Former Gov. Jeb Bush may be embracing Florida’s burgeoning Hispanic population in his possible positioning for the 2016 presidential race, but that doesn’t mean all Florida Republicans have gotten the memo. Lew Oliver, chairman of the Orange County Republican Executive Committee, has blamed his party’s shrinking influence in the county on a “Puerto Rican influx.”
On Monday, the Orlando Sentinel reported that voter registration numbers showed Republicans had fallen to third place in the county, which includes Orlando, behind Democrats and independents. While Democrats have gained several thousand new voters since 2012, Republicans lost 247 voters in that time. And the number registering as “other/no party affiliation” slightly surpassed Republicans.
Though both Republican and Democratic officials in the county credited the county’s growing Hispanic population for the shift, they have some very different explanations as to why Hispanics would side with Democrats in the first place. According to Orange County Democratic Chairman Carlos Smith, “[Gov.] Rick Scott and his Republican allies have barely lifted a finger to improve the lives of Central Florida's Latino population, and you see that is having an impact on the GOP's dismal registration numbers.”
Oliver has a different idea. According to him, Puerto Ricans have gotten tired of their “semi-socialist,” “basket case” island territory and have moved to Florida to muck up the Sunshine State.
"The great grand irony of it all is that the massive predominantly Puerto Rican influx that has accounted for nearly all of this is the result of Puerto Ricans almost without exception fleeing Puerto Rico and other states whose economic opportunities have diminished,” the GOP leader told the Sentinel.
“What do all those places have in common?” he continued. “Puerto Rico, Chicago, Illinois, New York? Democrat governments. You would think at least of few of them would figure that out. If you like a semi-socialist government where the highest aspiration is a nice secure government job, Puerto Rico is heaven on earth, PLUS nice weather! Sadly, it is also a terrible basket case. As is Chicago, Detroit, Philadelphia, Illinois, New York and just about every other Democrat-controlled state and city in the country."
Oliver’s comments, as much as they might offend Puerto Ricans, have at least some basis in fact. As a 2013 report from Florida Trend notes, Florida’s Hispanic population hasn’t just skyrocketed in recent years – it’s also grown more diverse. Historically, Cubans in the Miami area have made up the vast majority of the state’s Hispanic population, but they now represent just 29 percent. Orlando, for instance, has the largest Puerto Rican population in the state. Some parts of Orange County are as much as 39 percent Puerto Rican, while other areas like Jacksonville and Miami report rising amounts of Mexican and Nicaraguan immigrants, respectively.
Even among the Cuban community, traditionally a staunchly conservative bloc as most of them were anti-Castro exiles, demographics are changing. Though Cubans in Florida voted 70-30 for George W. Bush in 2004, Florida Trend Notes, they only voted for Mitt Romney 55-45 in 2012. Younger Cubans, less likely to have bitter memories of Communist Cuba, are increasingly turning toward Democrats.
"It's a pretty significant shift over the last eight years," Florida International University professor Dario Moreno told Florida Trend.
How much longer can Republican officials like Oliver ignore that trend?