Despite Puerto Rico's zero electoral votes, GOP still knows political value

Despite Puerto Rico's zero electoral votes, GOP still knows political value
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On Monday night, President Trump inspired outrage when he took to Twitter and issued what many viewed as insensitive tweets about Puerto Rico, seeming to blame the island for its predicament in the aftermath of Hurricane Maria.

While Trump’s tweets weren’t exactly the pinnacle of tenderness and sympathy in the aftermath of a crippling natural disaster (then again, when are they?) arguably even worse was this response from Obama administration alum Dan Pfeiffer: “If Puerto Rico had electoral votes, help would already be on the way, but it doesn’t so Trump and Republicans are in no rush.”

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Pfeiffer subsequently deleted the tweet. That’s good. In addition to being factually incorrect — post-hurricane relief efforts are well underway, even if they can and should be expanded — the suggestion that Puerto Rico would be ignored by Republicans because of electoral politics is seriously misinformed.

The truth is that Puerto Ricans actually might have handed Trump his victory in Florida in 2016 (an absolutely key component of his overall win), and Trump knew that was possible when he was running in the general election. In fact, he took steps to ensure that Puerto Ricans benefited him, electorally. A lot of Democrats, probably including Pfeiffer, simply didn’t notice — hence the ill-advised tweeting. But that makes it no less true that caring about the priorities of Puerto Ricans helped deliver a big state for a guy considered a dead-candidate-walking as of early November last year.

On the campaign trail last fall, Trump declared that Puerto Rican citizens “should be entitled to determine for themselves their political status,” including statehood. This was much-remarked upon among Puerto Ricans — in Puerto Rico itself (which will gain electoral college votes if Trump has his way) and in and around Orlando, where a great many of their friends and relatives live, work and vote. Few commentators and Democratic operatives clocked this when it happened, but the results were evident on election night.

While the Puerto Rican community in Florida didn’t overwhelmingly vote for Trump (though some portions of it undoubtedly did), Republican political consultants with expertise in Florida and Puerto Rican politics will tell you that Trump effectively neutralized the Puerto Rican vote, making Florida voters from Puerto Rico feel that there was insufficient daylight on a, if not the, top voting issue (statehood) between Trump and Clinton.

Also, a lot of those voters just didn’t vote for president at all. That allowed Trump to tip the balance in key parts of Florida’s I-4 corridor, thus winning him the state — a scenario he’s probably painfully aware he needs to do everything possible to replicate to win again in 2020.

And, of course, Trump isn’t the only Republican to know that ignoring the priorities of Puerto Ricans is dumb, not just because of ethics but because of politics.

Sen. Marco RubioMarco Antonio RubioRyan pledges 'entitlement reform' in 2018 Richard Gere welcomes lawmakers' words of support for Tibet Dem lawmaker gives McConnell's tax reform op-ed a failing grade MORE, another “Republican” caught by Pfeiffer’s tweet, has been working his butt off over the last few days to alleviate the dire suffering in Puerto Rico. If you’re on his press list, you’ve been inundated with news about what Rubio is doing to try to help Puerto Rico. If you follow activist Malala Yousafzai on Twitter, you also know that Rubio has, in fact, been so focused on Puerto Rico that he skipped an awesome photo-op meeting with her to keep trying to push relief efforts forward. How un-politician-y of him.

Rubio has been praised by Puerto Rico’s governor, Ricardo Rossello for his actions, with the governor tweeting this week:

And Trump, too, has earned praise from prominent Puerto Ricans. None other than Lin-Manuel Miranda tweeted thanks to Trump. San Juan’s mayor, Carmen Cruz, also has praised FEMA’s disaster recovery efforts.

Trump has since waived shipping restrictions to the island to help with aid and delivery efforts, suspending an outdated law called the Jones Act (something that should really be scrapped altogether). Suspension of the law should have happened sooner, however, since refusing this request looked like a giveaway to protectionist forces at the expense of American citizens in desperate need.

Trump has also ordered FEMA to take responsibility for more of the clean-up costs.

Puerto Rico is still very, very far from out of the woods. The situation there is dire, with stories of grandmothers rationing crackers to small children and fuel shortages risking the lives of kids on hospital ventilators. As of Tuesday, reports were that over 40 percent of Puerto Ricans lacked potable water. It is vitally important that the administration and Congress stay on this, and even upstep efforts.

While there will be plenty of focus on the need to swiftly pass an aid package to help Puerto Rico, there are a couple things that President Trump could do right now that would make his administration’s response to this better, and keep critics including Pfeiffer at bay.

First, President Trump should — if humanly possible — move up his visit to Puerto Rico. While no one wants VIPs to get in the way of relief efforts, and Trump has done a good job of avoiding this with regard to other recent hurricanes, waiting until next week to visit is poor optics that reinforces the notion that Puerto Rico is being treated as the redheaded stepchild to higher-priority golden-kids Florida and Texas.

Second, Trump could use his Twitter account and personal fortune to help Puerto Rico right now. While Congress weighs an aid package, Trump could use his massive Twitter following to push ordinary Americans not stuck on the island to donate to non-governmental organizations that are providing aid. He could make a donation to those organizations himself, and tweet about it to encourage others to follow suit.

These are simple things that could be done right now to improve Puerto Rico’s fortunes, and frankly, to try to build some fresh goodwill in parts of the U.S. that did assist with his 2016 electoral victory.

Trump may not understand the intricacies of disaster relief policy, but he does understand electoral math — and that alone should be enough to spur him to action.

Liz Mair is the president of Mair Strategies LLC and a former adviser to Scott Walker, Rand PaulRandal (Rand) Howard PaulLexington mayor launches bid for Congress Trump-free Kennedy Center Honors avoids politics Meet the Iran hawk who could be Trump's next secretary of State MORE, Rick PerryJames (Rick) Richard PerryPerry pictured with falcon, sword during trek to Saudi Arabia Trump promised ‘best people’ would run government — they upended it US oil and gas boom will actually help spur energy revolution MORE and Carly Fiorina. In 2008, she was the RNC’s online communications director. Her firm worked in opposition to the AHCA, including on grounds raised by Cruz and Freedom Caucus members. Follow her on Twitter at @LizMair.