Four years ago, energized Miami Republicans left after the end of their party’s national convention feeling like they were the future of the GOP.
They hailed from Florida, the nation’s largest swing state, where Republicans had gathered in Tampa to nominate Mitt Romney for president. They celebrated one of their own, U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio, who introduced Romney in prime time, a coveted speaking slot reserved for the brightest of rising political stars.
The signs were there: Surely, win or lose, the party of Lincoln and Reagan would keep becoming more and more like the Miami-Dade County GOP — young, diverse, cosmopolitan.
Instead, some Miami delegates head to the 2016 Republican National Convention in Cleveland, to nominate Donald Trump to the White House, feeling like the party has slipped from their grasp.
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“Trump has alienated a lot of people,” said Jessica Fernandez, a first-time convention-goer and early supporter of Rubio for president. “It hasn’t been easy to be a supporter, a Republican delegate who’s going to do their duty.”
What’s making the trip difficult for delegates like Fernandez isn’t just that they backed Rubio or the other Republican primary candidate from Miami, Jeb Bush — though some hard feelings undoubtedly remain after Bush’s and Rubio’s stinging losses. They’re also struggling to accept a GOP vastly different from the one they envisioned after Romney lost and the party seemed intent on expanding its reach.
The new draft of the GOP platform written ahead of the convention advocates hard-right positions against same-sex marriage and for a “wall” along the U.S.-Mexico border.
“It’s impractical, and it doesn’t reflect modern America. It doesn’t reflect millennials,” said Fernandez, who heads the Miami Young Republicans. “We have to be better at retaining feedback from voters and from constituents and interpreting that into policy prescriptions.”
Not all Miami delegates feel as conflicted. Trump has won many of them over — and gotten lifetime conservatives to start questioning the effectiveness and fairness of free trade, or the feasibility of much more stringent immigration laws.
“Call me crazy, but I don’t think he’s a racist. I just think he’s not a politician,” Miami-Dade GOP Chairman Nelson Diaz said. “I think he, like many Americans, just feels like you can’t say anything anymore without being called a homophobe or a racist or a xenophobe, and you can’t say what’s on your mind.”
“He wasn’t my first choice or my second choice or my third choice. But he’s my first choice now,” he added. “I basically have to choose between Donald Trump and someone who I think should be in jail.” (That would be presumptive Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton.)
He wasn’t my first choice or my second choice or my third choice. But he’s my first choice now.
Miami-Dade GOP Chairman Nelson Diaz
Conventions are meant to unify political parties and rally support from the most devoted grassroots members around their presidential nominees. Trump’s already got plenty of fans in Florida, where he won the Republican primary with 46 percent of the vote.
But Miami-Dade, the state’s most populous county, was the only one he lost, and his progress since has been slow. Deadly shootings of Dallas police officers prompted Trump to cancel a Miami trip this month planned to shore up support among reluctant Hispanics. Amid rumors that a small but dedicated group of national delegates might try to rebel against Trump in Cleveland, a Trump backer recently telephoned Miami delegates to ensure they didn’t plan to stray, several delegates said.
A few days later, Trump’s campaign announced its Miami trip. Delegates outside of local party and Trump campaign leadership felt snubbed: They learned about Trump’s events on the news No one from the campaign reached out to them, they said, and the delegates were only invited to one of the events after they complained.
“I think that most of the delegates are not Trump supporters — the people who are delegates are people who are active in the party or big donors,” 20-year-old Rey Lastre, who’s traveling to Cleveland as an alternate delegate, said at a recent Florida International University panel discussion. “Obviously Donald Trump didn’t have the support of big donors or the militant party base.”
Even if that were the case, the skeptics will fall in line, predicted state Rep. Carlos Trujillo, one of Trump’s Florida finance chairmen and a delegate.
“I don’t think a single one of them will ever vote for Hillary,” said Trujillo, who signed up to be a Trump surrogate to Spanish-language news media during the convention.
But, in the privacy of the voting booth, will they vote for Trump?
Also skipping the convention are Rep. Mario Diaz-Balart and U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio, though Rubio will appear via a video message. Both Diaz-Balart and Rubio have said they intend to vote for Trump.
State Rep. Jose Oliva of Miami Lakes, the Florida House speaker-to-be, is giving up his delegate seat — to stay home and deal with his recently sold business, he said. He’ll be replaced by an alternate.
The high-profile Miami absences have for weeks troubled party elders and riled listeners who call into local talk radio.
They’re letting Donald Trump kidnap the convention.
Miami-Dade State Committewoman Liliana Ros
“Important party people should be at the convention,” said Miami-Dade State Committeewoman Liliana Ros. “They’re letting Donald Trump kidnap the convention. … I’m really, really turned off by that.”
Ros called Trump’s demeanor up until a few weeks ago “impolite and rude,” but chastised the GOP for resisting the candidate overwhelmingly preferred by voters.
“We’ve never had a convention where the party worked against its own candidate,” she said. “They’ve been shooting themselves in the foot.”
The Miami delegates concerned about Trump say they want to unite behind him. They acknowledge he’s forced the GOP to soul-search, to realize some of the party’s policies have left the middle class “very squeezed,” Fernandez said.
“Even though Trump has said some things that people find shocking, he created a space for us to have this conversation. Both parties are going through these seismic shifts in who their coalitions are,” she said. “I want to win. I just don’t know how we get there.
“If we had maybe a Kumbaya moment at the convention, I might feel differently. I want to do the right thing.”
This story has been updated.