In a strip mall on a busy road in this fast-growing city, signs of hope emerge for Republicans trying to win the White House. Spend a little time at Melao Bakery or Espiritu De Vida bookstore, ask about Marco Rubio and blank stares give way to interest.
“I’m not Republican, but he represents us,” said 44-year-old Luis Cruzado who, like many in Kissimmee, was born in Puerto Rico. He has found a comfortable life doing drainage work for Osceola County. “He would be the first Hispanic. That feels good to me.”
Rossie Sevilla was helping out at the Christian bookstore and hadn’t heard much about Rubio, the son of Cuban immigrants from Miami. Nor has she voted before. But the 55-year-old said a fellow Hispanic on the ticket would be motivation. “I know Hillary Clinton is good, but I will give my vote to Rubio because he knows our roots.”
At a restaurant next door, Eli Gomez, a 27-year-old Republican, said she would have to know what Rubio stood for other than a common heritage. But, she added, Hispanics would be as full of pride as African-Americans were when Barack Obama made history in 2008. Her friend, Alisa Lorenzo, agreed.
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“I’d at least look to see what he has to offer,” the 34-year-old Democrat said of Rubio.
After two presidential elections with abysmal results among Hispanic voters, the GOP is making a determined push to gain support among the increasingly important electorate.
In doing so, the party is going after Democratic voters who have felt Republicans do not represent concerns of the middle class. Republicans, who have lost the popular vote in five of the past six presidential elections, are adjusting their tone and gearing more policies to those voters.
“The pervasive mentality of writing off blocks of states or demographic votes for the Republican Party must be completely forgotten. The Republican Party must compete on every playing field,” read a blunt report prepared by leaders after the 2012 election.
The party’s troubles on immigration jumped back into view with Donald Trump’s inflammatory remarks about Mexican immigrants, panicking leaders enough that the head of the Republican National Committee called Trump on Wednesday to urge him to tone it down. He refused.
Clinton on Tuesday used her first national interview as a candidate to criticize Republicans on immigration, singling out not only Trump but former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, who like Rubio has the potential to make in-roads with Hispanics.
“They’re on a spectrum of hostility, which I think is really regrettable in a nation of immigrants like ours,” Clinton said of Republicans in general. Speaking on Bush, she said, “He doesn’t believe in a path to citizenship. If he did at one time, he no longer does.”
That led to sniping between Clinton and Bush on who had shifted positions on the issue. Rubio, who has backtracked from his help authoring the Senate’s 2013 comprehensive immigration bill, dismissed Clinton’s criticism as “silly talk.”
The 44-year-old Rubio has wowed audiences with his parents’ working-class American Dream story and party leaders see him as a draw for Hispanic voters. “The Republican Savior,” declared a February 2013 cover story in Time. Behind Democrats’ talking points that he’s no different than any other Republican, there is real concern.
In booming Central Florida, Democratic organizers are preparing to head into neighborhoods and undercut the candidate among Hispanic voters, informing about his stances against Obamacare and increasing the minimum wage, and his many contortions on immigration reform.
Similar efforts are being taken in other states with large Hispanic populations, largely focused on Rubio’s shifts on immigration. “Why Marco Rubio is wrong for Arizona,” read the headline on a column in the Huffington Post when Rubio campaigned in the state in May.
“My gut says he will benefit some from the historical moment for Hispanics,” said Steve Schale, who managed Obama’s 2008 campaign in Florida, but is not involved in the organizing. “Does it mean he will galvanize Hispanics? No. Does it mean he will do better than a typical Republican? Absolutely.”
“The concern I have for Democrats is our math in Florida (just like the GOP’s) is very narrow,” Schale added in an email. “If in 2016, a typical Dem carries Florida Hispanics at Obama levels, we likely win, even with the party’s struggles with whites. If Rubio can even get the Hispanic vote to a push, we need 3-4 points more among whites to make up the difference. That is a far different equation.”
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In 2012, 12.5 million Hispanics voted out of 23.7 million eligible voters. But some 800,000 Hispanics turn 18 each year, representing explosive potential. There could be 16 million new voters by 2030, according to the Pew Hispanic Center.
Obama took 71 percent of the Hispanic vote nationally in 2012 and sent shockwaves throughout the Republican Party, whose reliance on aging white voters is problematic. He also performed well among young Cuban-Americans in Florida, showing the GOP can no longer bank on lockstep support.
