01/27/2012 05:21 pm ET

Florida Primary 2012: Young Latino Mavericks Playing Greater Role In GOP

They're mavericks, rebels -- and Republicans.

A new generation of Latino leaders is emerging in Florida politics. No longer can they be depended on to stand in unwavering unison, as has been tradition in this state of some 1.5 million Latino voters and an influential, historically conservative Cuban-American community.

"They have no qualms in telling the establishment, 'No,'" GOP political strategist Ana Navarro told the Huffington Post. "They're free thinkers, independent thinkers, and have no qualms striking out on their own."

Ask anyone who the rising Latino leaders are in Florida and the first name is always the same.

"Obviously, probably Marco Rubio is on the top of the list in terms of young Hispanics leading the effort in the state," conservative activist Jeb Bush Jr., the son of Florida's former governor and nephew of former President George W. Bush, told the Huffington Post.

Sen. Rubio (R-Fla.), the Tea Party favorite who bucked the establishment and forced former Florida Gov. Charlie Crist (R) out of the party spotlight as they battled to become U.S. senator, is the sought-after endorsement in the GOP presidential primary. His name comes up every time a list of possible vice presidential picks is mentioned.

A newcomer to Washington, Rubio carries unquestionable power within the party. Largely because of him, Univision -- the largest Spanish-language television network by far, reaching an audience of nearly 2 million Hispanics -- didn't get to host a Republican primary debate.

And Rubio commands enough authority to force former House Speaker Newt Gingrich to alter an ad bashing Mitt Romney as "anti-immigrant" and remove the accusation.

Rubio, a Cuban-American, has thus far remained neutral in the race. The endorsements that have been given out so far have come from Florida's self-proclaimed "three amigos" -- Republican Reps. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen and Mario and Lincoln Diaz-Balart, who are brothers (Lincoln is a former congressman). The three, also Cuban-American, made a joint announcement backing Romney and have appeared in television ads for the former Massachusetts governor. (Arizona Sen. John McCain, self-proclaimed maverick of the Republican party, has also endorsed Romney.)

But the other member of Florida's Hispanic congressional delegation, Rep. David Rivera (R-Fla.), came out in favor of Gingrich. That may not be the best endorsement a candidate could hope for -- multiple state and federal investigations into his finances have made Rivera something of a party pariah.

Nonetheless, Florida International University political analyst Dario Moreno told the Huffington Post, there is significant division among the Hispanic delegation for Florida, which will hold its primary Jan. 31.

"It's important to note that this is the first time that the Cubans aren't united," he said. "Always in the past three Cuban congressmen have endorsed the same person. This is the first time that you have a split in the delegation."

It's more than just a difference in opinion over which of the candidates is better, he said, it's evidence of a generational shift. "I think, very much so, there is a changing of the guard."

Despite his legal issues, Rivera is part of the group recognized by Republican political insiders, observers, strategists, and activists, as Florida’s rising Latino leaders: Rubio, Rivera, Florida House Majority Leader Carlos Lopez-Cantera (R) and state Rep. Erik Fresen (R), who was elected to the Florida Legislature in 2008 and was immediately identified as a potential future speaker.

Lopez-Cantera and Fresen proved their power when Univision ran the unfavorable story that drew Rubio's ire. Rubio was upset, but they were the ones who got the candidates to boycott the network debate, according to accounts of the incident.

"Many of the new elected officials are far more assimilated. So they see things in American political terms, not in Cuban political terms," Moreno, the political analyst, said. "They tend to be more fiscally conservative, more socially conservative than their counterparts."

The independence of this new generation of Latino leaders may be a result of that assimilation. But Navarro, the GOP political strategist, sees another parallel between Florida's young Republicans and the broader GOP's new generation.

"There are some things that bind everybody together, including issues like Cuba, foreign policy," she said. "But I think this generation is more reflective of the current Republican voter. They will do whatever they want to do."


Leading Latino Politicians