TALLAHASSEE (CBSMiami/NSF) – In a brutal GOP primary four years ago, now-Gov. Rick Scott blistered opponent Bill McCollum in a television ad highlighting McCollum’s opposition to an Arizona-style immigration law.
“Rick Scott backs Arizona’s law. He’ll bring it to Florida and let our police check if the people they arrest are here illegally,” said a voice-over on an ad paid for by Scott’s campaign in 2010.
But that was four years ago, before Republicans lost their attempt to unseat President Obama in 2012, in part because of Hispanic voters. In Florida, Hispanic support for Obama — a 3 percent increase in 2012 over his first bid for president — was crucial in keeping the state blue.
And as incumbent Scott attempts to keep his seat in this year’s mid-term elections, Hispanics — a diverse and growing bloc — are again considered a critical component for a statewide win.
Scott recently selected Carlos Lopez-Cantera as his running-mate, making the former state representative from Miami the first Hispanic lieutenant governor. Hispanic leaders viewed the move as a significant step by Scott in acknowledging the role Hispanics will play in November.
The GOP-dominated Legislature has handed Scott what some see as a dilemma and others see as an election-year gift — a measure that would allow illegal immigrants to pay cheaper, in-state tuition rates at state colleges and universities if they meet certain requirements.
The House proposal, a top priority of House Speaker Will Weatherford and approved by his chamber earlier this month, also includes a sweetener for Scott: a reduction of the “tuition differential” that allows universities to hike tuition by up to 15 percent annually without legislative approval.
The Senate measure (SB 1400) would do away with the differential altogether, something Scott has pushed.
While Scott has repeatedly said he supports the Senate proposal sponsored by Sen. Jack Latvala, R-Clearwater, the governor has remained mum about the portion of the bill dealing with undocumented students.
Many view the bill dealing with “Dreamers,” named after the congressional “Dream Act” proposal, as a way for Scott to extend an olive branch to Florida Hispanics and quell what appears to be growing dissatisfaction.
“Support for this helps him with Latino voters,” said Dario Moreno, political science professor at Florida International University’s Cuban Research Institute. “If you’re a liberal Hispanic and you’re a Democrat, this isn’t’ going to win you over. But if you’re someone who is middle-class, whose tendencies are to be pro-competition, anti-regulation, pro-low taxes but you didn’t like Scott in 2010 because he supported the Arizona law, this might be enough.”
More than 200,000 non-Cuban Hispanics voters in Miami-Dade County threw their support behind Obama in 2012, nearly double the number from 2008, Moreno said, and a historic high.
Scott’s Democratic opponent Alex Sink outstripped Scott by nearly 15 percentage points in Miami-Dade in 2010, receiving 274,638 votes to Scott’s 204,918.
Backing the “Dreamers” tuition bill could push the needle just 3 or 4 percent in that county alone and could help Scott in November, Moreno said.
“Scott isn’t going to win the Latino vote statewide. But these things may reduce the margin 2 or 3 percent. And that’s all he needs. Florida is such a close state that you look for the margin that you can win in different communities,” he said.
Some see Scott’s reticence on the subject as a missed opportunity.
“If the governor would just come out and embrace and support (House sponsor) Rep. Jeanette Nunez’s bill and what the speaker has championed. … He will help himself immensely in improving his support with Hispanics,” lobbyist and campaign consultant David Custin said.
Some national GOP conservative leaders view the Florida legislation as a positive step forward.
Congress is debating a similar proposal that, if passed, would let states off the hook regarding in-state tuition because “Dreamers” would be considered residents and thus eligible for the cheaper rates.
But in the meantime, American Conservative Union Chairman Al Cardenas, who is pushing the bill in Washington, will be in Tallahassee urging senators to approve Latvala’s plan, scheduled for a vote in the Senate Judiciary Committee on Tuesday.
“These kids for all intents and purposes have amnesty by the president. Why would we not want them to continue to live in Florida as college-educated, more productive residents?” Cardenas, a former chairman of the Republican Party of Florida, said Monday.
Cardenas said he hasn’t discussed the issue with Scott.
“Whether it helps him politically or not, he should consider supporting the bill. If it’s helpful, that’s great. But that should not be the reason to support the bill,” Cardenas said.
Sally Bradshaw, a consultant who is close to former Gov. Jeb Bush and played a major role in the Republican National Committee’s post-2012 election audit, said that endorsing the “Dreamers” — children who had no role in breaking the law when they were brought to the country by their parents — is vital for her party nationally and can have an impact at the state level as well.
“It matters to our party to engage Hispanics,” said Bradshaw, a consultant to Weatherford who serves on the board of “Americans for a Conservative Direction,” an organization pushing Congress to enact immigration reform. “Until the party recognizes that it has to engage more on these issues, I think we can forget future political opportunities on the national level.”
But others are concerned that embracing policies that support any type of illegal immigration could hurt Scott, who rode into office on the tea party wave in 2010.
“When you alienate your base, you alienate your base of volunteers,” said Jason Hoyt, a Florida tea party leader affiliated with the West Orlando Tea Party and The Florida Alliance. “It’s not just about one person not voting. It’s about one person not volunteering and affecting 20 other people.”
But Senate Judiciary Committee Tom Lee, a Brandon Republican who opposes the proposal but is allowing it to be heard on Tuesday, isn’t so sure.
“I don’t know if we were to pass an in-state tuition bill for undocumented immigrants that it would change one vote in the upcoming election. I have no evidence to support that one way or another,” Lee said. “I totally understand that for some people this is one of those messages we can send to Hispanics and other minority groups that we are going to treat you as Americans. But I also know a lot of people who believe that we’re a country of laws and there’s nothing that trumps the rule of law. When you allow people to go to the head of the line or to get special benefits over people who are waiting in line and aren’t entitled to those benefits, you’re not treating everyone fairly.”
Consideration of the bill comes as Scott is embroiled in drama over criticism from his one-time finance chairman, billionaire Mike Fernandez, that the governor’s campaign is insensitive to Hispanics. After raising more than $30 million for Scott, Fernandez abruptly quit, leaving behind a trail of leaked internal e-mails questioning the campaign’s Hispanic outreach efforts.
In the wake of Fernandez’s departure, former Miami-Dade Expressway Authority board member Gonzalo Sanabria, a Fernandez ally who had been serving in a vacant seat for over a year, said he was resigning from the post.
“The Hispanic Community of South Florida is a key component of this great State’s vibrant socio-political fabric and treating us as you have is a grave mistake as it pains me to tell you what you will find out to the chagrin of us loyal Republicans,” Sanabria wrote in an e-mail to Scott sent at 11:27 a.m. on Thursday.
Scott’s office insists that Sanabria was told he would not be reappointed before the e-mail was sent.
The News Service of Florida’s Dara Kam contributed to this report.