Florida races could be decided by Puerto Rican voters

Florida races could be decided by Puerto Rican voters
© The Hill photo illustration

Democrats and Republicans are vying for the unpredictable Hispanic swing vote in the neck-and-neck gubernatorial and senatorial races in Florida. Puerto Rican voters are a key voting group in this influential swing state, and much has already been written about the fastest growing Hispanic population in Florida.

Before Hurricane Maria, Florida had about 1.1 million Puerto Rican residents, and experts estimated that approximately 500,000 were registered to vote. Today, estimates for the number of Puerto Ricans who moved to Florida after the storm have hit as high as 280,000.

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Uniquely, while they do not have a vote when residing on the island, Puerto Ricans are able to register to vote immediately upon arriving to the mainland because they are already American citizens. Many Puerto Ricans now living in Florida will have the opportunity to cast a vote for the issues that matter to them, including the ever-present issue of statehood for Puerto Rico.

Puerto Ricans have voted in favor of statehood twice in the past decade. And a 2017 poll found that 85 percent of Puerto Ricans living along Florida’s I-4 corridor viewed Puerto Rico’s status resolution as a top priority.

Due to their vocal support for Puerto Rico statehood, Rick Scott and Ron DeSantisRonald Dion DeSantisMeet the lawyer Democrats call when it's recount time Rubio defends '3 point kick' analogy: 'You think everyone who follows politics knows what a field goal is?' Dem strategist says Broward County elections official should step down amid Florida recounts MORE — GOP candidates for U.S. Senate and governor, respectively — may have an edge with this important constituency. Their stance is in line with nearly every Republican Party platform since 1940, which have supported Puerto Rico’s right to choose statehood. And the 2016 Republican Party platform is no different. It states:

"Congress should approve an enabling act with terms for Puerto Rico’s future admission as the 51st state of the Union."

The Democratic gubernatorial and U.S. senatorial candidates do not project the same support for statehood. This is unfortunately aligned with the Democratic Party’s convoluted and roundabout stance, which was described in their 2016 party platform as:

“Democrats believe that the people of Puerto Rico should determine their ultimate political status from permanent options that do not conflict with the Constitution, laws, and policies of the United States.”

Puerto Ricans have good reason to doubt Bill NelsonClarence (Bill) William NelsonMeet the lawyer Democrats call when it's recount time Election Countdown: Hyde-Smith's 'public hanging' joke shakes up Mississippi runoff | New lawsuits in Florida | Trump wants Florida election official fired | Mia Love sues to stop Utah vote count | Republican MacArthur loses NJ House race Jeb Bush to Bill Nelson: 'Stop the lawsuits' and 'don’t tarnish your years of service' MORE and Andrew Gillum’s commitment to the statehood cause.

The opportunity for Scott and DeSantis to secure the Puerto Rican vote extends beyond their position on statehood. Surveys of the residents of Puerto Rico and the swing districts of Central Florida over the past decade have consistently shown that Puerto Ricans possess religiously, socially and fiscally conservative American values. 

While politically liberal Puerto Ricans exist, as they do in every American state, conservatives are winning the political competition. The current Puerto Rico representative to the U.S. Congress and lieutenant governor, as well as the Speaker of the House and president of the Senate in the territorial legislature, are all Republicans.

Tomorrow, Puerto Ricans in Florida will have the opportunity to again place their support behind Republican candidates for high office — candidates they see as supporters of Puerto Rican statehood and their mainstream conservative American values. If that happens, it will certainly leave a mark on politics in the Sunshine State, and possibly beyond.

Mario H. Lopez is president of the Hispanic Leadership Fund, a public policy advocacy organization that promotes liberty, opportunity and prosperity for all Americans.