“The fact that I’m having to raise this alarm, that it’s not coming directly from a Democratic organization or even the folks out of Washington, I think is a sign of concern,” said Fernand Amandi, a political strategist who helped Barack Obama win the state in 2008 and 2012.
Amandi said that the calls struck him “as weird because [Harris] is not really a topic of conversation down here. The focus is always on the Democrats as a party, on Biden, local officials.”
The on-air critiques, he and others said, range from claims that Harris is ineffective and ill-prepared to serve as president to outwardly sexist and racist suggestions, including that her own Jamaican and Indian heritage cause her to prioritize the issues of Black Americans over the concerns of Latinos.
Amandi said he changed the channel to another station and heard another caller “talking about Kamala Harris, and they [said] the same thing. ‘This is the woman who’s done nothing.’ It was a different person than was on the other [station]. And I was like, ‘Oh God, they got a phone bank.’”
There is no definitive proof of a coordinated campaign attacking Harris on South Florida radio, as opposed to organic criticism of her conveyed by regular callers.
POLITICO did record and review segments of local programs independently via a radio station’s webcasts. In one, a male caller can be heard describing Harris as “inefficient” and “disappointing,” adding that the vice president “doesn’t do nothing at all.” The same caller jumped from one point to another before finally accusing the administration of poorly managing the economy. In recent days, a POLITICO reporter also heard callers on other Miami-based Spanish-language programs using similar phrases to describe Harris.
In POLITICO’s review of two prominent Spanish-language stations, hosts and callers sharing critiques of Biden still outnumbered Harris. There were sporadic attacks on Anthony Fauci, the president’s chief medical adviser, too.
Still, Roberto Rodríguez Tejera, a morning radio host who has been working in Miami media for three decades, said in a phone interview that he too has noticed the trend in calls about Harris on his own morning show. He came to the same conclusion as Amandi that they likely are coordinated. He identified no suspects but speculated that Republicans are behind them.
“It’s not like you get 10 calls every day. It’s not like that. You get a couple of calls here, a couple of calls there,” Rodriguez said. “That’s how the phone banks begin that [have] worked,” he added, pointing to the way political operatives over the years have directed specific messages through callers on the radio programs. “But it’s a trend that you see that is growing by the day; is growing by the week.”
A spokesperson for the Republican Party of Florida did not respond to a request for comment.
Curiosity over who may be behind the targeting of Harris on radio is owed, in part, to the belief that Republicans are trying to bloody her up politically should Biden not run for reelection. Last year, Biden himself faced Spanish-language disinformation and partisan propaganda in the state across WhatsApp chats, Facebook pages and popular radio shows.
Despite decades serving in elected office in California, Harris is still relatively new to the national stage, meaning that there’s plenty of room to define her in the eyes of voters.
“They’re starting early. ‘We must begin to attack her now and make her look like a demon.’ And the problem with that is that the Democratic Party doesn’t realize that this narrative is being born in Miami-Dade County, and it will spread to other Hispanics across the U.S,” said Sasha Tirador, a Democratic operative in Florida.
Tirador said if the party doesn’t start to knock down the narrative as it swells, it’s going to be nearly impossible to “convince all these elderly folks and your typical Hispanics that just listen to AM radio that what they’ve been listening to that ‘Kamala is bad’ is not true in three months, which is what Democrats like to do. They like to swoop in at the last moment and campaign, and that’s why it doesn’t work.”
Fast-spreading critiques have long been a fixture in Florida politics. They’ve evolved with technology, allowing operatives to quickly spread talking points from mobile phone apps to callers and onto influential talk-radio programs.
The tactics have been used by both Republicans and Democrats in past election cycles as a way to reach Latino voters. And talk radio in particular, program hosts and consultants said, has been a powerful medium to communicate to older and newly-immigrated audiences that by and large prefer it to reading local newspapers because of the sense of connection it gives them.
