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Florida's Republican Gov. Rick Scott is running for re-election, and he has a lot going for him. The state's economy has rebounded from the recession, and he's on track to raise at least $100 million for his re-election bid. But as NPR's Greg Allen reports, Scott's campaign has run into trouble with an important group of Florida voters: Hispanics.
GREG ALLEN, BYLINE: Latinos make up just 14 percent of Florida's electorate. But as voters, they have the power to swing elections statewide. Although Florida's governor, Rick Scott, hasn't formally announced his re-election bid, he's working to court the Hispanic vote. This week, he met in Miami with Venezuelan-Americans concerned about political violence in their native land.
GOV. RICK SCOTT: So we've got to stand with the Venezuelan population. (Foreign language spoken)
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ALLEN: Afterwards, however, Scott was once again forced to answer questions about the resignation of one his top campaign fundraisers, billionaire Cuban-American businessman Mike Fernandez. In an email leaked to the media, Fernandez said he quit because of concerns with how the campaign was being run and the staff's insensitivity to Hispanics. Fernandez cited an incident in which one of his partners heard senior campaign staff members mimicking a Mexican accent on the way to a Chipotle restaurant. Scott's campaign denies the incident ever happened, and the governor says he believes them.
SCOTT: We have a very diverse team. They care about everybody in our state. I'm going after every vote in our state. They would not tolerate anybody doing the wrong thing.
ALLEN: For Scott, winning support from Hispanics is especially crucial. In his first election four years ago, he won just over half the Hispanic vote. But since then, his approval rating has plummeted with all voters. Scott's former campaign finance co-chair Fernandez is a Cuban-American success story, immigrating to the U.S. when he was 12, later starting a series of successful health care companies. A week and a half after his resignation roiled the political waters here, Fernandez said today he thinks the story has been overblown. He supports Scott but says he's still concerned about the Chipotle incident.
MIKE FERNANDEZ: In my opinion, I have no reason to believe that it did not happen. And I'm not sure that it has been addressed properly.
ALLEN: Well before this, Florida's Republican Party was already losing ground among Hispanics. President Obama won 60 percent of Florida's Hispanics two years ago. Obama even carried Cuban-Americans, a community that once was strongly Republican.
Following Fernandez's resignation, another prominent Cuban-American Republican broke with Scott. Gonzalo Sanabria resigned. Scott says he was fired from his position on a local transportation board. Sanabria says he's upset with how Fernandez was treated and the campaign's insensitivity to supporters, including Hispanics.
GONZALO SANABRIA: It's not that we're all going to run over to the Democratic Party. But we're not enthusiastic about supporting the governor.
ALLEN: The flap over the slights - perceived or real - comes just as the Scott campaign seemed to be making progress. Some polls showed him closing the gap with possible Democratic opponents. And recently, he appointed a Miami legislator, Carlos Lopez-Cantera, as his lieutenant governor, a move that helps him connect with Latinos in south Florida.
Political scientist Dario Moreno, of Florida International University, says for Scott to be re-elected governor, he needs every Hispanic vote he can get, especially in south Florida.
DARIO MORENO: It's very hard for a Democrat to win the state of Florida if they don't win Dade County by at least 80,000 votes. And the Scott campaign is dangerously close to that number.
ALLEN: That's one reason why, between now and November, Gov. Scott is likely to be spending a lot of time wooing Hispanic voters in South Florida.
Greg Allen, NPR News, Miami.
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