Demography is not always destiny. Many Democrats incorrectly assumed their coalition would dominate national politics once Hispanics became a large enough share of the electorate, just as the party has in California over the past generation.
But what if America’s future looks more like Florida than California?
Twice as many Floridians voted in 2020 than 2000—and the increase in numbers was accompanied by an unexpected shift in the composition of the voters. “The electorate in that time became substantially less white and more Republican,” said GOP strategist Curt Anderson, who helped elect Sen. Rick Scott as Florida’s governor and then to the Senate in 2018.
Scott now chairs the National Republican Senatorial Committee, where he’s determined to replicate across the Sun Belt in the 2022 midterms some of the gains the party has achieved among Hispanics in the Sunshine State. The NRSC has already aired Spanish-language attack ads against Democratic incumbents in Nevada and Arizona.
The stakes are high: An estimated 16.6 million Latinos cast ballots last November, a 31 percent increase from four years before. Democrats still win handily among this group nationally, but exit polls show their margin of victory has declined in presidential contests from 44 percent in 2012 to 38 percent in 2016 to 33 percent in 2020.
The GOP courtship isn’t new. “Latinos are Republican. They just don’t know it yet,” Ronald Reagan joked in 1980. George W. Bush, another border-state governor who became president, pulled a record 44 percent of the Hispanic vote in 2004. But the trendline of the past decade is remarkable considering former President Donald Trump’s “build the wall” rhetoric, and Democratic operatives acknowledge their party grew overly complacent about this constituency.
Sen. Marco Rubio said Hispanic frustration about the coronavirus lockdowns helped Trump carry his state by 3.4 points, three times the former president’s 2016 margin of victory. He believes a generational realignment is underway in which working-class Latinos, who tend to be more conservative, will drift toward Republicans.
Democratic strategist Stephanie Valencia, president of research firm Equis Labs, credited Republicans with building what she calls “a year-round, surround-sound, echo-chamber infrastructure in South Florida” that allows them to relentlessly appeal to Latino voters on radio stations their allies control and by cultivating influencers on YouTube and social media. “It’s a playbook that they’d be smart to replicate in other states and one that Democrats need to get ahead of,” she said.
More than eight years ago, the Republican National Committee’s post-election autopsy said the party “must embrace and champion comprehensive immigration reform,” warning gravely: “If Hispanics think we do not want them here, they will close their ears to our policies.” Now, GOP operatives emphasize that their private poll shows a startling 72 percent of Hispanic voters agreed with this statement: “We should do what is necessary to control our southern border and stop the surge of illegal immigration.”