TALLAHASSEE, Fla. — For decades, the politics of Cuba in Florida were simple: anything less than a hard line stance against Fidel Castro and his regime was a sure way to lose a race for office.
President Barack Obama's surprise decision this week to restore diplomatic relations with the communist nation is the surest sign yet those politics are changing, with some even suggesting it's a political gambit aimed at cracking the Cuban-American community's longtime support for the GOP.
"They want to bring Cuban Americans over to what they view as a Hispanic bloc that supports Democrats," said former Florida Republican Sen. George LeMieux. "If you end the tensions with Cuba, if that's their goal, then I think they believe that they will end some of the reason why Cuban Americans have been affiliated with the Republican Party."
As a whole, Cuban Americans make up a much smaller percentage of Florida's Hispanic population than they did 15 years ago. While Obama's moves are sure to anger older Cuban Americans, especially first- and second-generation exiles, younger Cuban Americans aren't as likely to vote on this issue alone.
Add it up, said Democratic pollster David Beattie, and it has now become politically safe in Florida to make changes America's Cuba policy.
"They just don't understand the point of a policy that they didn't connect with," Beattie said. "It's in some ways politics catching up with where the state is as a whole."
Florida is the nation's largest swing state and most crucial prize in presidential politics, and Obama did not pay a political price after loosening travel restrictions to Cuba in 2011. He not only carried Florida in his re-election effort the next year, but exit polls showed he carried about half the Cuban-American vote.
Florida Democratic Sen. Bill Nelson said you can see "in the polls, and you can see that just by going to Miami and talking to folks," how much things have changed.
"I'm as anti-Castro as they come, but it's time to move on," Nelson said. "It's time to get into the 21st century."
He agrees that if U.S. tensions with Cuba were no longer an issue for Cuban American voters, it would help Democrats win them over on other issues of interest that they share with other Hispanics.
"Bingo," Nelson said.
As expected, Republican Sen. Marco Rubio and former Republican Gov. Jeb Bush both came out firmly against Obama's decision, with Rubio attacking the new policy relentlessly in the days after its announcement.
Beattie, a Democrat, said that puts them at risk of being viewed as out of touch by voters who think normalizing relations with Cuba will help the Florida economy.
"They're talking about a set of issues that voters aren't essentially concerned about," he said. "They're concerned about the economy. They're concerned about the cost of health care."
Rubio said he doesn't care what the popular position is. He said he personally knows people who have suffered under the Castros' rule.
"I don't care if 99 percent of people in polls disagree with my position, this is my position and I feel passionately about it," Rubio said this past week. "I'm glad that I'm the side of freedom and democracy. I'm glad that I'm on the side of human rights."
Republican strategist Ana Navarro said the timing of the announcement, well after the midterm elections, is a sign that Obama knows the changes still carry the potential of political risk for Democrats and others who support them.
"Did he do it when there was a political cost to him? Did he do it in 2012? No," she said.
Nelson noted the issue historically had the power to unite Cuban Americans against Democrats, pointing to the 2000 election, when George W. Bush beat Vice President Al Gore in Florida by 537 votes — a victory that led directly to the White House. That year, Cuban Americans supported Republicans by a huge margin after being angered that President Bill Clinton's administration used armed federal agents to return a boy to his father in Cuba.
"That midnight raid to take Elian Gonzalez, that unified the Cuban American community against Democrats," Nelson said.
Navarro said Obama probably had 2000 on his mind and the influence Cuban Americans had in that race when deciding on when to reveal his plans to change the country's relationship with Cuba.
"They were afraid that come November the Cubans would remember, the way they did with Al Gore," Navarro said. "They're still very wary."
Follow Brendan Farrington on Twitter: http://twitter.com/bsfarrington