The crisis in Venezuela is sending tremors through Florida’s political landscape, emboldening Republicans and throwing Democrats on the defensive in the nation’s largest swing state.
Opposition to the socialist regime in Caracas, which is closely aligned with communist Cuba, has been a shared cause of the state’s large and traditionally pro-Republican Cuban American and Venezuelan immigrant communities.
“It’s a huge moment for the Republican Party,” said Brian Ballard, a Florida lobbyist and GOP donor with ties to Trump and Rubio. “It will be like Donald Trump can [be] to Venezuelan American voters the way Ronald Reagan was to Cuban American voters.”
Adding to the tension is growing concern among Democrats that Trump and his allies, seizing on the party’s leftward shift, will move to portray his potential 2020 challengers as socialists and point to Venezuela’s collapse as a symbol of what’s wrong with the views they espouse.
Florida Democrats are disavowing the recent refusal by presidential candidate Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), a self-described democratic socialist, to label Maduro a dictator and call for him to go, though Sanders has criticized him.
“They are clearly ignorant comments, and someone who’s running for president of the United States should be better briefed and knowledgeable about this crisis in Venezuela and how it impacts the Florida political landscape,” said Christian Ulvert, a Florida Democratic strategist who is of Nicaraguan descent and whose husband’s family has roots in Venezuela.
A Sanders aide said the candidate strongly supports self-determination for Venezuelans, but that to suggest the possibility of military intervention, as Trump has done, is irresponsible.
The emerging dynamic comes at the start of a closely watched two-year stretch for each party in Florida, as both see the state as an important front in the battle for control of the Oval Office. Democrats are hoping to make a comeback after their nominees for the White House, the U.S. Senate and the Florida governorship lost in the last two elections, despite initially appearing to have good odds.
Democrats for years have hoped Florida will move into their orbit, especially with the rise of a new generation of Cuban Americans that is less conservative and less driven by animus toward Cuba’s communist government.
President Barack Obama captured Florida in 2008 and 2012, and Trump’s anti-immigrant posture has alienated many Hispanic voters.
However, the state remains conservative in many ways, particularly its rural stretches and the Florida panhandle, and recent Democratic candidates, including former senator Bill Nelson and gubernatorial hopeful Andrew Gillum, were unable to prevail.
Now it’s Republicans who are hoping they can shift the state more firmly into their camp, powered by the GOP’s anti-Maduro push.
Still, the outcome of Trump’s Venezuela strategy remains to be seen and risks political blowback should the crisis continue to escalate. That could compound widespread concerns in Florida’s Latino communities about Trump’s anti-immigrant rhetoric and hard-line border policies.
Trump traveled to Miami on Feb. 18 to deliver a speech urging Venezuelan military officers to abandon Maduro and pledge support for opposition leader Juan Guaidó. He also forcefully criticized socialism, invoked two countries with large exile communities in South Florida and seemed to draw a direct line between his foreign policy and his domestic political message.
“As the United States stands up for democracy in Venezuela, we reaffirm the solidarity with the long-suffering people of Cuba and Nicaragua and people everywhere living under socialist and communist regimes,” he said. “And to those who would try to impose socialism on the United States, we again deliver a very simple message: America will never be a socialist country.”
In recent weeks, Trump has intensified his critique of socialism, seeking to portray the Democrats running against him as far-left extremists who have embraced policies he casts as outside the mainstream.
Republicans believe those arguments could be effective, especially in some parts of South Florida, where an older generation of Cuban Americans whose relatives fled the communist regime — or who did so themselves — are deeply skeptical of left-wing governance.
At the moment, Cuban Americans are paying close attention to the situation unfolding in Venezuela, according to a local official, including how the Trump administration responds.
“Many Cubans here predicted what would happen in Venezuela,” said Carlos A. Gimenez, the Cuban-born mayor of Miami-Dade County. Gimenez, a Republican, said he was pleased to see Washington Republicans “putting down socialism” and argued that the administration’s strategy on Venezuela would help the GOP in Florida.
At the forefront of that strategy is Rubio, the son of Cuban immigrants and a sharp Trump critic when they were rivals in the 2016 presidential race. Since then, the two have cultivated a more positive relationship, rooted heavily in collaborating on foreign policy in Latin America.
Rubio recently traveled to Colombia, visiting an area near the border with Venezuela. The senator also has been tweeting real-time updates about the volatile situation on the ground.
On Saturday, he posted a steady stream of messages, including information about aid trucks and the presence of the Venezuelan National Guard. “Very tense moments as civilians take to the street on #Venezuela side of border & peaceful aid workers have started up the trucks at border crossing,” he said in one tweet.
Among Democrats in Florida, there has been a lot of focus on a recent interview Sanders gave to Univision, a Spanish-language television network.
“Is Nicolás Maduro a dictator, senator, for you? And should he go?” anchor Jorge Ramos asked him.
Sanders replied, “I think clearly he has been very, very abusive.”
But he also signaled a desire to avoid repeating the U.S. approach used in the past, such as in the 1980s, when liberals strongly opposed Washington’s aggressive intervention in Latin American affairs.
As to whether Maduro should go, he continued, “That is a decision of the Venezuelan people. So I think, Jorge, there has got to be a free and fair election. But what must not happen is that the United States must not use military force and intervene.”
Sanders was asked whether he considered Guaidó to be the legitimate president, and he replied that he did not. Trump — as well as Democratic leaders and many Western countries — have recognized Guaidó as the interim president.
Some prominent Florida Democrats distanced themselves from Sanders’s comments.
“I’ll make it clear, @SenSanders does not reflect the majority of the Democratic Party and our support for Venezuela’s interim president @jguaido and the Venezuelan people. Maduro is a dictator and must go,” Rep. Donna Shalala (D-Fla.) tweeted on Thursday.
While Sanders is critical of Maduro, his foreign policy aide Matt Duss said Sanders forcefully opposes the option of U.S. military intervention, something the president has suggested is a possibility.
“Bernie strongly supports the right of democratic self-determination, for the Venezuelan people and those across the world,” Duss said in a statement. “The Trump administration even floating the possibility of military intervention is extremely dangerous and irresponsible, and we should be absolutely opposed to it.”
Ulvert recalled Democratic candidates in the 2018 campaign facing attacks from Republicans who sought to cast them as socialists, and he fears a repeat in 2020. “My worry level is growing every month,” he said.
Trump defeated Hillary Clinton in Florida by just 1.2 percentage points in 2016. In 2018, both the governor’s race and the U.S. Senate race went to recounts.
Florida has always been a politically complex state, with major cities from Miami to Tampa to Orlando to Jacksonville. Influential voting blocs range from Latin American immigrants to Jewish retirees to dairy farmers, and tourism and the environment are among the state’s diverse concerns.
While Democrats still hold the advantage in winning Hispanic voters statewide, some party leaders worry they need to do more to counter GOP strategies there.
Sen. Rick Scott (R-Fla.), who served as governor for eight years before his election to Congress in November, ran Spanish-language TV ads and emphasized his outreach to Puerto Rico in the wake of Hurricane Maria.
Scott narrowly defeated Nelson, whose campaign drew complaints from within the Democratic Party, including that he was not aggressive enough in courting Hispanic voters.
Gillum, a former Tallahassee mayor, generated enthusiasm among Democrats when he won the primary in an upset, but he lost to Gov. Ron DeSantis, who was strongly supported by Trump.
Democrats insist Florida has not slipped from their grasp — especially if they can run well-prepared campaigns that provide more face time in Latino communities.
Democrats gained two U.S. House seats in South Florida, they note, even though Nelson and Gillum lost in 2018.