Florida’s governor-elect brought his “Thank You” tour to Miami Saturday, choosing a basketball gym in Little Havana as the site of his celebration.
The location — in the heart of Miami’s Cuban exile community — was no coincidence.
Republican Ron DeSantis’ narrow victory in the governor’s race over Democrat Andrew Gillum likely wouldn’t have been possible without his showing among Miami-Dade’s Hispanic voters. Despite the county’s Democratic leanings, DeSantis, a former Palm Coast congressman, repeatedly made overtures to Miami’s diverse Hispanic community during his campaign, and it paid off in a race decided by less than 33,000 votes.
“We came down to Miami a lot because we knew it was important. I’m glad we did because obviously it helped us win the election,” DeSantis told a crowd that gathered around him afterward to shoot selfies and shake his hand.
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Gillum easily beat DeSantis in Florida’s most populous county, where Democrats outnumber Republicans. But in a county where 826,000 Hispanic voters comprise slightly more than half of the electorate, DeSantis fared far better than President Donald Trump did against Hillary Clinton in 2016. DeSantis came about 20,000 votes from matching Trump’s presidential 333,999 Miami-Dade vote tally from 2016. Gillum, however, saw support drop off significantly, earning 478,958 votes compared to Hillary Clinton’s 624,146 two years ago.
“Down in Miami-Dade obviously there’s a lot of Democrats. It was important that we get our voters out. We did significantly better than President Trump did in 2016,” DeSantis said to the crowd. He told reporters afterward that his efforts in Congress to crack down on leftist strongmen in Latin America helped build support in Miami among a diverse community of Hispanic voters. “South Florida, more than almost any place I’ve been in the country, foreign policy hits them close to home when you’re talking about those regimes. They knew once they read up on me that this guy was with us.”
DeSantis, to be sure, did well with Republican-leaning Cuban voters.
Miami communications strategist Giancarlo Sopo released an analysis last month estimating that DeSantis won two-thirds of the Cuban-American vote at nearly three dozen precincts in heavily Cuban suburbs like Hialeah and Westchester. During Saturday’s event, Hialeah-area state Sen. Manny Diaz, Jr. gave a shout-out to his community and said “Thank the Lord! We saved the state of Florida!”
Sopo, a registered Democrat, also looked at precincts in The Hammocks, where Colombian immigrants have settled, and Doral, sometimes referred to as “Doralzuela” in reference to the high concentration of Venezuelan exiles who’ve settled in the west Dade city. In those areas, DeSantis lost to Gillum by a 3-to-2 margin, but he significantly out-performed Trump.
DeSantis’ play wasn’t to win the county, but to keep Gillum from running up the score.
“You all made sure the Democrats were not going to steal this election from us,” Jeanette Nuñez, a Cuban-American, Kendall-area state Representative picked by DeSantis as his running mate, told the crowd.
Though popular opinion held that Trump’s anti-immigrant rhetoric would hurt Republicans badly in Hispanic communities, DeSantis never ran from the issue and it didn’t appear to damage his campaign. During Saturday’s invocation, for instance, a reverend prayed for Trump’s border wall to be built.
DeSantis also benefited from years of outreach by local Republicans and outgoing Gov. Rick Scott, who frequently organized events around problems related to leftist regimes in Nicaragua, Venezuela and Cuba while campaigning for the U.S. Senate. Scott engaged with Colombian leaders, spent millions on Spanish-language advertising and frequently visited Puerto Rico. He spoke to Hispanic voters about an array of issues outside of immigration. And he managed to avoid the intense scorn felt for Trump among Puerto Ricans, who according to polls held a far sunnier view of Scott than the U.S. president.
But a national message by Republicans casting all Democrats as Socialists — a theme again on display Saturday — may have particularly hurt Gillum in Miami, where his run to the left during the Democratic primary left him open to the attack.
“DeSantis very effectively branded his opponent as a Socialist. I’m not saying that’s a fair characterization. It is what it is. But he galvanized Cuban-American and Venezuelan and other non-Cuban Hispanics to support him while dampening support around Gillum,” said Sopo. “It had a 2-for-1 effect.”
Trump’s overtures to Miami’s Cuban community — including a visit to Little Havana to roll out a new Cuba policy in 2017 — also appeared to help solidify the Republican Hispanic vote for DeSantis, who won his party’s primary thanks in large part to Trump’s endorsement. Sopo said Republican-leaning Cuban-American voters, meanwhile, appeared to show up in high numbers, while Democratic-leaning non-Cuban voters turned out in below-average numbers.
Choosing Nuñez, the daughter of Cuban immigrants, as his running mate, was also an important decision. She helped communicate DeSantis’ message to Hispanic voters around the state and acted as a bridge to Miami.
“They picked Little Havana to say ‘thank you’ to all of Miami-Dade,” Miami Commissionoer Joe Carollo said Saturday. “[DeSantis] picked one of our own, our favored daughter. We’re more than represented in Tallahassee.”