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Why Rick Scott Losing His Finance Guru Could Turn Hispanics Away

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AP Photo / Phil Sears

It's a story that's dominated the Florida gubernatorial election over the last week and caused Florida Republicans to cut a press call unveiling a new ad against former Florida Gov. Charlie Crist, the likely Democratic nominee for governor, short after reporters kept asking questions about Fernandez's departure instead of the new attack ad. On Thursday, the Miami Herald reported that Gonzalo Sanabria, a board member of the Miami-Dade Expressway Authority, was quitting his post in protest of the "disparaging and disrespectful" way Fernandez was treated while serving as finance co-chairman.

"The optics are not great," University of Florida political science professor Daniel A. Smith told TPM. Smith pointed out that in the 2010 midterms 36 percent of Hispanics in the Miami-Dade County voter rolls turned out to vote. Of all of Florida's counties Miami-Dade, Smith said, is the most important counties in the state in terms of Hispanic voter turnout. By comparison, Smith said, 39 percent of non-Hispanics turned out to vote. He added that in recent years Hispanic Republicans have been trending more and more away from the Republican Party affiliation and more toward either the Democratic Party or non-affiliation.

"And so losing a person like Mike Fernandez, especially for the ostensible reason of the insensitivity of the staff of Governor Scott's reelection campaign raises serious questions of whether they'll be able to reach out to this very, important constituency," Smith said. "A constituency that isn't as mobilized in midterm elections as they are in presidential elections."

That's a fact that isn't lost on Republicans. It's a crucial constituency to win in any election, Whit Ayres, a pollster for Sen. Marco Rubio (R-FL) told TPM.

"The Latino vote in Florida has been really important for a long time. Much longer than in most states so most folks who follow politics for a long time don't have to be persuaded for the importance of the Latino vote. It is changing a lot," Ayres said.

The Scott campaign seems to know this. Scott has taken steps that clearly are meant to attract Hispanic voters. He recently came out in favor of in-state college tuition for undocumented immigrants earlier in March and picked Carlos Lopez-Cantera, who was born in Spain, to be his lieutenant governor. Scott's selection of Lopez-Cantera made the new lieutenant governor the first Latino to hold the position in the Florida's history. Those are moves that Democrats have panned as a obvious play to win over new voters. Scott's efforts are likely a move to try to recover from a backlash by Hispanics in the state after Scott supported legislation similar to Arizona's controversial SB 1070.

"He's trying to reinvent himself among Hispanics, from the hard line pro-Arizona law (remember he ran ads on it in 10 and made it the centerpiece of his first year in office), to more compassionate to the immigrant experience. It's been kind clumsy, and I think his does little to help his attempt to change the narrative," Crist political adviser Steve Schale told TPM.

Now, though, Republicans expect Democrats to milk Fernandez's departure for all it's worth and thusfar the Scott campaign hasn't helped much, said one Florida Republican strategist closely affiliated with the Florida Republican Party told TPM.

"They've dragged the problem out a lot longer than they needed it to be dragged out. This was not brilliant and consistently well handled and I think they probably could've done a lot better at how they spun the thing," the strategist said.

Now, he warned, Democrats will "try to escalate this mole hill into a mountain to whatever degree they can and they're going to try to turn this into a scandal where none exists."

And he might be right. Florida Democratic Party political director Christian Ulvert told the Sunshine State News, "Making racist jokes appears to be a major part of Rick Scott's Hispanic outreach plan."

About The Author

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Daniel Strauss is a reporter for Talking Points Memo. He was previously a breaking news reporter for The Hill newspaper and has written for Politico, Roll Call, The American Prospect, and Gaper's Block. He has also interned at Democracy: A Journal of Ideas and The New Yorker. Daniel grew up in Chicago and graduated from the University of Michigan with a B.A. in History. At Michigan he helped edit Consider, a weekly opinion magazine. He can be reached at daniel@talkingpointsmemo.com.