Parties fight for Puerto Rican vote in must-win Florida races

Parties fight for Puerto Rican vote in must-win Florida races
© The Hill photo illustration

Republicans and Democrats are fighting over Florida’s Puerto Rican voters, a massive voting bloc capable of swinging the state, and its presidential vote, toward either party.

The courting of this key demographic group comes as Florida faces a blockbuster Senate race pitting incumbent Sen. Bill NelsonClarence (Bill) William NelsonThe Hill's 12:30 Report — Kavanaugh controversy consumes Washington | Kavanaugh slated to testify Monday | Allegations shake up midterms Florida governor booed out of restaurant over red tide algae issues Juan Williams: America warms up to socialism MORE (D) against Gov. Rick Scott (R) in the fall, with Republicans hoping to make inroads in a community that has voted more Democratic in recent years.

Latino voters overall will likely also play a critical role in the 2020 elections, as the Sunshine State remains a must-win for any presidential contender.


Florida has experienced a boom in the growth of the Puerto Rican community after the island experienced an economic collapse and two hurricanes pummeled it in 2017.

University of Florida researchers projected in February that the state’s Puerto Rican population likely surpassed New York’s in 2017, making Florida host to the largest Puerto Rican diaspora in the country, with more than a million people. 

Most efforts are centered around Orlando, where around half of Florida’s Puerto Ricans are concentrated. But nearly every district in the state has a statistically significant Puerto Rican population.

A survey by a coalition of progressive Hispanic organizations released Monday showed that 22 percent of Florida’s Latino voters are Puerto Rican or of Puerto Rican origin, second only to Cuban-Americans, who account for 28 percent. 

The survey showed clear political differences between the two groups: 44 percent of Puerto Ricans support Nelson and 37 percent support Scott, though among Cuban-Americans, support for Scott is at 57 percent, while 33 percent support Nelson.

Non-Cuban Latino voters have traditionally been a key voting bloc for Democrats in the state, and the poll gives Nelson a 44 percent to 41 percent lead over Scott among Latino voters overall, a statistical dead heat given it is well within the margin of error of plus or minus 4.9 percent.

But Scott is making a play to court the Puerto Rican vote, seeking to earn endorsements and spending time campaigning in the community.

Scott has received the endorsement of Del. Jenniffer González-Colón (R-P.R.) and Puerto Rico Senate President Thomas Rivera Schatz (R), though Nelson has the support of prominent Puerto Rico Democrats like former Govs. Pedro Rosselló and Alejandro Garcia Padílla and San Juan Mayor Carmen Yulín Cruz.

Registration numbers among Puerto Rican voters in Florida show that they may not always vote Democratic, as many observers expect. 

In Florida’s 9th Congressional District, for example, 21,000 new Puerto Rican voters registered to vote since January of 2017, but Chuck Rocha, a Democratic campaign consultant who advised Sen. Bernie SandersBernard (Bernie) SandersWarren joins Sanders in support of striking McDonald's workers Kavanaugh allegations could be monster storm brewing for midterm elections      Senate approves 4B spending bill MORE’s (I-Vt.) 2016 presidential campaign, said many registered with no party affiliation.

“The problem is that only 6,000 of them have registered as Democrats, only a little over 1,000 have registered as Republicans, and the entire rest of them have registered as no party affiliation,” said Rocha. 

The 9th District is represented by Rep. Darren SotoDarren Michael SotoTrump's Puerto Rico tweets spark backlash Election Countdown: What to watch in final primaries | Dems launch M ad buy for Senate races | Senate seats most likely to flip | Trump slump worries GOP | Koch network's new super PAC Puerto Rico governor vows to support pro-statehood candidates in 2018 MORE (D), the state’s only national legislator of Puerto Rican origin.

One oft-cited reason for independent registrations among Puerto Ricans is that many newcomers identify with the island’s major political parties, the New Progressive Party and the Popular Democratic Party, which don’t align directly with the Republican and Democratic parties.

Soto noted that newcomers take time to adapt to Florida’s political system, starting off with having to vote every two years rather than every four.

The GOP and conservative groups are banking on community outreach programs to court Puerto Rican voters ahead of the November elections, focusing on initiatives like Welcome to Florida workshops and in-home get-togethers. 

Republicans are also expanding their arsenal beyond typical voter registration drives, bringing in school-choice advocates to talk about education issues or providing advice on résumé-writing and applying for jobs. 

