Rick Scott is making headway in the battle for Puerto Rican voters, new poll finds

Gov. Rick Scott listens during a roundtable discussion in Kissimmee in November about the influx to the Orlando area of Puerto Rico residents affected by Hurricane Maria.
Gov. Rick Scott listens during a roundtable discussion in Kissimmee in November about the influx to the Orlando area of Puerto Rico residents affected by Hurricane Maria. TNS

Puerto Ricans living in Florida may have liberal leanings, but they're more likely to know Gov. Rick Scott than U.S. Sen. Bill Nelson and have a higher opinion of the state's Republican governor than Florida's only statewide elected Democrat.

That's according to a Florida International University poll conducted last month and released Saturday, adding more evidence that Scott is making headway among a community of voters that could have an outsized influence on November's U.S. Senate race.

Though the odds are stacked against him, Scott's outreach to Puerto Rican voters appears to be working. The poll of 1,000 Puerto Ricans living in Central and South Florida found that while 57 percent of Puerto Ricans who moved to Florida since 2011 registered as Democrats, roughly three-quarters said they have a positive opinion of Scott.

Nearly 70 percent know that Scott is their governor. Nelson, on the other hand, is known by less than half of Florida's Puerto Ricans, and only two-thirds held a favorable opinion of him, according to the poll.

Puerto Ricans "who came after 2015 really and especially those after 2017 are the ones who see the governor in a much more favorable light. Part of that has to do with the fact that, for good or for bad, the governor has taken nine trips to Puerto Rico," said Eduardo Gamarra, one of two professors who led the study conducted by FIU's School of International and Public Affairs. "I’ve done a lot of polling in the Caribbean. Name recognition is really important, and also just the perception that he is resolving their issue. Whether he is or isn’t is irrelevant."

Following Hurricane Maria, thousands of families flew into Florida, with hundreds joining a community that had already topped more than 1 million Puerto Ricans, many of them living along the I-4 corridor. As U.S. citizens, Puerto Ricans are quickly able to register to vote, and the senator and governor are aggressively courting the community with Spanish-language ads and messages targeted around the hurricane response.

But even Nelson acknowledges that the governor is better positioned as a state official to directly influence and interact with families who've come over from the U.S. territory over the last decade.

"The fact is, that a governor is in the state all the time. Monday through Friday I have to be in Washington taking care of Senate duties representing the state. So right to begin with there's an opportunity for him to be known better," Nelson said Saturday. "But that's what a campaign is about."

Nelson, who spent the morning speaking at an FIU symposium on Puerto Rico — an event Scott pulled out of — said he has to continue to explain what he is doing for Puerto Ricans. He said Republicans, meanwhile, hurt Puerto Ricans last week blocking his effort on the Senate floor to extend temporary housing for displaced families.

"Rick Scott has spent $25 million pounding me with negative advertisements but the numbers have not moved. You will see that this is still a close race," he said.

Democrats, meanwhile, are trying hard to convince Puerto Ricans that Scott is campaigning as their advocate but sitting on his hands when it matters. They keyed Saturday on the end of a FEMA transitional housing program for hurricane evacuees living in hotels, motels and other forms of temporary housing. Then late Saturday a federal judge temporarily blocked the eviction until Tuesday night, allowing time for a hearing on the matter scheduled for Monday.

With Nelson and several state lawmakers at his side, Darren Soto, a Central Florida congressman from Puerto Rico, said Florida could do what Massachusetts is doing by funding temporary housing for another 30 days but is choosing not to. In the meantime, he said there are 589 evacuee families struggling to find housing.

"Here in Florida, Gov. Scott chooses inaction over leadership," Soto said.

Reached Saturday, Scott's campaign directed a reporter to a statement the governor released Friday after Nelson tried to work from the Senate floor to extend transitional housing. Scott said Nelson was just being a political showman.

“While extending the federal temporary housing assistance program is something only the federal government and the Puerto Rican government can do – not the State of Florida, we have continued to do all we can at the state level to find real solutions for Puerto Rican families," Scott said. "I have spoken many times with officials from Puerto Rico and at the federal level, including working directly with FEMA Administrator Brock Long to support displaced Puerto Ricans."

Most remarkable for Scott, his previously close political relationship with Donald Trump doesn't appear to have damaged him among Puerto Rican voters even though the federal response to Hurricane Maria remains widely unpopular. The FIU poll found that nearly three in four Puerto Ricans have a negative view of Trump.

Gamarra said Scott has done a good job of distancing himself from Trump. Nelson, on the other hand, has failed to promote himself so that Democratic-leaning voters know him.

"The clear recommendation, if I were advising him," he said, "would be to get out there and outdo the governor."