KISSIMMEE, Fla. – Marilyn Del Valle climbed to her feet at the Nacion de Fe church in Kissimmee on Thursday, clapping and taking photos as Vice President Mike Pence took the stage.
Del Valle is a proud “Nuyorican” — born in New York to Puerto Rican parents — who lives in central Florida. She's part of the Republican Party's highly courted demographic this campaign season: evangelical Latinos.
The campaign believes that emphasizing religion and anti-abortion talking points could reach those Latino voters who have doubts about the GOP over issues like immigration. Even attracting a small slice of evangelical Latinos could help Trump win Florida again; he won the state by 1.2 percentage points in 2016.
Less than two weeks ago, Trump visited a Hispanic megachurch in Miami, kicking off an “Evangelicals for Trump" focus, and Thursday's event was an extension of that. Kissimmee, which is in Osceola County near Orlando, is heavily Puerto Rican. Those voters are especially attractive to the GOP because they're American citizens and can vote. While many have traditionally been Democrats, Republicans think they can reach the more conservative folks in that booming demographic.
According to census data, 29.3% of the residents in Osceola were a racial group other than white in 2000. In 2018, that number had swelled to 55.3%.
Pence worked to energize the crowd of a few hundred people, drawing raucous applause when referencing the administration's defense of anti-abortion policies.
“President Donald Trump is the most pro-life president in American history,” he said.
Said Robert Barreto, who drove to Kissimmee to see the vice president after being shut out of an earlier event with Pence because the venue was too crowded: “It's a key issue for me, a candidate is pro-life.” He added that a strong economy was another large factor in why he supports the GOP ticket.
Saul Perez, a Puerto Rican who lives in nearby St. Cloud, has attended Nacion de Fe for 12 years. He said his top priorities are religious expression and the economy, noting happily that he recently paid $2.70 a gallon for gas and under President Barack Obama, gas was $3.89 a gallon.
“Things were bad in the past under Obama,” he said.
Pence, along with speakers who included congressman Mario Diaz-Balart, R-Miami, and Jose Fuentes, the former attorney general of Puerto Rico, remarked on the low Hispanic unemployment rate.
“In the words of Ronald Reagan: Are you guys doing better today than you were doing three years ago?” asked Fuentes.
The crowd also went wild when Pence mentioned “the freedom to live our values” and said Trump took steps Thursday to give religious organizations easier access to federal programs and reaffirmed students’ rights to pray in public schools.
Pence noted that the U.S. Senate opened Trump's impeachment trial on Thursday, calling it a "shameful attempt to overturn the will of the American people of the last election.”
Del Valle was impressed even before Pence came out, saying that no other Republican in 2016, or since, had resonated with her like Trump and Pence.
“We need men who will stand up for the rights of everybody in our country,” said Del Valle, a 46-year-old restaurant server who voted for Trump and Pence in 2016.
On Wednesday, local Democrats criticized the GOP's record with Hispanics. The mayor of Kissimmee spoke at a news conference held by the Florida Democratic Party at a podium in front of signs that read “Incompetent President” in Spanish.
“We know why the vice president is here in Kissimmee,” said Mayor Jose Alvarez. “He is here to confuse us, to try to take our vote, because they need it. And we need to stand up, and we need to teach them a lesson that they are not going to take our vote.”
Alvarez blasted the Trump administration for its response to Hurricane Maria in 2017, which devastated Puerto Rico and caused thousands of deaths. He also criticized the president's silence after the series of earthquakes that have been rattling the island for weeks now. A 6.4 magnitude quake hit on Jan. 7, killing one person and injuring nine other people.
“The president hasn’t raised a finger to help them out,” said the Cuban-born mayor. Trump declared an emergency to release funds for recovery, but Democrats say the federal government needs to allocate more resources for towns to restore power and rebuild homes.
Associated Press writer Adriana Gomez contributed to this report from Miami.