Republicans think they have a secret weapon in Florida: Venezuela.
The ongoing political and economic crisis in Caracas has emerged as a sort of warning for what Republicans say are the socialist policies — universal health care, high taxes on the wealthy and a Green New Deal — embraced by a growing number of Democrats vying for their party’s 2020 presidential nomination.
In few places does that message resonate more than in South Florida, a region that has been shaped for decades by Cuban exiles who fled Communist rule — and is now home to the largest Venezuelan population in the United States.
And in a state where elections are often decided by ultra-narrow margins, an effective effort by President Trump and Republicans to galvanize enough Hispanic voters against the progressive proposals of some Democrats could have deep electoral implications for the party’s eventual presidential nominee.
“So many people here have fled socialist or really far left governments,” said Nelson Diaz, the chairman of the Miami-Dade Republican Party.
“To come here and see the Democratic Party shifting and moving quickly in the direction of the governments they fled, I think it’s making them realize they may be registered as Democrats, but that it’s time to switch.”
Trump carried Florida in 2016 by just about 1 percentage point, and his reelection campaign is expected to lean heavily on the state — and its coveted 29 electoral votes — to deliver him a second term in the White House, the president’s advisers say.
Trump offered a preview of that strategy last month when he traveled to Miami to deliver a scathing rebuke of Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro and a warning that “the days of socialism and communism are numbered not only in Venezuela, but in Nicaragua and in Cuba, as well.”
“Socialism is about one thing only: power for the ruling class,” Trump said in a speech to members of Miami’s Venezuelan community. “The more power they get, the more they crave.
“They want to run health care, run transportation and finance, run energy, education — run everything.”
While the president made no mention of Democratic White House hopefuls, his remarks amounted to a tacit swipe at presidential candidates like Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), a self-described democratic socialist who has built his political brand around calls for single-payer health care and tuition-free college.
Vice President Pence was more explicit in his criticism of the Democratic Party.
In a recent interview with Noticias Telemundo — his first with a Spanish-language network since taking office — Pence asserted that “leading voices in the Democratic Party are actually advocating socialism as their agenda” and cast the 2020 election as a choice between free markets and “more government.”
“As this campaign goes forward, we are going to continue to lay out that choice,” he said just days after returning from Colombia, where he announced new sanctions on Venezuelan officials.
Sanders has been singled out for particular criticism by Florida lawmakers and political operatives on both sides of the aisle after he declined last month to label Maduro a dictator and to recognize Venezuelan National Assembly President Juan Guaidó as the country’s interim president.
Meanwhile, Trump has touted his administration’s early support for Guaidó, the 35-year-old opposition leader whom a majority of Latin American and European countries have dubbed the country’s legitimate president.
To be sure, South Florida Democrats have largely rallied around Guaidó and denounced Sanders’s hesitation on Venezuela.
Rep. Donna Shalala (D-Fla.), who represents a majority-Hispanic district in Miami and its surrounding suburbs, insisted that the Vermont senator’s positions were not reflective of those held by most Democrats.
“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,” Shalala wrote on Twitter. “Maduro is a dictator and must go.”
Shalala and another South Florida Democrat, Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz, traveled to the Venezuela-Colombia border over the weekend, where Maduro’s government has set up blockades to prevent humanitarian aid from entering the country.
Wasserman Schultz, whose district is home to one of the largest Venezuelan communities in the U.S., said that lawmakers on both sides of the aisle are united in their support for Guaidó.
“Maduro is killing and starving his people. He is denying them health care,” she said at a news conference. “For the last four days, Venezuela has essentially been in the dark and we are at the point where Venezuela is nothing short of a failed state.”
The Florida Democratic Party has similarly condemned Maduro and sought to separate itself from Sanders’s comments.
And other Democratic presidential contenders, including Sens. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) and Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.), have clearly stated that they believe Maduro to be a dictator.
Warren, Gillibrand and several other 2020 contenders have thrown their support behind policy items like “Medicare for all.” And Warren has also rolled out proposals to levy an additional tax on the super rich and break up tech giants, like Google and Facebook.
But progressives have also rebuffed Republican claims that they “are fighting to turn America into the next Venezuela,” as one recent email from the Trump campaign to supporters put it.
Warren, for example, said in an interview with CBS News aired on Sunday that “it’s just wrong” to label her a socialist.
Likewise, Sen. Kamala Harris (D-Calif.), another 2020 hopeful, asserted in an interview with CNN last month that she is a “progressive Democrat” — “not a socialist.”
Still, Republicans insist that their anti-socialist message, combined with what they say have been lukewarm denunciations of Maduro by some progressives, could give them a winning edge in Florida, both in the presidential race and in down-ballot contests.
A recent memo from the Congressional Leadership Fund, the super PAC aligned with House GOP leadership, detailed a strategy for how Republicans can make gains in suburban House districts by leaning heavily on an anti-socialism message.
“The presidential primary and insurgent freshman are sure to only drive their party’s agenda further left and provide a clear choice for voters moving forward: economic opportunity or socialism,” Congressional Leadership Fund President Dan Conston wrote. “Republicans can win in the suburbs and beyond by making this strong contrast.”
Also raising the GOP’s hopes in the state: solid performances by Gov. Ron DeSantis and Sen. Rick Scott among Latino voters in the 2018 midterm elections.
DeSantis won 44 percent of the Latino vote, according to exit polls, while Scott took 45 percent, outperforming Trump, who won only 35 percent among Florida Latinos in 2016. Those numbers, Republicans say, are a sign that the party may be gaining traction with a voting bloc that Democrats have long seen as crucial.
While Florida’s Cuban-American community has long leaned Republican, Venezuelan-Americans have favored Democratic candidates in the past. But Diaz, the Miami-Dade GOP chairman, said that could soon change.
“They’re maturing politically in terms of becoming citizens and registering [to vote],” he said. “We see more and more Venezuelans who are currently registered as Democrats telling us that they’re voting Republican.”