How GOP warnings about Venezuela and socialism could hurt Andrew Gillum in Miami

From the moment the November ballot was set, Republicans’ message about Democratic gubernatorial nominee Andrew Gillum’s platform has been consistent: Florida can’t afford to adopt his “socialist” agenda.

It’s a dubious theme, but one that the GOP has stressed since President Donald Trump called the Tallahassee politician a “failed socialist mayor” only hours after Gillum won the Democratic primary. It’s a talking point that Republican gubernatorial nominee Ron DeSantis and Gov. Rick Scott repeated Thursday in Orlando, and are guaranteed to broadcast until election day as Gillum pushes for a $15 minimum wage, Medicare-for-All and a 40-percent increase in the corporate tax rate to fund education.

How that characterization — ruled “false” Thursday by fact-checking website Politifact — will play around the state is hard to predict. But it’s highly likely that the strategy will be effective in heavily Democratic Miami-Dade County, where Republicans are courting hundreds of thousands of exiles who’ve fled communist and socialist nations in an effort to keep Gillum from running up the score.

“Socialism would be a disaster for Florida,” DeSantis said in Miami on Thursday night, drawing cheers from a crowd that packed the Manuel Artime Theatre in Little Havana to hear the conservative congressman speak. “We can’t let socialist policies win in this free land.”

Miami-Dade County is a Democratic stronghold, and turnout during the August primary was the highest in at least a decade, with nearly 300,000 ballots cast and Gillum scoring nearly 40 percent of the vote in a crowded and competitive field. Democrats, particularly those down the ballot in competitive races, are encouraged by Gillum’s ability to turn out unlikely voters during the August primary election.

But DeSantis was explicit Thursday about his plans to fight for votes in Miami, where his newly named running mate, Jeanette Nuñez, a Cuban-American state Rep. from Kendall, should help him greatly. Nuñez appeared with DeSantis Thursday at the Manuel Artime Theater, the same venue where Trump announced new diplomatic restrictions on Cuba last year. DeSantis, who was hosted by Inspire America Foundation, a group that promotes the spread of democracy in Cuba and the Americas, said he would have supported military action against Cuba when the island’s military shot down two Brothers to the Rescue planes in the Florida Straits in 1996.

“When I met Ron the first time ... just about the first words out of his mouth were, ‘Cuban Americans are the backbone of the Republican Party in Florida,’” Marcell Felipe, founder of Inspire America Foundation, told the crowd inside the venue.

Nuñez said Gillum’s message is a non-starter in Miami-Dade.

“I think we stand for the principles, that so many in this community fled from their countries to avoid socialism, to avoid communism, and I think that anything that smacks of socialism is going to be a problem for the other side,” she said.

Gillum pushed back Sunday when asked on “Meet the Press” if he’s a socialist — ““No, I’m a Democrat” — and Republican strategist Mac Stipanovich wrote an op-ed in the Tampa Bay Times this week arguing that DeSantis’ claim that Florida would become Venezuela under Gillum is a “preposterous” assertion “believed only by dimwits.”

“I don’t think Gillum is talking about nationalizing industries and taking over hotels,” Eduardo A. Gamarra, a political science professor at Florida International University, told Politifact. “That’s just not going to happen.”

But Gillum was able to pull off a stunning win in the Democratic primary thanks in part to help from U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders, a self-described “Democratic Socialist” who visited Cuba in 1989 and underperformed his statewide average in Miami-Dade during the 2016 Florida presidential primary. DeSantis argued in Miami that “Democrat is a political party. That’s different than your philosophy.”

Regardless of how socialism is rigidly defined, warning the 1 million or so Cubans and Venezuelans living in Miami-Dade County that Gillum wants to hike the corporate tax rate 40 percent and casting it as radically leftist is a strong play with a constituency DeSantis is aggressively courting. With the Communist Party still ruling Cuba, and chaos spiraling in Nicaragua and Venezuela, anti-leftist sentiment remains strong in Miami.

GOP gubernatorial candidate Ron DeSantis speaks during a campaign event presented by the Cuban exile organization Inspire America Foundation, at the Manuel Artime Theater in Little Havana in Miami on Sept. 6, 2018. Pedro Portal pportal@miamiherald.com

Knowing this, Democrats are already strategizing to combat the talking point.

Veteran Democratic strategist and Miami resident Christian Ulvert, whose husband is from Venezuela, doesn’t view the socialism narrative as a voter-suppression tactic so much as a way to stoke the GOP base. Republicans less inclined to vote for DeSantis because they’re frustrated with Trump may be more likely to come out and cast a ballot for him because of the “fear” of a leftist government, he said.

But Ulvert, who spoke to the Miami Herald while driving to speak about the very issue on Spanish TV, said he’s part of a group pointing out that leftist dictators in Venezuela and Nicaragua look a whole lot more like Donald Trump than Andrew Gillum or Bernie Sanders.

“For every time Ron DeSantis and Republicans try to bring socialism into the conversation,” he said, “they’re going to have to defend a president who acts more like Nicolás Maduro and Daniel Ortega by dividing countries and their people, attacking the press and trying to silence their critics by threatening to jail them.”