Donald Trump looms as a liability for Florida Republican candidates in competitive local elections — especially in Miami-Dade, the state’s most diverse county.
More than half of Miami-Dade voters are Hispanic, and some of them were estranged from the Republican Party long before Trump came along and began hurling insults at Mexicans while insisting that “the Hispanics love me.” Four years ago, Mitt Romney lost Miami-Dade to President Barack Obama by 208,000 votes — a gap nearly three times greater than Romney’s statewide defeat.
Since then, Miami-Dade has become even more diverse, and the Republican share of the county electorate has narrowed as more voters reject both major parties and have no party affiliation.
As Trump has emerged as the Republicans’ standard-bearer in a year when every seat in the Legislature will be up for grabs, many GOP candidates in down-ballot races are staying as far from him as possible.
In Coral Gables, Republican state House candidate John Couriel, a son of Cuban immigrants and a Harvard law graduate, avoids talk of Trump and won’t even say whether he will vote for him.
“No. I’m focused on my race,” said Couriel, 38, a former federal prosecutor who sums up his strategy as “knocking on as many doors as I can” and focusing on local issues.
He’s running in District 114, an open seat that runs from West Miami to Cutler Bay and a swing district where Republicans have a small advantage in voters and independents are on the rise.
“They’re all over the place,” said Couriel, who supported Jeb Bush for president.
So did Rep. Manny Diaz Jr., who has been knocking on doors in Hialeah for weeks and says he detects a shift in Trump’s favor now that he has won the Republican nomination. Yet he still won’t endorse Trump.
“The problem with Mr. Trump is that I can’t seem to get a clear sense of what his principles are,” Diaz said. “I’m trying to wrap my head around what a Trump presidency would mean.”
Diaz is an alternate delegate to the Republican convention in Cleveland next month, but he said he’ll likely stay home and campaign in House District 103, where four of five voters are Hispanic and Democrats and independents each outnumber Republicans.
That’s the right decision, said Coral Gables political consultant Dario Moreno, who teaches politics at FIU. He warns candidates in Hispanic districts to avoid the convention, lest they send a message to voters that they openly embrace Trump.
Moreno said Trump is an even bigger liability among Cuban-American voters, who tend to be more conservative than other Hispanics.
“When he says, ‘Hispanics love me; I give them jobs,’ that sounds very paternalistic,” Moreno said. “It does him real harm among all Hispanics. It doesn’t matter what your immigration status is.”
The real danger, Moreno said, is that disaffected Hispanic voters will not vote in November, which will take votes away from all Republican candidates.
Trump won 66 of 67 counties in Florida’s March presidential primary — every one except Miami-Dade, where hometown voters delivered a symbolic victory to a fast-fading Marco Rubio.
A nationwide Gallup poll that month said 77 percent of Hispanics viewed Trump unfavorably.
Democrat Hillary Clinton also has high negative ratings, and GOP candidates Couriel and Diaz say Hispanic voters have a low opinion of her, as well.
Acting like Democrats
To see worried Republican candidates scurrying away from the top of their ticket is the opposite of what they usually do and reminiscent of how Democrats act, said Steve Schale, a Democratic strategist.
“These guys are doing what we had to do,” Schale said.
Schale said his party will use Trump as a blunt instrument to hurt Republican legislative candidates with TV ads and mailings showing them side by side.
“To try to connect me with Trump like that is not going to work,” Manny Diaz predicted. “The voters know me.”
Al Cardenas, a former state Republican chairman with deep roots in Miami-Dade, sees Trump as a death knell for his party.
“If the price of unity is putting the party asunder for years to come, that’s not for me,” Cardenas said.
The farther away from Miami-Dade, the better some Republicans feel about being on the same ballot as Trump.
Reps. Mike Hill, R-Pensacola Beach, and Doug Broxson, R-Gulf Breeze, are seeking an open Senate seat in a heavily Republican area of the western Panhandle.
Broxson has overcome his dislike of Trump — “a complete about-face,” he called it — and tells voters that he would rather have Trump choosing lifetime justices for the U.S. Supreme Court than Hillary Clinton.
But in the reddest and most reliably Republican part of Florida, Broxson remains wary of Trump.
“You don’t know from week to week what he’s going to say or do,” Broxson said.
Silence speaks loudly
Florida Republicans likely will retain their strong majorities in the state Senate and House, but even without Trump’s divisive and outsize presence, they face election-year challenges.
A court-ordered redrawing of Senate district lines makes the map more competitive for Democrats, including two seats now held by Republicans in Miami-Dade, Sens. Anitere Flores and Miguel Diaz de la Portilla.
For House Republicans, the past two presidential election cycles have been perilous.
They lost five seats in 2012 and seven in 2008 as Obama clinched victory twice in Florida with outreach efforts that brought many more Democrats to the polls.
The anointed leader of House Republicans, Speaker-designate Richard Corcoran of Land O’Lakes, also avoided discussion of Trump, but says he’ll explain his position in detail before the convention in Cleveland.
Corcoran, a Florida delegate, has been highly critical of Trump, calling him “a guy who has offended every other possible group known to mankind.”