Puerto Rican voters may swing Florida toward the GOP

With a population of over one million, there is no question that the Florida

Puerto Rican vote is going to be decisive in the races for U.S. Senate and governor. And it seems that Republicans Rick Scott and Ron DeSantis may have an edge with this key constituency because of the strong position they have taken in support of Puerto Rican statehood.

This is a factor that should not be ignored or underestimated when considering what makes Puerto Rican voters tick. Puerto Rican voters are very supportive of statehood for the island, and they are also more likely to vote for candidates who believe that Puerto Rico should be admitted as the 51st state of the Union.

According to a 2016 Latino Decisions poll, 56 percent of Florida Puerto Rican voters support statehood for the island and 78 percent of them believe that a candidate’s views on Puerto Rico and the island’s issues are “important” or “somewhat important” when voting.

A 2017 Puerto Rico Statehood Council survey of Puerto Rican voters in the I-4 corridor, where the Puerto Rican community is concentrated, came up with similar results. 66 percent expressed support for statehood, and when asked to rate the odds of voting for a candidate that backed statehood, the average score, on a scale from 0 to 10, was 8.1.

In the case of the U.S. Senate race, it is true that both candidates, Democratic Senator Bill Nelson and Republican Gov. Rick Scott, have taken note of Puerto Rican voters’ views and have come out in favor of statehood. Yet, Puerto Rican voters harbor doubts about how committed Nelson is to the statehood cause.

While Scott has always been close to the statehood leadership on the island and has called on Congress to “respect the will of the people of Puerto Rico” — referring to last year’s referendum in which statehood won with over 90 percent of the vote — Nelson’s willingness to advocate for statehood has not been as clear and definite. Nelson consistently avoided taking a position of the issue while it was debated in Congress in past decades. His sudden support of statehood, while certainly welcomed, may come late and come across as too opportunistic.

The governor’s race, on the other hand, presents a clear-cut choice for Puerto Rican voters on the issue of statehood. Republican Congressman DeSantis has emerged as a champion of statehood for the island, co-sponsoring in Congress a statehood bill introduced by the Puerto Rico delegate to Congress, Jenniffer González. Democratic Mayor Andrew Gillum, by contrast, after raising expectations by tweeting that he wanted the pro-statehood governor of Puerto Rico, Ricardo Rosselló, to join him at a rally to discuss “how we will reach full equality for Puerto Ricans on the island,” angered Puerto Rican voters by falling short of explicitly endorsing statehood. And then adding insult to injury, His campaign clarified that he supports an undefined “process of self-determination” and would only back statehood if the people of the island voted for it — they did, in totally overlooking that Puerto Ricans have already voted for statehood by wide margins in not one, but two plebiscites, in 2012 and 2017.

Complicating matters for Nelson and Gillum is that both have campaigned with the mayor of San Juan, Carmen Yulín Cruz, who is despised by most Florida Puerto Ricans because of her hostile opposition to statehood and her radical views, including her expressed sympathies with the regimes of Cuba and Venezuela. Nelson and Gillum seem not to understand that far from helpful, the Mayor of San Juan’s endorsement may turn out to be a political kiss of death with the majority of Puerto Rican voters.

Puerto Rican voters in Florida are by no means one issue voters. They want to know the candidates’ views on how to help Puerto Rico rebuild after the devastation caused by Hurricane Maria last year. They are also concerned about the same bread and butter issues that are important to most Americans, such as jobs and healthcare. But statehood has become a gateway issue for politicians into the community. If state candidates don’t embrace statehood for the island, it would be difficult for them to connect with most Puerto Rican voters on the others issues that they care about.

In this election, Florida Puerto Ricans are confident that Republicans Scott and DeSantis will stand with them in support of statehood. Unfortunately, they can’t say the same about Democrats Nelson and Gillum. Their lack of commitment to Puerto Rican statehood may end up deciding these close races in favor of their opponents.

Alfonso Aguilar is the president of the Latino Partnership for Conservative Principles and former Chief of the U.S. Office of Citizenship in the administration of president George W. Bush.