Hispanic voters make up about 14 percent of the 11 million eligible voters in the southeastern U.S. state of Florida, a powerful political force courted by both the Republican and Democratic parties. In the November seventh elections, the focus in Florida is on a close race to replace outgoing Republican Governor Jeb Bush, and six or seven races for seats in the U.S. House of Representatives. VOA's Cindy Saine reports from Miami on the diverse groups that make up the Hispanic vote, the main issues they care about and their attitudes just days ahead of the elections.
Hispanic voters in Florida are different from Hispanic voters across the rest of the United States. In most states, a majority of Hispanics have traditionally backed the Democratic Party because of its support for immigration reform, government services and civil rights. But in Florida, a majority of Hispanic voters has long been solidly in the Republican camp.
"The Hispanic voter in Florida tends to lean more to the conservative side, more to the Republican side, and, at the same time, tends to be very independent when it comes to local elections. So, at the presidential level, they vote one way, but we have seen that they are willing to cross party lines on local and federal races," said Robert Deposada, president of The Latino Coalition, a non-partisan, pro-business organization based in Washington.
He says that is the case in the race between Senator Bill Nelson, a Democrat, and Republican Congresswoman Katherine Harris. DePosada says Nelson, who has a commanding lead in the polls, is getting support among Hispanics, both Republican and Democrat.
"At the same time, we're seeing a strong level of support for the Republican candidate for governor, Charlie Crist. So it's going to be very interesting. I think, particularly, in the Florida area, you are seeing the Hispanics looking at the candidate itself, and not necessarily just at the party line," he said.
Democrats say foreign policy plays a key role in the choices Florida Hispanics make. Most of South Florida's large and politically-influential Cuban community has been staunchly Republican ever since late President John F. Kennedy, a Democrat, denied air cover for exile Cuban forces during the 1962 Bay of Pigs invasion.
Former Democratic President Bill Clinton fared better for awhile, but that ended when his administration sent young refugee Elian Gonzalez back to Cuba in 2000. That was just months before Democratic candidate Al Gore lost Florida by just 537 votes, costing him the White House in a drawn-out and controversial election battle.
Joe Garcia, based in Miami, is executive vice president of the National Democratic Network, a non-profit group that generally supports Democratic candidates. He notes that Republican President Bush picked up Hispanic votes in the last election.
"In the last presidential election nationally, Republicans picked up almost 10 points. They brought the Hispanic vote to almost 40, 41, 42 percent of the Hispanics in the United States voted for President Bush, which was a historic high. And, it's probably one of the largest shifts in American electoral history. That was different than in Florida, where they had a little bit of a loss from their strong Hispanic base," he said.
Democrats admit that Florida's Republican Party has spent more money, is better organized and has made a better effort to reach out to Hispanics in the state.
Key issues in this election of concern to Hispanics nationally include approval of a 1000-kilometer fence along the Mexican border, and attempts to make illegal migration a felony.
A national survey released in early October by the Latino Coalition indicates the bitter immigration debate may trigger a negative backlash against Republicans among Hispanic voters nationwide, or at least dampen voter turnout. But it also shows that Democrats have failed to capitalize on the opportunity.
In Florida, the two largest groups of Hispanic voters, Cuban Americans and those of Puerto Rican origin, do not consider immigration a top issue.
Luis Garcia is a Cuban American and is running as a Democrat for Florida's state legislature. He is former fire chief of Miami Beach, and currently a city councilman. Garcia says Hispanic voters care about economic and social issues. "For Hispanic voters, it is very important, The American Dream. To be able to buy a house, to be able to afford a house more than anything else. And the concerns they have right now, because of high taxes and the high cost of insurance, that dream is getting harder and harder to reach. That is the number one issue and a very close second is education," he said.
Luis Garcia says virtually all the voters he has talked to are unhappy with their political leaders. "I've been walking and knocking on doors, you know, of Democrats, Republicans and independents, and people are ready for a change. They are frustrated, and they are, like in the movie, mad as heck and they don't want to take it anymore," he said.
Another significant group of voters and candidates in Florida are Haitian Americans. Some 245,000 Haitian Americans live in south Florida.
Ronald Brise is Haitian American, and is running as a Democrat for a seat in Florida's state legislature, representing parts of North Miami. He says Haitian Americans traditionally vote Democratic. But he says politics in Haiti can be a divisive issue in races here in Florida, as well. "For some reason, it's expected that Haitian-American candidates assume a position, or take a position on what's happening in Haitian politics. And, really, the ability of a Haitian-American candidate here, who is running for state legislature, or county commission or city council has very little purview, if any, on what's happening in Haiti and international politics at all," he said.
But Brise also says the primary issue for Haitian-Americans is the same one worrying most other Florida voters - the high costs of housing and hurricane insurance.