Must-Do for Florida’s Midterm Candidates: A Stop in Puerto Rico. Or Three.

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Patricia Mazzei (The New York Times) reports on procedures to ensure Puerto Rican votes in Florida (and elsewhere in the United States). “Holding political office in Florida increasingly requires trekking to Puerto Rico, the former home of a growing number of Florida residents,” Mazzei writes.

Senator Bill Nelson of Florida stepped out of an official-looking S.U.V., briefcase in hand, ready to survey a still-unfinished public housing development funded by the federal government – not in his home state but more than 1,000 miles away, in Puerto Rico. “¡Hola! Un placer,” – a pleasure, he said in Spanish, shaking the hands of the cadre of local officials greeting him under the stinging morning sun.

The purpose of Mr. Nelson’s visit was to inquire about the recovery from Hurricane Maria, specifically, where Washington continued to be deficient. With any luck, Mr. Nelson, a Democrat facing his toughest re-election race yet, might also grab a headline back home. “Are you from the Sentinel?” Mr. Nelson asked a notebook-wielding journalist, referring to the weekly Spanish-language newspaper in Orlando, which had indeed sent a reporter. Mr. Nelson smiled.

Holding political office in Florida increasingly requires trekking to Puerto Rico, the former home of a growing number of Florida residents. More than a million Puerto Ricans already lived in the state before the hurricane, and another 56,000 joined them in the first six months after Maria, according to an estimate by the Center for Puerto Rican Studies at Hunter College in New York.

Perhaps not all of them will stay, much less vote: Puerto Ricans have tended to cast ballots less reliably than other Florida Hispanics. But if they do – perhaps driven by the slow response to Hurricane Maria – they could emerge as a significant political force, and not just for Democrats. Though Puerto Ricans tend to lean left, many have also registered as Florida voters without party affiliation, giving Republicans an opening to make a play for their support. If Republicans are successful, they could grow their Hispanic conservative base beyond Cuban Americans.

In any case, the arrival of Puerto Ricans has not gone unnoticed in a state where premier election contests have routinely been decided by a single percentage point. The island’s recovery from Hurricane Maria has become an issue of critical concern in Florida, with candidates jostling to appear in touch with the state’s Puerto Rican diaspora.

This election season, it’s not just Mr. Nelson, who is facing a daunting Republican challenge from Gov. Rick Scott, vying for the Puerto Rican vote. Candidates down the ticket are also adopting the island’s cause. State Representative David Richardson of Miami Beach, a Democratic candidate for Congress, this month spent 48 hours on what he called a “listening tour” of the island. He is running in Florida’s 27th Congressional District, which is nearly 72 percent Hispanic and largely Cuban-American. His campaign research, however, revealed that about 25,000 Puerto Ricans live in the district, he said, so Mr. Richardson felt a trip to the island was in order.

The leading contender in the Democratic primary field, Donna Shalala, posted a photograph on Twitter last month with Mayor Carmen Yulín Cruz of San Juan, who became a sensation in the wake of the storm after she emotionally rebuked President Trump. “What’s happening in South Florida is the Cuban-Americans are becoming a smaller demographic,” Mr. Richardson said in an interview. “Puerto Ricans are an important element of the district, and will have an important voice in the election.”

Representative Darren Soto, a Democrat from Orlando who in 2016 became the first Puerto Rican elected to Congress from the state, said networking in Puerto Rico has become essential. “It shows you’re doing your job when you’re from Florida,” he said.

When he ran two years ago, Mr. Soto’s campaign bought advertising time on WAPA-TV in Puerto Rico, knowing it would also be seen in his district, where Hispanic cable packages include Puerto Rican programming. Mr. Soto, who now faces a primary challenge from former Representative Alan Grayson, did not rule out employing the same strategy this year.

But politicians would prefer it if reporters did not refer to their repeated excursions to the island as campaigning, thank you very much.

[. . .] Mr. Scott has notched five visits to the island since Maria, the latest one 11 days before the senator’s. Still, Mr. Scott’s campaign – which on April 28 emailed reporters photographs of the governor’s participation in a Puerto Rican festival in Orlando – characterized Mr. Nelson’s trip two weeks ago, and his subsequent Orlando airport news conference, as political opportunism. Mr. Scott has bestowed much attention on Puerto Ricans since the storm, opening assistance centers in Florida for new arrivals, sending law enforcement officers to the island and, like Mr. Nelson, pushing for federal aid for Maria’s desperate victims. Mr. Scott’s campaign this week released a Spanish-language television ad in the Orlando and Tampa media markets highlighting his efforts. [. . .]

For his efforts, Mr. Scott has reaped political rewards: This month, he secured the endorsement of Representative Jenniffer González-Colón, Puerto Rico’s nonvoting member of Congress and a Republican. He already had the backing of another Republican, Luis Rivera Marín, Puerto Rico’s lieutenant governor and secretary of state, who introduced the governor at his Senate campaign launch in Orlando. He called him a “good friend of Hispanics.”

Not to be outdone, Gov. Ricardo A. Rosselló of Puerto Rico, a Democrat who has not formally endorsed in the race, introduced Mr. Nelson during his recent visit, alternately as a “friend,” a “great friend” and “the best friend Puerto Rico has.” Few mainland politicians are well known on the island. Mr. Nelson is not one of them. [. . .]

[Accessed via the National Institute for Latino Policy. Photo from https://www.dvidshub.net/image/3865740/florida-sen-bill-nelson-visits-coast-guard-sector-san-juan-puerto-rico.]

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