TAMPA — Stances on one of the most divisive issues in Florida politics, relations with Cuba, have put both Gov. Rick Scott and his likely re-election challenger Charlie Crist at odds with some of their own political allies.
Scott is a staunch supporter of the Cuba trade embargo and an opponent of travel to Cuba — at least by Crist. But many Florida and national business interests, including some that back Scott or other Republicans, favor easing or lifting the embargo.
Crist, the former governor who backed the embargo before changing from Republican to Democrat, recently took a stand in favor of lifting it.
Some Democrats agree, including Tampa U.S. Rep. Kathy Castor, who Crist says influenced his stance, but some top Florida Democrats don’t, including Sen. Bill Nelson and U.S. Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz of Weston, who’s also chairwoman of the national Democratic Party.
Their stances probably create more risk for Crist than Scott is facing, according to some political experts.
However, it has led to awkward moments for both candidates.
Scott has made a major campaign talking point of criticizing Crist for his Cuba stance and for his plans to travel to Cuba.
But during a campaign appearance at Port Tampa Bay on Thursday, a reporter asked him about Republicans who agree with Crist.
The U.S. Chamber of Commerce, for example, a major supporter of Republican candidates, has backed lifting the embargo and announced recently it will lead a trade delegation to the island nation.
A Tallahassee political marketing firm, Taproot Creative, which has done substantial work in the past for the Republican Party, GOP candidates and Scott’s own independent political committee, Let’s Get to Work, recently posted an item on its website about a trip to Cuba.
Asked whether they deserve the same criticism as Crist, Scott didn’t answer, instead repeating his campaign talking points on the issue: “Charlie Crist, if he wants to go, look at what he’s going to do. He’s going to go down there and help the Castro regime.”
Asked whether the U.S. Chamber is helping the Castro regime, Scott replied, “I’m going to tell you, what Charlie Crist is doing by going to Cuba, he’s helping the Castro regime.”
Scott talked about the Cuban regime fomenting unrest in Venezuela and added, “We need to stand with Cuban-Americans, we need to stand with the Venezuelans, Charlie Crist is doing the opposite.”
Campaign spokeswoman Jackie Schutz later issued a statement saying Scott “agrees with Senator Marco Rubio on this — while the U.S. Chamber is right on many issues, they are dead wrong on their policy toward Cuba.”
The Greater Tampa Chamber of Commerce has sponsored two trips to Cuba and backs easing, though not ending, restrictions on travel there, said CEO Bob Rohrlack. It hasn’t taken a position on the embargo and doesn’t back candidates, but it is a member of the U.S. Chamber, he said.
Crist, meantime, suggested in comments to reporters in February that those who still favor the embargo have their heads in the sand.
Discussing why he changed his position, he said, “It takes time to observe and learn and understand what’s happening. But after a period of time, if you don’t adjust to what’s happening ... then you’re part of the keep-your-head-in-the-sand crowd.”
That comment came back to haunt him in a Tiger Bay Club meeting in Orlando when a member of the club, a group known for tough questioning of politicians, asked him if that referred to prominent Democratic embargo defenders, including President Barack Obama.
“What I said was that I think it’s time to lift the embargo ... continuing to practice the same policy and expecting a different result over time is the definition of insanity,” Crist responded.
Florida International University political scientist Dario Moreno, an expert on Hispanic politics, said Crist’s stance is risky despite polling that shows increasing numbers of people, including Cuban-Americans, favoring a change in relations with Cuba.
“Rick Scott is only articulating the traditional position for Florida politicians for many years in regard to Cuba,” which many Florida Democrats including Nelson and Wasserman-Schultz still hold, he said.
Business interests may disagree with Scott, but “for them, Cuba isn’t a key issue — it’s low on the list of things they want to accomplish. Scott is taking zero risk.”
For Crist, he said, a trip to Cuba “could really backfire if he’s seen shaking hands with the wrong people, or if he goes down there and the next week they arrest dissidents,” Moreno said. “It could ignite Hispanic passion against him, including not just Cubans but Colombians, Venezuelans, Nicaraguans — all from nations that have fought left-wing groups or regimes.”
Meantime, he said, lifting the embargo is still a minority position among prominent Democrats.