TAMPA — In the third-most populous state, rich with delegates, there has long been one Florida “do-not-touch” political third rail: Cuba.
And in south Florida, home to more than 1.3 million Cuban exiles and Cuban-American immigrants, to speak ill of those who flee the communist island has remained a death knell.
Now Donald Trump is testing yet one more well-worn political rule: visit the state, drink a Cuban coffee (cafecito), and then rail against communist Cuba and the Castro brothers, while extending a warm welcome to those Cubans who escaped the island nation.
But the self-avowed “non-politician” who is Donald Trump has not only stepped on that third rail here, but kicked it hard without nuance.
In an interview with the Tampa Bay Times late Friday, Trump told political reporter Adam Smith that allowing Cuban immigrants legal access to the U.S under a 1966 law known as the Cuban Adjustment Act is wrong.
“You know we have a system now for bringing people into the country, and what we should be doing is we should be bringing people who are terrific people who have terrific records of achievement, accomplishment. … You have people that have been in the system for years (waiting to immigrate to America), and it’s very unfair when people who just walk across the border, and you have other people that do it legally.”
Susan MacManus, a professor of the political science at the University of South Florida, said the comments could have consequences.
“In a state where elections are won by 1 percent or less, it is still risky to alienate blocs of potential supporters,” MacManus said.
The importance of the Cuban-American vote was perhaps most evident in 2000 when George W. Bush narrowly won election by 537 votes.
The key to that narrow victory: Cuban-American votes. Seventy percent of Cuban-American voters in battleground Miami-Dade County voted for Bush.
For Trump, a candidate who had a crowd of more than 10,000 at a rally in Tampa chanting “Build That Wall!” in Friday, a statement like this about Cuban immigrants could cost votes.
MacManus says “Today’s Hispanic voters in Florida are much more diverse and identity politics much more prominent than when George W. Bush was elected.”
Every day, several hundred Cubans cross the border from Mexico into Texas. Theirs is a perilous journey from Cuba to South America, up through Central American and across the border.
As the New York Times reported this week, tensions are growing as just one group, Cubans, get this special most-favored-status.
Also driving attention to the Cuban immigrant are cases of Medicare fraud. A high-profile series of reports by the South Florida Sun-Sentinel newspaper, called “Plundering America,” detailed how immigrants from Cuba have exploited loopholes and cost American taxpayers hundreds of millions of dollars.
In January, Republican presidential candidate Sen. Marco Rubio, who is of Cuban decent, filed legislation to restrict federal benefits to Cuban immigrants unless the new arrivals could prove persecution.
Unlike Trump, Rubio stopped short of wanting to prevent their escape from the communist island.
“It is outrageous whenever the American people’s generosity is exploited. It is particularly outrageous when individuals who claim to be fleeing repression in Cuba are welcomed and allowed to collect federal assistance based on their plight, only to return often to the very place they claimed to be fleeing,” Rubio said in a statement at the time.
Republican presidential candidate and Texas Sen. Ted Cruz, whose father was Cuban, has said he believes the Cuban Adjustment Act is still needed as long as the government there remains communist.
Trump’s statement comes at a time when the once politically powerful Cuban-American population in South Florida ages, and as second generation Cuban Americans have few dreams of returning to the island their parents escaped.
MacManus says “The Cuban vote in Florida is less cohesive than it used to be, largely because the younger generations are more driven by domestic than foreign policy.”
This article originally appeared on NBCNews.com.