Will Republicans use the "red threat" narrative again to court the Latino vote in the 2022 elections?
In the November 2020 elections, the Republican Party resorted to a familiar tactic that has worked in the past, but had been largely discredited as ot-moded: the supposed "red menace".
It has worked successfully, especially in South Florida, which has a more conservative-leaning Cuban-American population and a growing community of Venezuelans and other Latin Americans affected by governments that boast of being socialist in their home countries.
Now there are signs that this strategy will be revived in the 2022 midterm elections - and perhaps not just in Florida.
In November, the Republican Party put up a billboard calling Tampa Democratic Party Congresswoman Kathy Castor a 'communist'. For about $5,000 a month, the party is paying for the billboard overlooking a busy highway, featuruing a picture of Castor and the words "Communism: Tampa's Enemy Number One". It adds: "Vote Republican".
Asked by Univision about the billboard, Castor responded that she is a "patriotic American, a progressive capitalist and a lifelong Democrat fighting for the opportunity for all my neighbours to achieve the American Dream."
She added: " Unfortunately, the Republican Party is tied to conspiracy theories, QAnon and loyalty to insurrectionists who tried to disrupt the peaceful transfer of power, the bedrock of American democracy."
She also sent a link to a photo on Twitter recalling her excitement after the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989, which she described as "one of the most inspiring movements of my generation." The photo shows her hammering at the wall with a chisel.
But, some Democrats worry that the party does not take this Republican tactic of raising an alleged socialist threat seriously enough, comparing it to the so-called 'McCarthy Witch Hunt' in the 1950s, which refers to Republican senator, Joseph McCarthy, who leveled accusations of communist subversion against numerous people.
" It worked in 2018 in South Florida and they doubled down on it in 2020 with spectacular success, so why wouldn't they quadruple down in 2022 and 2024?" asked Fernand Amandi, a Miami pollster who worked on the successful campaigns of Barack Obama in 2008 and 2012.
Recent events in Latin America have served to remind voters of the socialist menace in some countries in the region where governments have taken an authoritarian turn, he noted. In Venezuela, Nicolás Maduro defeated a divided opposition in November elections, and in Nicaragua, Daniel Ortega also won a "sham" election after banning the opposition from running candidates. Meanwhile, this summer's anti-government protests in Cuba were crushed by the ruling Communist Party.
Despite this, the White House has made little effort to reassure South Florida voters that the Democrats have the answers. "How many times have the top two Democrats in the country - the president and the vice president - come to South Florida to talk to Hispanic voters about these events that have a direct or indirect impact on their lives?" said Amandi.
These attacks could affect the midterm elections in Tampa. Castor, first elected in 2006, has easily won election in a safe, Democratic-leaning district. But Republican state senators are trying to redraw the geographic boundaries of Castor's district in a way that is more favorable to them.
"A bunch of crazies'
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The Hillsborough County Republican Executive Committee (HREC), which paid for the billboard, is at odds with other Tampa Bay Republicans who accuse it of being too right-wing and supporting former President Donald Trump's unfounded claims of voter fraud. That committee generated controversy over the summer after inviting Georgia Congresswoman Marjorie Taylor Green to an annual party fundraiser.
"None of us get along with those people," said Anthony Pedicini, a Tampa-based Republican strategist and founder of Strategic Image Management, which runs campaigns across Florida. " They're a bunch of crazies," he added..
"This is a very moderate city (Tampa). There's not a lot of room for fringe ideas. It's a very purple place," he said, referring to the colour associated with a mix of red (Republican) and blue (Democratic) voters who often cross party lines in elections.
However, Pedicini stopped short of condemning the billboard, saying Castor was also an "extremist" who had voted "99.9% of the time with the far left" of the Democratic Party. Asked if he believed Castor was a communist, he said, " She's a Democrat, which is the closest thing to being a communist in America."
HREC did not respond to a request for comment from Univision Noticias.
Fact-checking and data verification organisation Politifact said Thursday that experts it consulted called the poster "completely false and indefensible."
Communism refers to a one-party state and government takeover of private industry. Castor is not in favor of eliminating capitalism or the multi-party democratic system in the United States.
Democratic voters have elected a handful of self-declared 'Democratic socialists' to Congress in recent years, such as Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, although they do not embrace communism and remain a small minority in the party. They make up only four of the 225 members of the House of Representatives.
Democrats are compounding their problems with Latinos by insisting on addressing them with politically charged terms like Latinx, Amandi said.
Only 2% of respondents refer to themselves as Latinx, while 68% call themselves 'Hispanic' and 21% prefer 'Latino' or 'Latina' to describe their origin, according to a new national survey of Hispanic voters by Amandi's firm, Bendixen & Amandi International, which specialises in Latino outreach.
Also, 40% said Latinx bothers or offends them to some degree and 30% said they would be less likely to support a politician or organisation that uses the term.
Those who embrace the term Latinx say the word is not a matter of left-wing politics, but simply an effort to be more gender inclusive.
Republican ambiguity in Tampa suggests there will be more of this in 2022. Efforts similar to Florida's are underway in other states to redraw geographic district boundaries, as well as new, restrictive election laws.
A study released this week by Equis Research, which examines the results of the November 2020 election, said Republican attacks linking Democrats to socialism were instrumental in helping Trump make gains with Latino voters.
The study found that four in ten Latino voters - and 71 per cent of those who voted Republican - in several states were concerned about socialism and that this concern was a factor in their decision to support Trump.
By a four-point margin - 42% to 38% - Latino voters also said they were more concerned about Democrats moving to the left than the possibility of Republicans embracing fascist and anti-democratic policies.
Hispanic support for Democratic candidates
President Joe Biden won a majority of the Latino vote, but Latino support for the Democratic Party candidate fell 8% between 2016 and 2020, from 71% for Hillary Clinton to 63% for the current occupant of the White House, according to Equis.
At the same time, the Latino electorate grew by 1.2% despite a turnout of only 50%. In comparison, 63% of black voters went to the polls and 74% of whites.
Equis said the effort to brand Democrats as socialists "created a space for defection" among some Latino former Democrats, through the use of social media that emphasised the traditional Latino belief that the American Dream is earned through hard work, not handouts.
"This modern 'red panic' is a story about unchallenged propaganda in isolated media ecosystems, which sometimes boils down to 'disinformation'. And it is a story about the weaponization of the American Dream, the true opposite of socialism in the right-wing narrative," the company says.
Equis says its data is based on a series of polls and focus groups, including a national survey of Latino voters focused on 11 battleground states, and results from focus groups in Florida, Texas and Arizona.
Trump's policies on the economy and the coronavirus pandemic appeared to be partly responsible for the shift, drawing voters away from other concerns. Immigration was the top concern for 39% of Latino voters in 2016, but only 16% in 2020. While concern about jobs and the economy jumped from 33% of Latino voters in 2016 to 41% in 2020.
Contrary to popular belief, Equis found that the children of Latino immigrants were increasingly concerned about socialism, just as much as their parents and grandparents.
Overall, the report found that Latinos continue to feel that the Democratic Party cares more and is "better for Hispanics". But a slim majority in battleground states feel that Democrats take Latino support for granted and forget about them when it comes time to deliver on campaign promises.