The Green New Deal. Medicare for all. Federal funding for abortions. A universal basic income. Reparations for the descendants of slavery.
The policies being proposed and debated by many of the leading Democrats running for president are at odds with the messaging local lawmakers and Democrats want to hear during the first debates in Miami, where political dynasties were built by families who fled communist Cuba and left-leaning candidates have a history of coming up short.
While the national conversation largely revolves on most in the Democratic field contrasting themselves with former Vice President Joe Biden, who leads in early polling, local lawmakers say focusing on the same policies that fuel the candidacies of Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders could backfire in South Florida on Election Day 2020.
Rep. Donna Shalala, who fended off a well-funded primary challenge from her left in 2018 and who has held eight town halls around her Miami-based district over the past two months, hasn’t noticed a leftward shift among her constituents since the 2020 race began at the beginning of this year.
Instead, she’s mostly heard about healthcare costs, protecting the environment and building infrastructure, issues where most of the 2020 Democrats are in agreement.
“I want them to talk about issues that affect people on a day-to-day basis,” Shalala said of the 2020 field. “I want them to talk about what a Democratic leader can do. That is, what’s the difference between Democrats and Republicans.”
Shalala and Rep. Debbie Mucarsel-Powell, who both flipped Republican-held seats in 2018, said the current left-leaning tone of the Democratic primary field on issues like Medicare for all will turn off some South Florida voters.
“I do think that a lot of the Democratic candidates don’t understand the makeup of South Florida,” Mucarsel-Powell said. “Most people here come from a different country. There’s not this party loyalty they may find in other areas.”
It’s a sentiment that President Donald Trump and Republicans are trying to tap into.
Miami voters have voted to send Democrats to the White House in every election since 1988, though South Florida Republicans built their own brand to win congressional seats and local offices for the past 30 years. President Trump is also trying to build a localized brand in 2020. He’s worked with local Republicans like Sen. Marco Rubio and Rep. Mario Diaz-Balart, who have enjoyed electoral success in Miami, to craft hard-line Cuba and Venezuela policies during his first two-and-a-half years in office.
“I think in some ways the president’s support in Miami has probably solidified or grown,” Rubio said. “I think that’s certainly true among the Cuban-American Republican base. I haven’t seen the numbers but I expect the president will do better in Miami than he did in 2016.”
Miami Democratic strategist Christian Ulvert, who is not working with a 2020 candidate, said they should view the first debate as an opportunity to introduce themselves to Miami’s general electorate and focus on the economy.
Instead of promoting policies that would expand the size of government, like Medicare for all, Ulvert said Democrats should focus on dismantling policy barriers erected by the Trump administration, like the Republican tax bill that passed in 2017.
“For Democrats, we have a great road map called President Barack Obama’s economic message, where he talked about a fair economy that ensures that everybody’s able to get ahead, making sure that the rules are not rigged against everyday people and small businesses,” Ulvert said. “The more we stick to that message and build an economy that’s molded after that vision the better we’ll be. The more we talk about government entitlements, we get away from that message.”
He also said 2020 candidates also need to talk about climate change, an issue Trump has largely ignored while campaigning.
“If we’re having the primary debate in South Florida, they better mention the effects of climate change,” Mucarsel-Powell said. “For me, it’s one of the most precious issues that I don’t feel we’re doing enough on.”
Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz, who beat a Sanders-backed primary challenge in 2016 and represents one of 12 congressional districts around the country with at least 100,000 Jewish constituents, said Democrats cannot alienate key Florida constituencies like Jewish voters if they want to be president, even if portions of the primary electorate would reward them for doing so.
“Any smart campaign and candidate committed to winning the state of Florida, which is absolutely essential to winning the presidency, needs to take a look at the last two elections,” Wasserman Schultz said, referencing close losses by Hillary Clinton, Andrew Gillum and Bill Nelson. “A serious campaign for the presidency in Florida will micro-target and hyper-focus on the vast, diverse ethnic issues that are important to our base communities.”
For Wasserman Schultz, that includes a pro-Israel message and lots of talk about Venezuela.
Both Democrats and Republicans from Miami-Dade supported Trump’s decision to move the U.S. Embassy in Israel to Jerusalem in 2017.
But five of the seven U.S. senators running for president voted against a measure sponsored by Rubio in February that allows state and local governments to refrain from doing business with companies that support boycotting, sanctioning and divesting from Israel. Minnesota Sen. Amy Klobuchar and Colorado Sen. Michael Bennet, neither of whom are in the top tier of candidates, supported it.
And some of the Democratic candidates, notably Sanders, have refused to call Venezuelan leader Nicolás Maduro a dictator or declare Juan Guaidó as the nation’s legitimate leader, which Wasserman Schultz says is a political mistake.
“On the debate stage next week it’ll be absolutely essential, particularly because of how narrowly our state is won and lost, for our candidates to talk about the importance of how we can transition Venezuela to a democracy,” she said.
Shalala said “every issue has been all over the place” when asked about the leftward policy shift among many candidates in the 2020 field, though she did not single any specific candidate out by name. She also highlighted the need to dismantle Republican-sponsored policies before expanding the size of government.
“I have not been for Medicare for all and I think all the candidates have had trouble defending their position. I’m pretty pragmatic. There are 29 million people that don’t have health insurance. We need to get them covered,” Shalala said. “In Florida in particular, the place where they are going to be, the state has not extended Medicaid, which means there are working-class people that do not have access to healthcare. That’s important to the people of Miami.”
Shalala emerged victorious from a five-way primary last year in which she was attacked from the left by a well-funded challenger who campaigned on Medicare for all and impeaching Donald Trump.
Mucarsel-Powell, the first member of Congress born in South America, noted that many Miami voters fled non-democratic countries in Latin America and are wary of large, government-run institutions because they associate them with corruption and inequality.
Naturally, that skepticism extends to a government-run healthcare system.
“A lot of people come here fleeing governments that are filled with corruption and violence and they don’t’ have a lot of trust in institutions,” Mucarsel-Powell said. Presidential candidates “must understand what is happening in Venezuela and Colombia and talk about what affects us here locally.”
Trump has made no secret about his desire to cast Democrats as socialists in 2020 to peel voters away from the Democratic nominee. Mucarsel-Powell said Democrats must be aware of his messaging but focus on local issues and how the president is failing to deliver.
“A lot of people down here talk about what affects us here locally, the lack of infrastructure, for example,” Mucarsel-Powell said.
And Wasserman Schultz noted that Republicans have gotten better at cutting their losses among Democrats while simultaneously expanding their support outside Florida’s urban areas.
“Rick Scott was reelected in 2014 because he plussed up the African-American vote from six points to 12 points,” she said. “He still got crushed [among African-American voters], but the six points in an election that gets decided by less than a point makes a difference.”
For Ulvert, the calculus at the debates on Wednesday and Thursday is simple. Most of the 2020 candidates will be introducing themselves to Miami voters for the first time. Given that Trump almost assuredly needs to win Florida to win a second term in office, they must be wary of alienating any key South Florida constituency.
“They can either heal divides or exacerbate them depending on the approach they take. All of that matters greatly because it’s part of the winning formula for November 2020,” Ulvert said. “The primaries are a healthy and important exchange of ideas and approach, but it’s all for naught if we can’t win next November.”