ORLANDO (AP) - Florida Democrats have seen their registration numbers swell in recent years, due in large part to a surge in Hispanic voters.
But despite their success on paper, state Democratic officials are struggling to connect with Hispanics, who have little representation among the party's Florida leadership. That could spell trouble not just for the future of the party in a state that's now nearly a quarter Latino, but also for President Barack Obama and U.S. Sen. Bill Nelson, who will be counting on Latino support during tough races next year.
"There's no bench here. Democrats don't cultivate Hispanic leaders," said Freddy Balsera, who heads a Hispanic-focused public relations firm in Miami and serves on the Democratic National Committee's finance team.
That's a problem for the party statewide but especially true in South Florida, where Cuban exiles have long been loyal to the Republican Party and have built their influence over decades. The list of high-level Republican GOP Hispanics includes U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio, South Florida's three members of Congress and state House Majority Leader Carlos Lopez-Cantera. The run-off for Miami-Dade County mayor pitted two Republican Cuban-Americans against each other.
Meanwhile, only three Latino Democrats serve in the state House, none in the Senate. And as the state begins the process of redrawing political boundaries to conform with population changes since 2000 - which will likely lead to at least one new heavily Hispanic congressional seat - Democratic party officials have been slow to respond.
Joe Garcia, a past head of Miami-Dade Democrats and former Obama appointee who ran unsuccessfully for Congress last year, said Republicans have been more aggressive in going after Latino voters.
"The Republican Party views Hispanics in terms of market share: Who are they? How do we reach them? Democrats still view us in terms of quotas," Garcia said.
Florida Hispanics, like Latinos nationwide, provided overwhelming support in 2008 for Obama thanks to a national get-out-the-vote effort. Since December of that year, 73,000 have registered in the state as Democrats and another 76,000 have registered while declaring no party. There have been 31,000 new Hispanic Republicans.
The growth in Democratic voters has come in part from younger, more progressive Cuban Americans and a wave of Puerto Ricans and other Latinos.
But that didn't help Florida Democrats in last year's election, as turnout of their Hispanic members dropped sharply - even more than among other Democratic voters - according to party leaders. It was one reason why the Democrats lost races for governor and U.S. Senate as well as other statewide contests.
For Democratic Hispanic Caucus leader Jose Fernandez in Orlando, that drop came as no surprise. The Army veteran recalled how Democratic gubernatorial candidate Alex Sink bought few Spanish-language ads and toured a local Puerto Rican community center only weeks before the election, when narrowly lost.
"People still thought she was a man with a name like Alex," he said. "We don't work like that. We have to see people, hear them."
The Democrats' challenge in Florida comes as the party expects to do well again nationally with Latinos in 2012, in part because of GOP attacks on the immigration issue.
But Hispanics in Florida are somewhat of an anomaly. Cubans, who make up the majority, are generally allowed to stay in the country as soon as they touch U.S. soil, and Puerto Ricans are already citizens. Among the state's growing South and Central American communities, many have yet to be naturalized.
Patrick Manteiga, publisher of a trilingual Tampa newspaper (Spanish, English and Italian), said the party needs to reach out to new leaders like those at the region's thriving Hispanic churches, many of them evangelical.
"The pastors may be conservative Republicans, but there are many Democrats among their congregants," he said.
Scott Arceneaux, executive director of the state Democratic party, said the party is trying to improve outreach, but he conceded his party could take a page from the Republicans when it comes to Hispanics.
"They have absolutely done a better job than we have," he said. "It's finding young school commissioners, your business and community leaders. You've got to identify those people and help bring them along."
Earlier this year, Florida Democrats hired a Puerto Rican community activist from Orlando to head Hispanic outreach efforts. But the party declined to make her available to The Associated Press for an interview.
Luis Garcia, one of the party's three state representatives, said he's urged the Democrats to hire someone to do similar work in South Florida.
"Where we have been failing, is that we have not been attracting the younger voters," said Garcia, a retired fire chief who is being courted to run for Congress against embattled South Florida Republican David Rivera.
Arceneaux blames the lack of elected Hispanic Democrats on districts created a decade ago by the Republican-controlled Legislature following the 2000 Census. But as the state gears up again for redistricting, local Democrats have missed key opportunities.
In Orange County, many Puerto Ricans were angered when officials failed to appoint any to a redistricting committee even though they make up a third of the county. Local Democrats were slow to react to the flap, even though Puerto Ricans tend to support them.
Similarly, in neighboring Hillsborough County, it took a New York-based Latino civil rights group from New York to help propose a county commission redistricting map that accurately reflected Hispanic growth. The mostly Republican commission nixed that map during a recent hearing. Local Democratic leaders were largely absent, attending their monthly meeting.
At the national level, the Obama campaign has set up Spanish-language phone banks in Florida and is planning a grass-roots organizing meeting later this month.
But Fernandez and others say engagement with Latinos should be about more than electing a Democratic president every four years.
Amy Mercado, chair of the Orange County Democrats, said she wants to see people in office like herself "who may be Hispanic, who are married and have to juggle and still do it all."
But she added: "They're not going to field a candidate just because it has a Hispanic name. I'm a Hispanic, Latina, but I'm a Democratic Latina. I'd rather have someone who's really going to push Democratic ideals than just have someone whose Hispanic or Latina."
She said the party is beginning to recognize people like herself, but that Hispanic Democrats also need to demonstrate they can act independently.
She should know. Last year, Mercado, a manager for the National Mango Board, ran a $64,000 maiden campaign against the powerful Florida House speaker, a Republican. With less than $2,000 in cash and $5,000 worth of in-kind contributions from the party, she won 40 percent of the vote.