The goal, a Florida GOP spokeswoman said, is to help voters “understand where their values lie.” 

“When they come here and they kind of understand the way things work, they do realize where their values lie,” Taryn Fenske said. “And I think it can help them realize that they align more with the Republican Party.”

Conservative groups, like those belonging to the Koch network, have long argued that Latino voters are more inclined to side with Republicans, citing more conservative views on issues like abortion. 

The GOP’s outreach efforts center around the Orlando area and the I-4 corridor — the diverse swath of cities, suburbs and rural areas branching off the interstate between Daytona Beach on the East Coast and St. Petersburg on the Gulf Coast  where many Puerto Ricans have settled. 

The Libre Institute, an offshoot of the Koch-backed Libre Initiative, has also taken on a similar program offering civics courses and English language classes as it seeks to attract Puerto Rican voters to its brand of small-government conservatism. 

Meanwhile, Democrats are prioritizing recruiting more candidates of color in 2018 and pushing grass-roots efforts to reach voters directly.

Soto noted he was first elected to the state House in 2007, when he was the only local legislator of Puerto Rican origin. Now, he said, “there are seven or eight of us” at the state level. 

Meanwhile, Nelson’s campaign, for instance, has hired a Spanish-language press secretary and writes its own Spanish-language copy.

For Puerto Ricans, especially newcomers to the mainland, any pitch for their vote would need to prioritize the island’s reconstruction.

According to the survey from Hispanic organizations, 82 percent of Florida’s Puerto Rican voters believe that rebuilding the island is a high-priority issue, compared to 64 percent of Hispanic voters at large and 58 percent of Cuban-American voters.

Political observers also believe the Puerto Rican community could become a key voting bloc for the 2020 presidential election, though low voter participation could be an issue.

Puerto Ricans played a key role in President Obama’s 2008 and 2012 victories in Florida, but didn’t turn out as much in 2016, when President TrumpDonald John TrumpTrump: I hope voters pay attention to Dem tactics amid Kavanaugh fight South Korea leader: North Korea agrees to take steps toward denuclearization Graham calls handling of Kavanaugh allegations 'a drive-by shooting' MORE beat Democratic nominee Hillary ClintonHillary Diane Rodham ClintonHillary Clinton: FBI investigation into Kavanaugh could be done quickly Hillary Clinton urges Americans to 'check and reject' Trump's 'authoritarian tendencies' by voting in midterms EXCLUSIVE: Trump says exposing ‘corrupt’ FBI probe could be ‘crowning achievement’ of presidency MORE in the state.

“President Obama’s campaigns definitely had a stronger ground game and local community effort to them, while Clinton had much more by the way of ads, and I think that could’ve hurt her with the overall Puerto Rican community as well as [with] turnout in Florida,” said Soto.

Rocha, who says Democrats often don’t invest enough in the last mile of Latino outreach, agreed.

“If you want to get Puerto Ricans to vote, you need to ask them to vote where they are, where they’re living, and where they’re consuming information. And that’s not a 30 second commercial on ABC,” said Rocha.

Still, Democrats are optimistic about their electoral chances after Trump and the federal government faced strong criticism for their handling of the aftermath of Hurricane Maria last year, which left most of the island without power for days, though Trump and the White House have defended their actions.

Last week, the Puerto Rican government acknowledged that more than 1,400 people likely died on the island due to Hurricane Maria, roughly 20 times the previous official estimate.

“Trump has made it easier for us as a party,” said Soto.

An overwhelming 72 percent of Puerto Rican voters in Florida who participated in the survey say Trump has not done enough to welcome Puerto Ricans to the state.

And Democrats have been quick to remind Puerto Rican voters of Trump’s controversial visit to the island after the hurricanes, when the president tossed paper towels at onlookers seeking government aid.

Some Democrats believe 2018 represents an opportunity to push Florida toward the blue column for the foreseeable future.

“This is the single most important electorate in the country,” said Rocha. “If the Puerto Rican mobilization is done properly and invested in properly, you could turn Florida blue for generations.”

Others aren’t so bullish as Republicans increase their outreach effort.

“Florida always seems to maintain a swing state status, so I’m not going to pop the champagne bottles yet,” said Soto. “My thought is that Florida will maintain its peculiar condition as a swing state.”