Democrats toppled Republicans in 20 U.S. House races across the country on Nov. 4, but they struck out in what may now be the GOP’s most entrenched urban stronghold: South Florida’s Cuban electorate.
Conditions seemed auspicious for Democrats to oust any or all of the Miami area’s three Republican House members — Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (18th Congressional District), Lincoln Diaz-Balart (21st) and Mario Diaz-Balart (25th). All are Cuban Americans, all dogmatic adherents to the 47-year-old U.S. trade embargo on Cuba, all among George W. Bush’s most devoted loyalists and therefore vulnerable. All had seen their margins of victory dwindle in 2004 and 2006, even against unknown novices.
A steady attrition of Republican-registered Cuban Americans over the past two years was amplified by an increase in Cuban-American Democrats and Independents. Surveys indicated that voters in these districts were far more concerned about the sagging economy, health care costs and the war in Iraq than the incumbents’ most salient issue: keeping sanctions on Cuba. At the three Republicans’ behest, Bush tightened the sanctions in 2004, restricting family visits to the island to once every three years and drastically reducing remittances.
Out of this environment, three Democratic challengers — two Cuban-American and one Colombian-American — emerged and launched tough, savvy campaigns with heavy backing from national Democratic Party leaders and dollars. And then, a charismatic Democratic presidential nominee blessed with a political organization threatening to turn red states blue had created unprecedented potential for fellow Democrats to ride on his coattails. Miami history was in the making.
In the end, the Democratic presidential candidate prevailed in Florida — but so did the three Cuban-American Republicans in Miami. Lincoln Diaz-Balart won a ninth term, whomping former Hialeah mayor Raul Martinez by 35,677 votes, or 58 to 42 percent. Lincoln’s brother Mario will serve his fourth term, after defeating former Miami-Dade County Democratic Party chair Joe Garcia by a 13,564-vote margin, or 53 to 47 percent. Republican Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, first elected in 1990, clobbered Colombian-American businesswoman Annette Taddeo by about 37,000 votes, or 58 to 42 percent.
Rather than dwell on the disastrous trifecta, Democratic consultants have been eager to note that Barack Obama siphoned 10 percent of Florida’s Cuban electorate from the Republican column, according to exit polling by Bendixen & Associates. That means Obama received approximately 35 percent of Cuban-American votes (compared with John Kerry’s 25 percent in 2004). Republican operatives, meanwhile, believe the Bendixen poll inflates Obama’s gain and that John McCain took about 75 percent of the Cuban vote. But everyone agrees that more Cuban Americans voted for Bill Clinton in 1996 (40 percent) than for Obama this time. Whatever the outflow, it lacked enough volume to carry even one of the three Democratic congressional challengers over the dam on Nov. 4.
So, why can’t a Cuban Democrat win a U.S. House seat in Miami?
Just ask Pedro, a frequent caller on Radio Mambí, a Cuban-controlled Spanish-language talk-show station. He is one of approximately 180,000 people who listen to Radio Mambí, making it the Miami market’s most popular AM outlet. Pedro phoned in on election eve, as the station headed into the 11th hour of what had become a nonstop, monthlong, anti-Obama, anti-Democrat infomercial:
Pedro: “Someone said to me, ‘I’m going to vote for Obama because Obama is going to make a change.’ And I said, ‘Can you explain the change?’ And he said, ‘No, I don’t know the change. But I know I’m going to vote for him because he’s for the poor.’
“I said, ‘Look. You know what Obama said, no? That the wealth has to be shared with everybody. But look. There’s a saying that says, “Long live wealth, long live freedom.” And Obama is going to tell you, “Take $10 and give me half.” That’s what Barack Obama is going to say. That’s what is called socialism. And afterward, he’ll take it all away.’
“I sincerely ask all of you to vote for Mario, (vote) for Lincoln, vote for Ileana and continue voting for McCain. Because we have to pound it into the heads of all of these people, all of these leftists. Because I don’t want them to celebrate in Cuba that a communist revolutionary won the presidency of the United States.”
Pedro finished, and host Armando Pérez Roura, in his classic announcer’s voice, said simply, “Gracias,” and took another call.
Another male caller, who did not give his name, issued this warning about Obama and his Democratic allies: “I say to Cubans and those who are undecided, think about how if Obama wins it’s very possible that we are going to see people from the Cuban government walking around downtown Miami and other parts of the city. We’ll have a Cuban consulate in Miami! We’ll see the Talibans walking around with their beards and turbans, having meetings with all the countries that are enemies of this country. And they’re going to consider themselves brotherly countries!
“It’s going to be a tragic change and costly. Because we’re going to see a lot of deaths. We’ll see many — not to say something else — African Americans showing up in the streets of Miami with a rifle on their back. We’ll see vigilante committees. With time we’ll see rationing. This is the change that Obama is going to bring. So please, those wearing a blindfold, which the devil has put on — he’s the father of lies who takes over people’s minds, and I can say that because I’m Christian — those who are blind, take off the veil and think about how it’s going to be as I say!”
