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Democrats breaking GOP's long lock on Cuban vote

Saturday - 1/4/2014, 8:52am  ET

FILE - In this Oct. 23, 2103 file photo, Rep. Joe Garcia, D-Fla. speaks during a news conference on Capitol Hill in Washington. For more than two decades, running for Congress in this sun-soaked capital of Cuban exiles has required two things: a Republican registration card and a hard line toward the Castro regime. So when Garcia became the first Cuban-American Democrat from the state to win election to the House in 2012, it signaled a crack in a critical GOP constituency. (AP Photo/Susan Walsh, File)

MICHAEL J. MISHAK
Associated Press

MIAMI (AP) -- For more than two decades, running for Congress in this sun-soaked capital of Cuban exiles has required two things: a Republican registration card and a hard line toward the Castro regime.

So when Joe Garcia became the first Cuban-American Democrat from the state to win election to the House in 2012, it signaled a crack in a critical GOP constituency.

In a break with the exile community, Garcia campaigned in support of loosening restrictions on Cuban-Americans who want to visit relatives on the island or send them money. Since taking office, he has pushed for U.S. trials of a Cuba-developed diabetes treatment and for easing travel rules for Cuban diplomats who visit the U.S.

And while Florida Republicans, including Sen. Marco Rubio, fumed when President Barack Obama shook hands with Cuban President Raul Castro last month, Garcia dismissed it as a simple courtesy.

"Sometimes a handshake is just a handshake," he said.

Not long ago, any gesture of comity toward Cuba's communist government would have been greeted in Florida with a closed fist -- or a car bomb. But three generations on from the revolution, Garcia represents a new breed of Cuban-American, more interested in pragmatism and reconciliation than regime change and isolation.

That generational shift is at the heart of a realignment that could help change U.S. policy toward Cuba and reshape the political landscape in the country's largest swing-voting state.

The implications are particularly troubling for the GOP.

"It's very difficult for Republicans to win this state if they don't win a majority of the Hispanic vote," said Dario Moreno, a political scientist at Florida International University, "and to win a majority of the Hispanic vote, they have to do very well in the Cuban community."

In 2012, Obama captured nearly half of the Cuban-American vote in Florida, a record high for a Democrat. He has since pledged to "update" a U.S. policy that prohibits even the most basic business dealings with the island.

"Keep in mind that when Castro came to power I was just born," he told supporters at a Miami fundraiser last year, "so the notion that the same policies that we put in place in 1961 would somehow still be as effective as they are today in the age of the Internet, Google and world travel doesn't make sense."

Cubans now make up about a third of Florida's fast-growing Hispanic population. For decades, they had voted reliably Republican, partly because of the party's anti-communism tenets. Democrats, led by President John F. Kennedy, had also headed up the botched 1961 Bay of Pigs invasion, when 1,500 CIA-backed Cuban exiles tried but failed to overthrow the nascent Castro regime.

In Florida, conservatives harbored plans for another armed incursion and dreams of returning to the island. But five decades of political stalemate have tempered that vision.

"We have gone from a politics of passion to a politics of realism," said Andy Gomez, a Cuba expert and former senior fellow at the University of Miami's Institute for Cuban and Cuban-American Studies. "We have come to the realization, like any immigrant group, that this is home."

Polls show new immigrants and younger Cuban-Americans are more motivated by domestic concerns, including health care, education and the economy, than by anti-communist fervor. A study by the Pew Hispanic Center found that Cubans are the Hispanic group most likely to say they have "only a little" or "almost nothing" in common with those living in their family's native country.

"You live here. You work here," said Luis Diaz, a 33-year-old businessman from Kendall, as he sipped a cup of cafe con leche at La Carreta, a local Cuban chain.

His family fled Cuba in the 1960s and 70s and are staunchly Republican, but he considers himself an independent.

"Democrats have great ideas. Republicans have great ideas too," he said. "You have to meet somewhere in the middle."

Republicans acknowledge the generational shift among Cuban-Americans but say recent election results are more a reflection of lackluster campaigns than political realignment.

Mitt Romney, they say, failed to cultivate Hispanics. And Republican Rep. David Rivera fell to Garcia after he was dogged by state and federal investigations into his finances.

"It's not the slam-dunk it was 20 years ago," said Al Cardenas, former head of the Florida Republican Party and chairman of the American Conservative Union. "At the same time, the Democrats haven't turned the corner and made the Cuban-American community a very competitive place yet."

Rubio, a Republican and the state's most prominent Cuban-American politician, holds traditional hard-line views on the trade embargo and remains a popular figure in Florida.

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