Republicans, however, don’t need to win the overall Hispanic vote in 2016.
If they can approach or exceed the 44 percent George W. Bush earned in 2004, it could be decisive. Mitt Romney, who infamously said immigrants should “self-deport,” got a dismal 27 percent in 2012.
So the race is on in states with growing Hispanic populations, among them Colorado, North Carolina, Virginia and Nevada. In Florida, the GOP has added Hispanic staff and maintained a voter registration drive from 2012. Last year, for the first time in six years, the party had a presence at the Puerto Rican Day parade in Orlando — a small step but one officials say demonstrates the commitment.
Since 2013, the GOP said it has participated in 550 Hispanic community events throughout Florida and built ties with local leaders, including helping two Hispanic Republicans defeat incumbent Democratic state representatives in central Florida.
Outside groups are also trying to mobilize the vote. The Libre Initiative, funded by the billionaire Koch brothers, has been providing tax preparation and other free services to Hispanics, signing up voters at the same time.
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Florida is essential for Republicans to win the presidency. And Rubio is not the only threat.
Bush was popular among Hispanics while governor — he took nearly 60 percent of the vote in his 2002 re-election bid — and has deep bonds with community. His wife, Columba, was born in Mexico, and he was instrumental in turning the GOP into a state powerhouse by helping signing up Cuban immigrants as Republicans.
He is fluent in Spanish and has hired Jose Mallea, Rubio’s 2010 U.S. Senate campaign manager, to direct Hispanic outreach. That effort — punctuated by Bush’s presidential announcement in Miami featuring Cuban-American singers and signs in Spanish — has gotten off to a faster start than Rubio’s.
Key to the strategy is selling Bush’s time as governor, highlighting work on education and support for small business owners, concerns that resonate with Hispanics.
“I’m worried more about Jeb Bush,” said Vivian Rodriguez, president of the Democratic Hispanic Caucus of Florida.
“For a long time we’ve been used to people coming into town and getting on the stage and saying, 'Buenas tardes’ and everyone chuckles,” said Marcos Marchena, an Orlando lawyer and a Bush fundraiser. “His relationship has been very, very different. He gets us.”
Bush has already traveled to Puerto Rico to emphasize his ties with the community.
Like Rubio, Bush is attracting Democratic attacks. Last week a Hispanic activist published an op-ed in Viva Colorado, the largest Spanish-language publication in the state, arguing that his policy positions are out of step with the community.
Clinton, the leading Democrat, has swiftly moved on immigration, telling audiences she would go farther than Obama has on executive actions.
“We can’t wait any longer for a path to full equal citizenship,” Clinton told Hispanics at a Las Vegas high school in May. She also hired a “Dreamer,” the name given to young immigrants, as Latino outreach director.
Rubio still supports a path to citizenship, but he rarely mentions the issue as he competes in a primary that pushes candidates to the right.
Bush has been vocal about the need for more immigrants to grow the economy but stops short of advocating for citizenship for the 11 million people in the country illegally. Yet even that stance is more open than most Republicans, hurting Bush among more conservative voters.
The issue does not directly affect Cuban-Americans, who enjoy special status, or Puerto Ricans, who are born U.S. citizens. But it matters to a wide swath of Hispanics and is seen as an empathy test.
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Some doubt the appeal of Rubio and Bush.
“The vast majority of Latinos hold liberal polices across the board,” said Gary Segura, a Stanford University political science professor and pollster with Latino Decisions, an outfit that advocates for immigration reform.
Rubio has racked up a decidedly conservative voting record in the Senate. His opposition to Obamacare, for example, stands in contrast to wide support the law has among Hispanics, Segura said.
Less obvious is Rubio’s Cuban background, which may not appeal to Hispanics who resent the special status given to Cubans for political reasons. Cubans represent 3.5 percent of Hispanics in the United States, Segura said, while Mexican-Americans are 68 percent.
Still, he said Rubio or Bush could appeal to Hispanics who want to vote for a Republican but haven’t found the right candidate. In Kissimmee, it’s easy to find the appeal.
“I would give him a look and see what he has to say,” said Debbie Sanchez, 33, who is Puerto Rican and voted for Obama twice. “You don’t see a lot of Hispanics in that role. It would be something new and different.”