Emiliano Antunez, a Florida operative who has worked for both Democrats and Republicans in the state, called it an “open secret” that the parties use phone banks and confirmed that he’s “been asked to do those things once in a while where [they say] ‘hey, you know where we want to create this buzz about this person or that person.”
While Democrats in Florida said they worry about the toll such attacks will take on Harris, they also view the lack of a response as the latest troubling sign that the party is disinvesting from a swing state that’s become home base for former President Donald Trump and his MAGA movement.
“It’s like watching a termite crawl across the wooden beams of your house,” Amandi said of the Harris calls. “One may be nothing, but it also may be a sign that there’s a colony slowly but surely eating away the foundation. It’s best to investigate and deal with the situation as opposed to walking in one day and seeing your house falling apart at the seams.”
Party leaders and operatives acknowledged they have work to do with Latinos in state, including continuing to push back on claims the party embraces socialism.
Some argued that they need to find a new way to marshal an offensive of their own against Republicans over threats to democracy, a point they think can find salience given GOP challenges to the 2020 election results.
The Democratic National Committee has dedicated researchers to tracking misinformation and propaganda targeting Hispanic and Latino communities in English and Spanish, and commissioned polling to measure misinformation’s impact. Party officials reiterated that they are committed to communicating facts to Latino communities. And they have had several conversations already with social media companies — especially WhatsApp, which is owned by Meta, formerly known as Facebook — encouraging them to take more responsibility for misinformation on their platforms.
Asked about the Harris calls, DNC spokesperson Ammar Moussa said it was “no surprise that there’s an apparently coordinated campaign to attack her with thinly veiled sexist and racist smears — it’s something she’s faced her entire career. Americans know the vice president is delivering for them and they will see right through this campaign of lies.”
Moussa added that Harris has been a “critical partner” to Biden on infrastructure, creating millions of jobs and working to find solutions to fix the immigration system.
The White House declined to comment.
The diversity of Florida’s Latino population — from emerging blocs of people with Puerto Rican, Nicaraguan, Colombian, Dominican and Venezuelan backgrounds that lean Democratic to its large Republican-leaning Cuban community in Miami-Dade — remain a major focus of political campaigns in the state. Miami has long been viewed as a pilot market for messaging to Latino voters, with more potent content often exported to other areas around the country.
Democrats acknowledged that the recent spate of attention on Harris may be a so-called “Made in Miami” phenomenon that gains little traction outside South Florida, yet some believe it also could be indicative of the sorts of efforts that are already happening under the radar in Spanish-language media in other states or a harbinger of what’s to come elsewhere.
Florida Democrats stressed that they weren’t so much worried about hard-core conservatives knocking Harris in their own echo chambers as they are about the possible pickup that their comments could get with less partisan voters and recent immigrants, who aren’t as steeped in the news.
Harris has a history of working with Latinos and on Latino issues in her home state of California. When she ran for the Senate against a Latina in 2016, she was adamant with her campaign advisers that she needed to win the Latino vote in the state, drawing big-name, early endorsements from the likes of labor icon Dolores Huerta. In that race, Harris’ opponent, then-Rep. Loretta Sanchez (D-Calif.), took heat after she appeared on a Spanish-language broadcast and suggested President Barack Obama may have endorsed Harris because both are Black. Harris demanded Sanchez apologize.
In the Senate, Harris dedicated her first floor speech to blasting Trump over immigration and focused her efforts on protecting young immigrant “dreamers.” She broke with most in her own party to cast a closely watched vote against a legislative deal that would have provided billions of dollars in funding for Trump’s border wall along the Mexico border in exchange for providing dreamers a pathway to citizenship.
Earlier this year, she took heat from some on the left when, during a high-profile visit to Guatemala, she told migrants contemplating traveling to the southern U.S. border, “Do not come.” Harris made the trip in her capacity as the president’s point person on the causes of migration to the southern border, and she was echoing the Biden administration’s talking points on the issue, but it still disappointed many immigration activists. At the same time, she’s been assailed by Republicans over problems at the southern border arising from the United States’ patchwork approach to immigration.