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Puerto Rico governor vows to support pro-statehood candidates in 2018

Puerto Rico Gov. Ricardo Rosselló (D) said he will campaign for congressional candidates who support statehood for the territory and funding for reconstruction.

Rosselló took power amid a financial crisis that forced the territory into a bankruptcy-like state, and soon after the island was hit by two hurricanes that killed nearly 3,000 people.

"Make no mistake about it, come midterm elections I am going to use every little opportunity I have to either go to places where I think I can help, influence and make sure the candidates that will support the positions of Puerto Rico get elected or reelected," Rosselló told The Hill.

Rosselló has endorsed some candidates, like Rep. Darren Soto (D-Fla.) -- the state's first national legislator of Puerto Rican origin -- and New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo, who's fighting a primary challenge from former actress Cynthia Nixon.

But he's declined to take a position in the critical Florida Senate race between incumbent Sen. Bill Nelson (D) and Gov. Rick Scott (R).

"Both of them have been very good supporters of Puerto Rico. So you have Bill Nelson who probably has given more speeches in the Senate about Puerto Rico, even before the storm, than any other senator," said Rosselló. "And you have Governor Scott, who you know along with Governor Andrew Cuomo, who I support -- that's another one I'm supporting -- were the two main governors that came and probably the two main leaders that came to Puerto Rico to help and support."

Rosselló was elected in 2016 after he campaigned to take the fight over Puerto Rico's territorial status to Washington.

Despite the destruction from Hurricane Maria last year, Rosselló said the crises helped focus federal attention on the territory.

"You could be a senator or a House representative [and] you could tell the delegation of Puerto Rico you were going to do something, and if you didn't do it really there was no accountability," Rosselló added.

U.S. citizens born in the territories, including Puerto Rico, are not allowed to vote for president unless they relocate to one of the 50 states or Washington, D.C. Each territory is represented by one non-voting delegate in the House of Representatives.

But there are more than 5.5 million Puerto Ricans living in the United States, who, as natural-born citizens, have the right to vote in the districts they live in.

Historically, New York has hosted the largest Puerto Rican diaspora, but Florida's Puerto Rican population likely surpassed New York's in 2017, as a result of human outflows from the island due to the economic crisis and the hurricanes.

That's made Puerto Rican voters the key demographic to pursue in a state that plays a vital role in 2018's legislative elections, and consistently plays a similar role in presidential elections.

"My job is, number one, to make sure that they're registered," said Rosselló, "and secondly, once they're registered get them out to vote and give them some direction as to which candidates are friends of Puerto Rico and which ones are not."

Rosselló, a Democrat, said he wants to see his party take over Congress, but he expects surprises come November.

"My take on this is I see there's going to be a very strong Democrat showing on the House side. On the Senate side it's a little bit more unclear to me," he said.

Still, Rosselló said it's critical for Puerto Ricans who live in states, particularly Florida, to show up to vote.

Marcos Vilar, president and executive director of Alianza for Progress, a group that's focused on helping Puerto Ricans in central Florida to register and vote, said he expects to reach 200,000 voters in this election cycle.

Vilar said many potential voters are encouraged to vote after seeing the disparity in federal disaster response between hurricanes in Texas and Florida and those in Puerto Rico.

"Our voice also counts for those who don't have one in Puerto Rico," said Vilar. "We will continue with the message that our vote counts for two -- it counts here in Florida but it also counts for Puerto Rico."

And Rosselló, whose political future is tied to his call for Puerto Rican statehood, says the issue of status is at the core of the territory's structural disadvantages.

"A lot of people started asking themselves the question, why is the recovery different in Texas than in Puerto Rico? The colonial territorial status is a big part of that," said Rosselló.

Alison Spann contributed to this report

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