Dem 2020 candidates court Puerto Rico as long nomination contest looms

Dem 2020 candidates court Puerto Rico as long nomination contest looms
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Democratic presidential hopefuls are making an early play for Puerto Rican voters.

The candidates aren’t just after the territory’s delegates, but the swath of Boricua voters who have become an increasingly influential voting bloc in key states, like Florida, in recent years.

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“We don’t only pay attention to what’s going on in our home states, but what’s going on on the island,” said Rep. Darren SotoDarren Michael SotoImmigration bills move forward amid political upheaval McCain and Dingell: Inspiring a stronger Congress Hispanic grass-roots groups warn 2020 Dems not to overlook them MORE (D-Fla.), the first person of Puerto Rican descent to be elected to Congress from Florida.

Julián Castro, a former Housing and Urban Development secretary who formally announced his candidacy earlier this month, made the first stop of his campaign to the island on Jan. 14.

Days later, Sen. Elizabeth WarrenElizabeth Ann WarrenGillibrand seizes on abortion debate to jump-start campaign CEO pay rising twice as fast as worker pay: AP Senate Democrats to House: Tamp down the impeachment talk MORE (D-Mass.), who formed an exploratory committee late last month, visited San Juan, where she delivered a speech rebuking the Trump administration’s response to two hurricanes that devastated Puerto Rico in 2017.

“From ignoring the suffering inflicted by Maria and Irma, to building Trump’s ugly wall, to tearing families apart at the border, this administration has used the power of the United States government to inflict cruelty on immigrants and people of color,” Warren said.

Yamila Pino, the Hispanic media relations manager at the consulting firm
Prospero Latino, said Puerto Rico’s primaries are “often used to take the pulse of the Puerto Rican vote on the U.S. mainland.”

“We always have a relationship with the island,” said Pino. “We don’t disconnect and it’s something that, even if we don’t live there, it’s of interest.”

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The early efforts to court Puerto Rican voters could also pay off in the event of a close primary fight. So far, more than half a dozen Democrats have mounted bids for the White House and several more are expected to announce campaigns of their own in the coming weeks.

If no candidate emerges as the clear front-runner by the time Puerto Rico holds its Democratic primary in June 2020, the territory could prove to be a battleground for much-needed delegates that will determine the nominee.

“Every candidate is going to be locking down every constituency, every vote,” said Fernand Amandi, a Miami-based Democratic pollster. “I think everyone is assuming that every single delegate is a free-for-all.”

Beyond Castro and Warren, other candidates are readying trips to Puerto Rico, including Rep. Tulsi GabbardTulsi GabbardCNN's O'Rourke town hall finishes behind Fox News, MSNBC Progressive Democrat says Trump victory shed light on divide between Silicon Valley, rural US Anita Hill: Female 2020 Democrats 'not being taken seriously' MORE (D-Hawaii) and former Rep. John DelaneyJohn Kevin DelaneyOvernight Energy: Democrats ask if EPA chief misled on vehicle emissions | Dem senators want NBC debate focused on climate change | 2020 hopeful John Delaney unveils T climate plan 2020 hopeful John Delaney unveils T climate plan CNN's O'Rourke town hall finishes behind Fox News, MSNBC MORE (D-Md.). Likewise, South Bend, Ind., Mayor Pete Buttigieg, who announced his candidacy last week, is planning to visit the island, one of his advisers, Lis Smith, said.

It’s not unusual for presidential candidates to visit Puerto Rico ahead of primary season. Hillary ClintonHillary Diane Rodham ClintonHillary Clinton slams Trump for spreading 'sexist trash' about Pelosi Gillibrand seizes on abortion debate to jump-start campaign DNC boss says candidates to be involved in debate lottery MORE and Sen. Marco RubioMarco Antonio RubioFrustration boils over with Senate's 'legislative graveyard' Senate passes disaster aid bill after deal with Trump GOP senators work to get Trump on board with new disaster aid package MORE (R-Fla.) made trips to the island in September 2015. And former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, who unsuccessfully sought the Republican Party’s presidential nomination in 2016, went even earlier that year, in April.

Clinton ultimately won the territory’s Democratic primary that year with nearly 60 percent of the vote, while Rubio swept the Republican contest with more than 70 percent.

But the latest round of visits carry more political weight than normal, especially as President TrumpDonald John TrumpA better VA, with mental health services, is essential for America's veterans Pelosi, Nadler tangle on impeachment, contempt vote Trump arrives in Japan to kick off 4-day state visit MORE readies for his 2020 reelection bid.

Trump and his administration were widely panned for a lackluster response to hurricanes Irma and Maria on the island in 2017. Those storms leveled homes and businesses, left residents without clean water and electricity for months and drove thousands of Puerto Ricans to the U.S. mainland.

Florida, in particular, has seen its Puerto Rican population boom in recent years, largely driven at first by a prolonged debt crisis on the island and later by the aftermath of the
hurricanes.

Puerto Ricans now make up about a third of Florida’s adult Hispanic population, about the same as the state’s Cuban-American population, according to a 2018 report from the Pew Research Center.

But unlike Florida’s Cuban-American community, which has historically leaned toward conservative politicians, Puerto Ricans are more likely to register to vote as Democrats or independents than as Republicans, making them an increasingly important voting bloc for Democrats in the must-win swing state.

Courting those voters is likely to be a crucial step if Democrats hope to notch a win in Florida in 2020. Trump carried the state by roughly 100,000 votes in 2016, and Republicans are increasingly confident that Florida is moving in their direction.

In the 2018 midterm elections,
candidates from both parties mounted aggressive efforts to court Puerto Rican voters in Florida.

But turnout among those voters, while higher than in past midterm years, lagged expectations, Amandi said, adding that Republicans were able to “outhustle” Democrats among Florida’s Puerto Rican voters.

Sen. Rick Scott (R-Fla.), the former Florida governor, aggressively courted the state’s Puerto Rican community during his race against former Sen. Bill NelsonClarence (Bill) William NelsonRepublicans amp up attacks on Tlaib's Holocaust comments The muscle for digital payment Rubio says hackers penetrated Florida elections systems MORE (D-Fla.), frequently touting his administration’s relief efforts after Hurricane Maria.

Ultimately, Scott took 45 percent of the Hispanic vote, compared to Nelson’s 54 percent, according to exit polls.

Multiple strategists and activists said that the 2018 election results underscored the need for candidates and campaigns to begin reaching out to Puerto Rican voters — both on the island and in states like Florida — earlier than in past years.

Amandi said that 2018 may have served as a wake-up call for some Democrats, especially after two ultra-narrow defeats in Florida’s closely watched Senate and gubernatorial races in November.

“I think the candidates now appreciate that the Hispanic vote is an essential part of winning the Democratic nomination and that goes for any part of the country where there are large Hispanic populations,” Amandi said.

Going to Puerto Rico may be a good place to start, he said.
   “There’s also a Florida echo with visits to the island,” Amandi said. “There’s a lot of relationships between friends and family who live in Puerto Rico. And that means there’s a bang-for-your-buck effect in Florida.”