Pérez Roura turned to co-commentator Ramón Bonachea and said, “Well, Ramón, are you in total agreement with this friend?”
“Absolutely,” Bonachea replied.
The hosts are die-hard Republican, anti-communist ideologues, reminiscent of another locally based radio celebrity, Rush Limbaugh. When there isn’t an election, they talk endlessly about Cuba’s brothers Castro, Venezuelan leader Hugo Chávez and Nicaragua’s Marxist President Daniel Ortega and sell time for Viagra and immigration lawyer ads. Pérez-Roura is also editorial director of the station.
National and local political consultants and operatives — and of course the Diaz-Balarts and Ros-Lehtinen (to say nothing of ex-Gov. Jeb Bush) — know that Radio Mambí is a must-stop for Republican candidate appearances and a must-buy for ads hoping to tap the Cuban vote in general and the Radio Mambí cohort in particular.
No other popular stations railed against Obama like Mambí. The next-most-listened-to AM Spanish language station, WQBA, ran a lot of GOP ads, but its campaign-related programming and news reporting retained a semblance of balance.
Not at Mambí.
The calls continued into the night. On Election Day morning, a veteran Radio Mambí host who calls herself Lourdes D’ Kendall picked up the baton. (Kendall is a suburban area southwest of Miami.) She heartily concurred with a female caller that Hillary Clinton lost the Democratic nomination because the Obama campaign had bribed superdelegates into voting for him instead of her.
A few minutes later, a male caller opined that Obama must be a “secret machista” because he often appeared without his wife Michelle, thus keeping her “behind the curtain.” Lourdes disagreed and then set the caller straight.
“Michelle Obama is a tremendously aggressive woman — independent — and I’d dare say that this is a couple in which she has more weight than he,” Lourdes D’ Kendall averred.
“But she started putting her foot in her mouth. Then Sarah Palin arrived. Sarah Palin is the typical, traditional, conservative woman, who managed to succeed in the world of men. That put the Obama and Biden campaign in an instant panic. That’s why the attacks against Sarah have been fierce. So, what happened then? They had to try to convert Michelle Obama into that kind of woman, the woman who is at home, with the girls, organizing his clothes, taking the girls to school events. They wanted to present another Michelle, more than anything, because as soon as she opened her mouth she started to insert her delicate foot. And that’s what happened.”
Punctuating all the paranoia were segments of much less imaginative but no more truthful Republican ads for McCain, the Diaz-Balarts and Ros-Lehtinen. The most damaging alleged that Obama and the other Democrats proposed raising taxes on the middle class and small businesses.
The losing Democrats have more than tens of thousands of their excitable Cuban brethren to blame. The Bendixen exit poll found that two other communism-haunted cohorts in Florida’s 18th, 21st and 25th districts — Miami’s large Nicaraguan and Venezuelan communities — favored McCain over Obama, by 70 to 30 percent and 80 to 20 percent, respectively.
The Radio Mambí attack-athon continued to the last possible moment. Not long after 3 p.m. on Election Day, host Ninoska Pérez Castellón took a call from a Nicaraguan woman who couldn’t help repeating that Obama had bribed superdelegates away from Hillary and then warned, “Obama is communist. His doctrine is the same as I heard in Nicaragua 32 years ago. Thanks to that change I’ve been here 32 years.”
Pérez Castellón (whose husband Roberto Martín Pérez was imprisoned in Cuba from 1959 to 1987 and made campaign appearances with McCain) hastened to correct a slight inaccuracy. “We can’t say that he’s a communist because he hasn’t said directly that he is communist,” she explained. “But I understand why people who’ve had the experience like that of Cuba, Nicaragua and the most recent one, Venezuela, are worried by some of the things that Obama has said.”
The caller, however, wasn’t convinced. “Change, change, change. Take from the rich to redistribute it,” she scoffed. “Now it turns out that he doesn’t want to change only the United States. Three days ago he said the whole world had to be changed. It’s the communist doctrine!”
No one knows the number of Radio Mambí’s estimated 180,000 listeners who voted, but even a fraction of them represent enough ballots to keep the Diaz-Balarts and Ros-Lehtinen in office. “It’s extremely important,” Carlos Curbelo, a campaign consultant for the Diaz-Balarts, says of the station. Radio Mambí hosts “have developed extraordinary rapport with the community over the years,” he adds. It’s difficult to imagine how the three Republican incumbents could survive without their inventive Radio Mambí constituencies.
It’s also hard to see how they are not poised to become an important base in South Florida for Sarah Palin, Mike Huckabee or whomever the GOP nominee is in 2012. But prospective presidential contenders might want to bear in mind one change that did occur in Miami this year. More than half of Cuban-American voters under age 30 — a group that is highly unlikely to willingly listen to Radio Mambí — picked Obama.
“Because of that demographic shift,” submits Fernand Amandi, a partner at Bendixen & Associates, “each of these congressional seats will become Democratic within six years.”
But Cuba policy is likely to change long before that. Barack Obama can issue executive orders to dismantle some of the Cuba sanctions sponsored by Ros-Lehtinen and the Diaz-Balarts as soon as he’s sworn in.
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