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Florida Latinos are red, national Latinos are blue — but will that script always be true?

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Tamir Kalifa
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AP
Latino voters waiting to cast ballots in Texas.

Latino voters in Florida have always been different from Latino voters in the rest of the country — but last week’s midterm elections hardened that contrast as never before. Even more Florida Latinos embraced Republicans, while Latinos nationwide showed they remain a reliable bloc for Democrats.

Given what a balkanized swing bloc Latinos have always been and will likely remain, neither party should assume either of those scenarios is permanent. But if you look inside pockets like Florida's 27th congressional district, you could be excused for thinking little is bound to change.

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After Democratic state Senator Annette Taddeo lost her bid for the 27th's seat last week in a landslide to Republican incumbent Maria Elvira Salazar, she blasted the Democratic Party for its lack of help engaging Latinos — who are the majority in the 27th District.

“I have a message for Florida Democrats," Taddeo said.

"You can’t just go, ‘Uh, Florida is done, let’s walk away,’ which is what Democrats do. You know what Republicans do? They lose in Florida, and they invest even more, they spend even more time with the people, they communicate ... in Spanish..."

The 27th, a large chunk of Miami-Dade County, was supposed to be a swing district. The Taddeo-Salazar race was supposed to be competitive. Salazar is Cuban-American, but Taddeo is Colombian-American — representing one of the district's fastest-growing voter groups — and conservative on Latin America policy.

"Annette was a superb candidate," said former Democratic Congresswoman Donna Shalala, who lost the 27th-district seat to Salazar two years ago.

"She had the perfect profile for this district."

READ MORE: Salazar wins closely watched race in a landslide against Taddeo

But the reality is: because Taddeo is a Democrat, the GOP could paint her, falsely, as a socialista — a comrade of the left-wing dictatorships so many South Florida Latinos have fled.

Miami-Dade voters like Colombian-American retiree Roberto Molina of Kendall backed Taddeo, but he knew her chances were slim.

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AP
Democratic Nevada Senator Catherine Cortez Masto, who was re-elected last week with the help of fellow Mexican-American voters.

“Remember that we live in Miami," Molina said after casting his vote last week, "and whenever you label someone as 'leftist' or 'socialist,' those are poison words."

Taddeo’s 15-point defeat was perhaps the most glaring sign that in Florida — especially South Florida — Latinos are flocking to the Republican Party. Two years ago, most voted for Joe Biden; last week, they went for right-wing Governor Ron DeSantis. In Miami-Dade County, 81,000 more Latinos are registered Republican than Democrat — compared to some 30,000 just two years ago.

Florida, in fact, gave Republicans hope that Latinos nationally would shift to the GOP.

But that didn’t happen.

Florida is the outlier — and despite the narrative that we would see a huge red wave fueled in part by national Latino movement to the Republican Party, that simply did not materialize.
Gabe Sanchez

“Florida is not representative of Latino voters nationwide," said Gabe Sanchez, vice president of the Los Angeles-based polling firm BSP Research.

In the days just before the midterms, in partnership with the African-American Research Collaborative and several Latino advocacy groups including, UnidosUS, BSP surveyed U.S. Latino voters. Only 44% of Latinos in Florida said they would vote for a Democratic congressional candidate — but an average of 67% in 10 other states said they would.

While only 28% of Florida Cubans approved of President Biden, an ample majority of Latinos nationally approve of him. Latinos nationally also said issues like affordable healthcare, gun control and abortion were top midterm concerns. Most Florida Latinos did not.

As a result, “Florida is the outlier," Sanchez said.

"At the end of the day, despite the narrative that we were going to see a huge red wave [nationally] somewhat fueled by Latino movement toward the Republican Party, that simply did not materialize in this election.”

GROUND GAME

One reason: Florida Latinos are outliers demographically.

In Florida, Cubans and South Americans — who are more likely to be angry about socialista regimes back in Latin America — tend to dominate the scene. In the rest of the U.S., Mexicans and Puerto Ricans are the largest groups. They don’t carry that anti-socialista fervor — and they lean Democrat.

Still, Sanchez says the survey found Latino support for Republicans is growing outside Florida. So is the share of Latinos who feel Democrats take them for granted.

“We want to tip our hat to the Republican Party in this regard," Sanchez said.

Maria Elvira Salazar victory 2022
Daniel Rivero
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WLRN
Republican Congresswoman Maria Elvira Salazar gives a victory speech at her election night watch party at La Carreta restaurant in Little Havana on November 8, 2022.

"They had a lot of ground game efforts increased across a number of these key states. There was a lot more emphasis paid to courting the Latino population — and consequently, their numbers improved.”

At the same time, Republicans themselves run the risk of losing Latinos in Florida.

Democrat-leaning Puerto Ricans are one of the state’s fastest-growing Latino populations. And political experts say the hardline anti-immigration policies the Florida GOP keeps pushing — even against migrants fleeing those socialista regimes like Cuba and Venezuela — may eventually backfire.

But for now, Florida Republicans have a hold on Latinos like those who poured in to chant victory songs at Maria Elvira Salazar’s congressional re-election party in Miami's Little Havana last week.

The GOP is happy to have them as national outliers.

Tim Padgett is the Americas editor for Miami NPR affiliate WLRN, covering Latin America, the Caribbean and their key relationship with South Florida.