DORAL, Fla. — As Richard Yepez and his daughter sat down for lunch at El Arepazo, a popular Venezuelan restaurant in this South Florida suburb dubbed “Dorazuela” for its large Venezuelan population, their thoughts turned to someone a thousand miles away: President Donald Trump.
“Trump is the first president to follow through on his promise for Venezuela,” said Yepez, a 50-year-old audio-visual engineer, who said he was convinced Trump backs the exile community because of his hawkish criticism of embattled leftist president Nicolás Maduro. Asked if he will vote for Trump in 2020, Yepez said, “I sure will.”
His U.S.-born daughter, Catherine, a 25-year-old Democrat who attends college in the Washington area, said she’s also also considering voting for Trump, adding: “I have strong feelings, being Venezuelan.”
Republicans working for a second term for Trump and other GOP victories in 2020 are looking for a boost from Venezuelan-American voters like Yepez and his daughter and other Latinos who they say will reward the president for his forceful push against Maduro.
The Trump administration has tightened the screws on Venezuela, slamming sanctions on individuals, oil and banks and recognizing opposition leader Juan Guaidó, who declared himself interim president in January. Trump has also pulled U.S. diplomats out of the country and even hinted at potential U.S. military action, saying “all options are on the table.”
In turn, the administration’s bold moves against what it calls Venezuela’s “socialist” government appear to be energizing Venezuelan-Americans and other Latino voters in this swing state, where races are won by thin margins.
“I think that will be a huge impact,” said Yali Nuñez, the Republican National Committee’s director of Hispanic media. “You’re going to see Venezuelans voting for Republicans. You’re going to see a lot of people based on this issue solely voting for President Trump.”
Rick Wilson, a Florida-based Republican strategist critical of Trump, said that while opposing the Venezuelan government was good politics in his state, any net benefit for Trump would probably be marginal.
“I think it’s probably offset by the fact that Puerto Ricans in Florida — who comprise a vastly larger percentage than the Venezuelans — hate Donald Trump with the fire of a million suns,” Wilson said.
Although Trump lost the Latino vote badly in 2016 — winning only 28 percent nationally and 35 percent in Florida according to exit polls — he doesn’t need to win a majority to have an impact. In a battleground state that Trump carried in 2016 by only 112,911 votes, even small fluctuations can be important.
In Florida, roughly 17 percent of registered voters are Hispanic, more than 2 million in all.
Eduardo Gamarra, a political science professor at Florida International University, said a country-specific strategy makes sense in the Sunshine State.
“A lot of what happens when Latin Americans — especially recent immigrants — enter in American politics is they see things through the prism of their own countries,” he said.
‘THE RIGHT MESSAGING WORKS’
For years, Venezuelans have been fleeing to South Florida. Over 221,800 live in the state, the largest population from the South American country in the U.S. Not all can vote, but many do, and there are enough voters to affect the elections.
Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., who was first elected while Barack Obama was president, saw an opening under a Republican administration and has become the chief architect of U.S. policy toward Venezuela. Rubio’s influence became clear after Trump’s inauguration, when he arranged a meeting in the White House with the president, Vice President Mike Pence, and Lilian Tintori, a democracy activist and the wife of imprisoned Venezuelan leader Leopoldo López.
“That was probably a turning point,” Gamarra said.
Rubio has become one of the biggest proponents for Venezuelan exiles, visiting the Colombia-Venezuela border last month, and tweeting multiple times a day about events in Venezuela — often as they unfold. Venezuelans usually reply with an outpouring of gratitude.
“The right messaging works,” said Gamarra. “I think Rubio figured it out early on.”
Former Rep. Carlos Curbelo, a Cuban-American who represented a Miami-area district in Congress until January, said Trump was already winning “high praise” in South Florida from having “invested a great deal of political capital and resources in addressing Venezuela.”
“But more broadly throughout the state, the anti-immigrant rhetoric that the president has become known for is going to mitigate any gains in South Florida as a result of the Venezuela policy,” Curbelo said.
Latino voters in Florida, like elsewhere, are not a monolith, however. The Puerto Rican population is focused on different issues than the Mexican community based in central Florida, or those from Cuba, and Venezuela that are more populous in South Florida. Even within these groups, there are partisan differences among the varied generations and socio-economic groups.
Moreover, Trump’s recent actions have further cemented the perception that he’s hostile to Latinos and immigration from Latin America.
His administration is moving to cut hundreds of millions of dollars in assistance to Guatemala, El Salvador and Honduras, accusing their governments of doing too little to stem the flow of migrants over the border. He’s also opposed more disaster aid to Puerto Rico for Hurricane Maria recovery, launching a Twitter broadside this week against “grossly incompetent” local politicians who he says “only take from USA.”
On Friday, Trump’s re-election campaign released a video emphasizing his push to build a border wall to address “the crisis at the border,” a move that polling shows is deeply unpopular with Latinos.
This article originally appearred on NBC