Puerto Ricans in Florida play key role in Senate race

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Puerto Ricans in Florida are poised to play a crucial role in the marquee Senate race there, as both candidates scramble to woo one of the state’s fastest-growing Hispanic groups.

Tens of thousands of people, who fled Puerto Rico after Hurricane Maria ravaged the island in September, have resettled in Florida. That’s expected to have implications in the high-profile clash between Sen. Bill Nelson (D) and Gov. Rick Scott (R) this fall.

{mosads}The influx of Puerto Ricans — who can register to vote as soon as they arrive since they’re U.S. citizens — are likely to give Democrats a boost, as they typically favor the party. President Trump is also highly unpopular among Puerto Ricans for his response to the hurricane.

But Scott has shown surprising strength among Puerto Ricans because of his engagement with their community, both on the island and in Florida, while serving as governor. A close Trump ally, he appears to have so far successfully distanced himself from the president on the issue, even as post-Maria tensions linger.

While Democrats acknowledge Scott’s ability to make inroads, they believe they can change the narrative once they educate voters more on Nelson’s record and emphasize the close relationship between Trump and Scott.

“[Scott’s] done the easy stuff — take the trips, be seen,” said José Parra, a Democratic strategist and CEO of Prospero Latino, a consulting firm. He added that it remains to be seen if he’ll use “the actual power of office to influence the administration he’s allied with.”

“That’s where the rubber meets the road. It’s up to Democrats to frame that and show Puerto Ricans if it doesn’t happen,” he said.

The competitive and costly showdown between Nelson and Scott is expected to play a big role in determining control of the Senate, with Republicans hanging on to a 51-49 majority.

Both candidates have proven to be fundraising powerhouses. Nelson has raised nearly $12 million from the beginning of 2017 to this April. Scott has caught up, though, raising an eye-popping $10.7 million in less than three months.

Nelson, a three-term senator, represents a state that Trump won by just over 1 point in 2016. In a perennial swing state known for razor-thin margins, Puerto Ricans could play a critical role in delivering a victory for either side.

About 1.3 million Puerto Ricans are now estimated to live in Florida, overtaking the number of GOP-leaning Cuban-Americans who were once the largest Hispanic group there. After Maria, an estimated 40,000 Puerto Ricans resettled in Florida, according to Stefan Rayer, who’s director of a population program at the University of Florida.

Hurricane Maria put Puerto Rico in the spotlight in September, as thousands continued to live without power for months after the storm struck and the death toll rose to more than 5,000 people. Trump endured heavy criticism for his tepid recovery efforts compared to his response to hurricanes that hit Texas and Florida.

Now it’s becoming a key campaign issue for both candidates, and it appears the crucial voter bloc is still up for grabs.

Scott has made Puerto Rico a centerpiece of his campaign. When he announced his bid in April, he spoke alongside top Puerto Rican official Luis Rivera Marín and touted efforts to help the island after the hurricane. The governor has visited the island six times since September and announced he backs the island’s bid for statehood.

“This state showed up and we helped Puerto Ricans that came here because the problems that happened after Maria and we showed up in Puerto Rico,” Scott said in April. “We’re going to continue to be the best friend in the world for Puerto Ricans in Puerto Rico and in the United States.”

Shortly after his announcement, Scott went up with a $1 million Spanish-language TV spot. His efforts appear to have helped his standing with Puerto Ricans who moved to Florida before and after Maria, according to a recent Florida International University (FIU) poll.

About three-quarters of voters have a good opinion of Scott, while 62 percent have a favorable opinion of Nelson. The survey also found that nearly 70 percent know Scott, while less than half know Nelson. Of the poll’s respondents, 57 percent are registered Democrats.

But there’s also some promising signs for Democrats. Trump remains deeply unpopular, with three-quarters of Puerto Ricans holding a negative view of him.

FIU’s poll doesn’t include results of a head-to-head match-up. Other recent polls show the race is still a toss-up: The latest survey from NBC News/Marist Poll has Nelson up 4 points, and a YouGov poll for CBS has Scott up 5 points.

Strategists on both sides of the aisle say Scott’s role as governor has put him at the front lines on this issue. But Republicans say Scott will need to keep up his momentum and maintain some distance from the president, despite their close ties since 2016.

“I think Scott has put in a lot of work with Puerto Rico. He has a lot of visibility as governor, but he also can’t sleep on Hispanic problems, Puerto Rican and otherwise,” said Rick Wilson, a GOP strategist in Florida. “Because if he does, he could end up getting sideways very quickly.”

Democrats, meanwhile, are framing Scott’s efforts as insincere, arguing that Nelson has deeper roots with Hispanic communities. They’re also planning to tie Scott to Trump every chance they get. Scott ran a pro-Trump super PAC during the 2016 election and was personally encouraged to run by Trump.

“We’re highly motivated to vote based upon the mistreatment of those in the island after Hurricane Maria,” Rep. Darren Soto (D-Fla.), who is of Puerto Rican descent and has been campaigning with Nelson, told The Hill.

“It’s a combination of continuing to educate voters on Sen. Nelson being a longtime friend of the Hispanic community, while Scott has been a Johnny-come-lately to a lot of these issues in a huge election makeover,” Soto said.

Nelson has also visited Puerto Rico a handful of times and launched his first Spanish-language ad in mid-June. At the beginning of the year, he worked with fellow Florida Sen. Marco Rubio (R), who said he won’t campaign against Nelson, to call for disaster aid funding. And Nelson’s been critical of both Scott’s and Trump’s response to Hurricane Maria. 

But Democrats say that because Nelson hasn’t been on the ballot for six years and the Puerto Rican population in Florida has ballooned significantly since then, the senator will need to “reintroduce or introduce himself to voters across the state and tout the accomplishments he’s made,” according to Greg Speed, president of Democratic voter mobilization group America Votes.

As Florida still grapples with helping Puerto Rican evacuees, the issue of temporary housing has become another heated flashpoint in the race.

The Federal Emergency Management Agency’s (FEMA) Transitional Sheltering Assistance provided temporary housing in hotels for displaced families but was set to expire late last month. A federal court last week extended that housing for another month.

While they’ll still get temporary relief, Democrats are hounding both Scott and Trump for not doing more to help evacuees. Nelson has called on FEMA to enact a federal program that would provide more housing and criticized the governor for “raiding” an affordable housing trust fund related to the budget.

Scott released a statement accusing Nelson of playing politics. He also said that extending the temporary housing program is in the hands of the federal government and Puerto Rico, not Florida.

But Nelson believes Scott’s actions will have electoral ramifications — and the senator plans to make that a constant reminder up until Election Day.

“At the end of the day, what we want to make sure is that our Puerto Rican friends understand that elections have consequences. They know how they’ve been treated by President Trump,” Nelson said late last month. “So, we’re going to remind them of that.”

Tags Bill Nelson Darren Soto Donald Trump Marco Rubio

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