Downplaying recent poll numbers that give his Republican opponent an edge among Cubans and Puerto Ricans, U.S. Sen. Bill Nelson smiled as he lumbered across Calle Ocho and into a Little Havana restaurant on Saturday afternoon to kick off a local outreach effort targeting Latino voters.
Nelson, a Florida Democrat running for re-election in November against the independently wealthy Gov. Rick Scott, held the low-key event at Mofongo, a Puerto Rican restaurant established a couple months ago by 31-year-old Jose Colon, who fled his home on the island after Hurricane Maria decimated the area’s electric grid and sparked an exodus of locals to Florida.
“Muchas gracias por la oportunidad de hablar con ustedes,” Nelson told about three dozen volunteers, members of the campaign “Vecinos de Nelson,” or Nelson’s neighbors, a Hispanic outreach group.
Nelson, who on Saturday also met with Colombian President-elect Ivan Duque, was joined by allies U.S. Sen. Catherine Cortez Masto, (D-Nev), who in 2016 became the first Latina elected to the Senate, and Maurice Ferré, the former longtime Miami mayor and the first Puerto Rican to serve as mayor of a U.S. city. Miami Rep. Robert Asencio, South Miami Rep. Javier Fernandez and Miami Commissioner Ken Russell — all Democrats — were among the local lawmakers who attended the event.
Three long tables were decorated with Nelson campaign fliers at each plate. Clipboards rested ready in tin buckets, and staffers handed out instructions for how to reach local voters online.
“We know that we’ll never have enough money like the other side, but what we do have is our feet,” said Cortez Masto, who emphasized that elections are not won through polling.
Recently, Nelson has been forced to reckon with unfavorable poll numbers that show Gov. Scott’s media blitz may be paying off among key Hispanic groups.
An FIU poll released in June of 1,000 Puerto Ricans living arcoss Florida — the majority of whom registered as Democrats — gave Scott a sizable lead in name recognition (70 percent of respondents said they had heard of Scott, compared to 50 percent for Nelson). Scott also edged out Nelson in a measure of who was viewed more favorably (37 percent “very good” for Scott, compared to 20 percent for Nelson).
On Wednesday, a new poll from WSCV-Telemundo 51 that queried 696 likely Hispanic voters in Miami-Dade and Broward counties gave Scott a three-point lead over Nelson, although among Cuban voters — historically reliable in elections — Scott held an 18-point lead.
Puerto Rico has become a battleground in the race. In late May, Scott made his sixth trip there since Maria hit. Nelson visited in May. Both have been on cable news discussing the situation in Puerto Rico. Since Maria, more than 140,000 Puerto Ricans have arrived in Florida, according to Gov. Scott’s office.
During a media gaggle after the canvassing event, Nelson downplayed the importance and fickleness of polls, while noting an NBC News/Marist Poll released in June gave him a four-point edge over Scott among registered voters. He also said Hispanics cared about issues he would champion, like preserving the Affordable Care Act, curbing gun violence and keeping sea-level rise at bay.
“Well all of the public polls show that the race is close,” he said. “The long and short of it is, it’s gonna be a close race. But that’s amazing because he spent $25 million attacking me and it hasn’t moved the numbers. It’s been that way for months.”
Nelson is framing this election as a chance for Democrats to overtake the Senate, and serve as a safeguard against any future Supreme Court picks President Donald Trump may make. There are currently 51 Republicans, 47 Democrats and two independents — who both caucus with the Democrats — in the Senate.
“You can see the energy that folks are approaching the campaign with,” Nelson told reporters. “They’re playing like this is for keeps because this election is quite important. It may well determine if we have the majority in the Senate, and if we were to have the majority in the Senate, you can imagine that will become a check and balance against President Trump for him pushing through anybody he wants on the Supreme Court.”
Ferré, the former Miami mayor, called Nelson his “champion” and blessed his campaign. He said Nelson has been an advocate for Puerto Ricans over the last decade, not just since Hurricane Maria hit.
“Bill Nelson cares about Puerto Rico,” Ferré said. “Tiene corazon Boricua.”
Nelson Diaz, the chairman of the Miami-Dade Republican Party, cast doubt on the effectiveness of Sen. Nelson’s outreach efforts, saying the Democrat was “seriously behind with Hispanics” because voters “have no idea who Bill Nelson is, or that he is even one of our senators.”
“In contrast, Governor Scott has been a constant positive presence for Hispanics in Florida,” Diaz said in a text message. “When we have needed a true leader, [he] has always been there for us. We know him. We trust him. We will vote for Rick Scott again.”
Juan Cuba, the chairman of the Miami-Dade Democratic Party, said launching “Vecinos de Nelson” in Little Havana was a sound campaign strategy. Like Nelson, Cuba said good campaigns can’t be driven by polling, whether positive or negative.
“This election’s gonna be won at the doors,” he said.