“This is a country where we speak English, not Spanish.” Donald Trump admonished with these words Jeb Bush and Marco Rubio, two of his rivals in the 2015 Republican primary, who were campaigning in two languages. Trump beat both of them and eventually got elected president.
Rick Scott, governor of Florida, a Trump ally, disagrees. He used his limited knowledge of Spanish to woo Latino voters as he campaigned for governor and continues to do so as he seeks to unseat Bob Nelson for a US Senate seat.
Using the Spanish language to gain an advantage over political competitors is not unusual. Even some Democrats who typically edge out GOP candidates with Latinos use it. In the 2016 election, vice presidential candidate Tim Kaine made use of Spanish, with little success. George W. Bush, on the other hand, in the 2000 and 2004 presidential elections, used his limited knowledge of Spanish with very positive results. Bush won about 40 percent of the Latino vote which compares quite favorably with Donald Trump’s 28 percent in 2016 and Mitt Romney’s 27 percent in 2012.
Using Spanish to court Latino voters thus does not necessarily mean success at the polls. Yet, Scott is smart in making the attempt since Latino voters view it positively. Language can be beneficial at the emotional level in politics as it is in any situation. Just like the patient feels a bit better upon hearing the doctor saying a mere “buenos días,” voters appreciate the fact that a politician addresses them in their language. However, since most Latino voters understand English, using Spanish is not meant to necessarily communicate substantive ideas but rather to reach them at the emotional level. Even Latino voters who may not know much Spanish appreciate it since some of their friends or family members may not be totally fluent in English. When Scott struggles with Spanish, he can be seen as making an effort in a similar way as anyone who is struggling to learn English or in any other aspects of life.
However, using Spanish without backing it with substantive ideas and policies beneficial to Latino voters can be easily viewed as mere pandering. Scott seems to be genuinely interested in Latino voters as demonstrated by some very recent moderate views on immigration. He favors, for example, a bill that would give a path to legal status to DACA recipients, individuals brought to the US as minors. He has also come out against the child separation policy at the border, labeling it “horrible,” declaring also that Florida is a “state of immigration” as can be seen by the multitude of languages spoken in the State.
In addition, Scott has made efforts to assist Puerto Ricans who have moved to Florida after Hurricane Maria hit the island in 2017. Unlike the Trump administration, which has done little to help, Scott has visited Puerto Rico several times and has shown he welcomes victims, making it easier for them to relocate in Florida. Surveys apparently confirm his efforts. Although 70% of Puerto Ricans in Florida have a negative view of Trump, 76% view Scott favorably, higher than Senator Nelson, his Democratic opponent in November. The Senate race is tight and Scott’s moderate stance on immigration and his courting of Latinos in Florida, including his use of Spanish, could become indispensable.
Scott’s use of Spanish and his views on immigration put him at odds with Donald Trump’s harsh rhetoric and actions on immigration and Hispanics in particular. Ironically, Scott identified with these stances not too long ago. When he was running for his first term as governor in 2010, in fact, he was a strong supporter of harsh immigration laws similar to those passed during that time in Arizona, which cracked down on immigrants. In addition, he has opposed efforts to expand Medicaid, a beneficial program for poor people, which of course includes Latinos.
Is Scott’s “new” approach to Latinos and moderate views on immigration merely political expediency? Maybe. As he campaigns for the US Senate, Scott is attacking Nelson for being weak on immigration, labeling Democrats’ opposition as supporters of open borders. Scott repeats Trump’s language and rhetoric as he tries to appeal to all Floridians, and particularly GOP voters.
Elections in Florida are often won by small margins and Scott’s new moderate views on immigration and his use of Spanish might help him prevail in November. Yet, Latino voters should be wary, particularly when Scott blames Nelson for not having done anything to solve the immigration question in Washington. We need to remember that the GOP controls both legislative chambers and the White House. Thus, it is they who have done nothing to solve the immigration situation. Will voting for the replacement of a Democratic senator with a Republican one make a difference?
“All politics is local,” stated former House Speaker Tip O’Neill, Jr., Democrat from Massachusetts years ago. True, but membership in a party makes a lot of difference, particularly in the Senate these days where a few seats could determine the majority of the upper chamber, with significant repercussions that go far beyond the use of Spanish and immigration. Voting for candidates and forgetting the party to which they belong in the final analysis may turn out to be unwise.