Puerto Rico: The Forgotten Island
A hurricane that made landfall 1,000 miles from Miami jolted Florida’s political ecosystem a year ago.
Democrats and Republicans spent months making trips to Puerto Rico, jostling for endorsements from island politicians and cutting Spanish-language TV ads that reached as far as San Juan.
But one week from Election Day, there isn’t much evidence that Puerto Ricans who came to Florida after Hurricane Maria will end up shaping the state’s high-profile races for governor and U.S. Senate, where Republicans Ron DeSantis and Rick Scott are running against Democrats Andrew Gillum and Bill Nelson. Though Puerto Ricans are U.S. citizens who can vote immediately upon arrival on the mainland, operatives from both parties acknowledged that it’s a major challenge and a drain on finite campaign resources to get people to vote who are primarily concerned about finding stable housing, jobs and transportation.
Fewer than 8,500 Democrats and Republicans who registered before the 2018 primary election did so with cellphone numbers containing Puerto Rican area codes, giving them eligibility to vote in the primary, though most Puerto Ricans register without affiliation. Going into Tuesday’s election, they make up about 0.8% of the state’s total 2.2 million Hispanics who can vote in the November election. It’s possible that newly arrived Puerto Ricans could have obtained a Florida-based phone number, but the latest release of the state’s voter file does not provide any indication that new arrivals will usurp Cuban-Americans in South Florida or Puerto Ricans already in Florida as the state’s two biggest and most important Hispanic subgroups. A recent study by the University of Florida suggests that between 30,000 and 50,000 Puerto Ricans settled in Florida after Hurricane Maria, lower than previous estimates of 200,000 or more.
“With the post-Maria hurricane folks, their focus has been establishing themselves in the community. They’ve been trying to find that first job, get their kids into school or they’re working to transfer their professional licenses. Their focus hasn’t been so much on the election,” said Wadi Gaitan, a former Florida Republican Party spokesperson who works with the conservative LIBRE Initiative, a Hispanic voter outreach group backed by the Koch brothers. “They don’t view the election as the sort of solution to the challenges they are facing right now.”
Instead, the contest for the Hispanic vote in Florida will come down to how well Republicans can motivate their Cuban-American base in Miami and stanch losses in Puerto Rican-heavy Central Florida. For Democrats, it’s the opposite calculation, though the state party has invested resources in Hispanic voters outside of the largest urban counties to expand Democrats‘ competitiveness and help Nelson and Gillum in places where Republicans have dominated. There are more than 1.4 million Cuban-Americans in Florida and more than 1.1 million Puerto Ricans, the two largest groups of Hispanics in the state.
“There are also huge pockets of populations that no one speaks to in our party,” said Florida Democratic Party executive director Juan Peñalosa, who leads the party’s Hispanic outreach efforts. “There are actually pockets in traditionally red, rural areas. Lakeland has one of the largest growing Hispanic populations in Polk County. You have Mexican farmworkers in Glades and Hendry (counties). These areas are outside the more traditional Democratic areas.”
Republicans are convinced that their Cuban-American base is fired up to elect Scott and DeSantis, and about 29 percent of Miami-Dade Republicans who are Hispanic turned out to vote in the August primary, a turnout rate that is 10 percent higher than the rate of Hispanic Democratic turnout during the primary among Florida’s largest counties. DeSantis’ lieutenant governor pick is Cuban-American state Rep. Jeanette Núñez, R-Miami, and the party’s three Cuban-American congressional candidates are all facing competitive reelection bids, another factor that could motivate more Republicans to show up to the polls in South Florida.
“The Republican has to get out there and hold 60 percent of the Cuban-American vote in South Florida, and you have to keep the Democrat under 75 percent among [non-Cuban Hispanics],” said Jorge Bonilla, a Puerto Rican Republican and radio host who ran for Congress in 2014. “A big chunk of everybody else is going to be Puerto Ricans.”
Republicans, and Scott in particular, have made courting Puerto Ricans a central part of this election cycle. Scott has visited Puerto Rico eight times since Maria made landfall, and he’s spent millions on Spanish-language TV advertisements to boost his already high name recognition numbers among boricuas.
“We’ve always kind of had a ground game focused on Puerto Rico,” said Republican Party spokesperson Taryn Fenske. “We’ve had someone on the ground since 2014.”
Both parties are quick to tout their paid and volunteer organizers placed in Hispanic communities. Republicans have 19 Hispanic staff members around the state and Democrats have hired more than 70 Hispanic organizers. They both have hired volunteers and organizers who have existing ties to the communities they cover, rather than staffing up from out of state or out of town.
“We wanted to invest in boots on the ground earlier, not just in Miami-Dade and Orange but also in Polk and Osceola and Seminole,” Peñalosa said, adding that the state party has prioritized organizing efforts in areas where outside groups who work to elect Democrats don’t have much of a presence.
And Democrats aren’t emphasizing an anti Donald Trump message or harping on the administration’s immigration policies to Hispanics in Florida, choosing instead to focus on the economy and healthcare. Trump’s false assertions that Democrats invented a higher death count in Puerto Rico after the hurricane to hurt him politically forced Scott and DeSantis to distance themselves from the president’s comments after spending months courting Puerto Rican voters.
“Trump notwithstanding, the party has done a far better job of recognizing the Puerto Rican vote,” Bonilla said. “I do see the effort on the part of the GOP that has not been there in the past.”
Bonilla added that some groups working to elect Democrats have done work to register and engage Puerto Rican voters, but that others waste resources putting on events like protesting Trump in Mar-a-Lago instead of trying to expand the Puerto Rican electorate. And he said a portion of the Puerto Rican electorate in Florida is drawn to the Republican Party by issues like school choice, abortion and promoting law and order. There are Puerto Rican Republicans holding elected office like state Rep. Bob Cortes, DeSantis’ Puerto Rican outreach chair.
About 1 in 6 registered Hispanic Democrats voted in the 2018 primary, while about 1 in 4 Hispanic Republicans voted in the primary, according to a Miami Herald analysis of the state’s voter file. By contrast, about 1 in 3 black voters cast a ballot in the primary, powering Gillum to an upset victory in the governor’s race.
But as Republicans invest in Democratic turf in Central Florida, Democrats are doing the same in parts of Miami-Dade.
Andrea Mercado, the executive director of the New Florida Majority, which describes itself as “working to increase the voting and political power of marginalized and excluded constituencies,” said the gubernatorial race between Democrat Gillum and DeSantis has particularly energized the Hispanic and minority community in South Florida. The group organized a march of 100 Hispanic women in downtown Miami and rode a traditional “Chiva Bus” to the polls over the weekend to conduct “Colombian-style voter outreach” in Hialeah.
“I think we are seeing a lot of people energized and mobilized by the campaign of Andrew Gillum,” Mercado said. “At the end of the day, he’s putting forward a people’s platform for all of us.”
And national Democrats have helped finance Spanish-language ads around the state to counter the well-funded Scott and boost Nelson.
“I think we took lessons away from 2014 and 2016,” Peñalosa said. “We learned that we can’t ignore voters and we have to speak to them through many different voices and we actually have to go after their vote. We can’t assume that Hispanic voters are going to vote for us because we aren’t as evil as other people or separating people at the borders. We have to give people a reason to vote.”