I-4 Hispanics Could Determine Florida's Next Governor
Governor Rick Scott and Democratic challenger Charlie Crist remain neck and neck in polls, elevating the importance of swing voters in Florida’s I-4 corridor. Analysts think Central Florida Hispanics, in particular, have the power to pick the next governor.
Here’s an example of how hard the gubernatorial candidates are working to court Central Florida Hispanics: last month, Democrat Charlie Crist met with Latino leaders at an Orlando union hall. An hour before that meeting started, Republican Lieutenant Governor Carlos López-Cantera announced he’d be at the same place at the same time – defending Governor Rick Scott outside.
Both Crist and Scott have Hispanic running mates, and they’re dropping tens of millions of dollars on bilingual ad campaigns.
Swing Vote in a Swing State
At the University of Central Florida, political analyst Aubrey Jewett says the governor’s race is tight. Jewett explains that I-4 Hispanics could be key. "The Hispanic vote in Central Florida, you could argue, is one of the most important primarily because, again, we are a large area with a lot of undecided voters," he says. "The race should be fairly close, and so, literally a few thousand votes could make the difference."
Some analysts call Central Florida’s largest Hispanic group – Puerto Ricans – the swing vote of a swing state. They typically register as Democrats – but self-identify as conservatives.
And, in this area that tends to pick winners, Hispanic voting power is growing. The population has more than doubled in three counties in just over a decade.
Jewett says that means, if Crist meets with Hispanic leaders in Orlando, "… then the other side has to do it as well, or they risk losing out. They risk the Hispanic community thinking, ‘Okay, well, the one person showed up and did an event with us. You know, does this other person not care about us? Do they not want our vote?’"
That’s why Anthony Suarez is helping Governor Scott attract Latino voters. He leads the San Juan Hill Club – a chartered GOP group in Central Florida dedicated to portraying the party as pro-Hispanic.
Suarez says the economy is improving – and that’s a top issue to Latino voters. "Hispanics left their country, not because they didn’t love their country and don’t love their environment. They didn’t want to leave all their family," he says. "They needed seeking opportunity because there was none where they came from."
Suarez says Scott has loosened his immigration stance. He also signed the Dream Act, allowing Florida college students to receive in-state tuition regardless of immigration status. "The fact that you may have come out of one political thought, and then, when you’re confronted with the facts and you see what’s going on, well, then I can see that you’re changing your tune. And, the fact that he appointed a Cuban-American as a candidate for lieutenant governor is significant," Suarez says.
Carlos Guillermo Smith sees things differently. The Orange County Democrats Executive Committee chair says voters aren’t ready to forgive Scott for initially opposing the Dream Act and supporting strict immigration policies. Guillermo Smith says that’s why most Central Florida Hispanics register as independents or Democrats. Republican affiliation is third. "I think a lot of that has to do with how the Republican Party has treated the Hispanic community in the last several years and how they've been almost hostile, especially Rick Scott, in his record as governor," he says.
Guillermo Smith says the governor is only reaching out to Central Florida Hispanics now because he has to: "This cycle, this November, is one of the first times that they can finally use that voting power to affect the outcome of the elections, and I think they will. I think they’ll vote Rick Scott out, and they’ll make Charlie Crist our new governor."
Up for Grabs
Despite Guillermo Smith’s confidence, both parties think Central Florida Hispanics are up for grabs.
To find out how some plan to vote, northeast Orlando’s Bravo Supermarket and Lechonera Latina restaurant are good places to start. There, customers explain what they think of the candidates – and their expensive campaign efforts.
Gwenth Bryan says she thinks Governor Scott is doing a good job, but she's not yet sure if she'll vote to keep him in office. René Éscobar says Spanish-language radio can be misleading, especially for people who don't follow politics. Scott supporter Arminda Veve says his ads are positive, but Eduardo Gonzalez says, "I'm stuck on Charlie Crist."
They’re just some of the Central Florida Hispanics whose votes could determine Florida’s next governor.
WMFE Producer Brendan Byrne and Intern Megan Tajudeen contributed to this report.