message in jeopardy among Hispanics and taints the governor’s accomplishments.
Associate Professor Dario Moreno teaches politics at FIU and is also a political consultant and pollster.