Puerto Ricans get spotlight in Florida Gubernatorial and Senate races

by | Oct 15, 2018 | Elections, Headlines | Comments

With competitive races for both Governor and US Senate in Florida, the Democratic and Republican candidates alike are pursuing the votes of the Puerto Rican community as the key to winning the contested seats.

Nearly 1.1 million Puerto Ricans live in Florida, likely making up almost half a million of the state’s 13 million registered voters. Florida was a top destination for Puerto Ricans displaced by Hurricane Maria, and while many are returning to the territory, there is evidence that a large number of displaced families intend to stay on the mainland long-term.

Governor Race

Democratic candidate for governor and Mayor of Tallahassee Andrew Gillum counts over a dozen new endorsement from Puerto Rican leaders in Florida and across the US. Notable endorsements come from US Representatives Nydia Velazquez (D) of New York, Luis Gutierrez (D) of Illinois, and Darren Soto (D) of Florida, who was the first Puerto Rican to be elected to Congress from Florida.

Among the endorsements from elected officials based in Florida, state representatives Robert Asencio (D), John Cortes (D), and Amy Mercado (D), as well as Florida State Senator Victor Torres (D) have also endorsed Gillum. They are joined by Greenacres Mayor Joel Flores, Melbourne Councilwoman Teresa Lopez, and County Commissioners Viviana Janer (Osceola County) and Emily Bonilla (Orange County). Orange and Osceola Counties are home to nearly one-third of the 150,000 Puerto Ricans who left the territory in the six months after Hurricane Maria.

Other notable Floridian endorsements came from Democratic Hispanic Caucus President Noemi McGregor, Chairman of the Florida Puerto Rican Hispanic Chamber of Commerce Sam Lopez, and Alianza for Progress President Juan Marcos Villar.

In Puerto Rico, Gillum’s endorsements count current governor Ricardo Rosselló (NPP, D), former Governor of Puerto Rico Alejandro García Padilla (NPP, D), Puerto Rico Senator Margarita Nolasco Santiago (NPP, D), Gurabo Mayor Rosachely Rivera Santiago  (NPP, D), and Former Chairman of Democratic Party of Puerto Rico Charlie Rodriguez.

At an October 1 rally with Governor Rosselló in Kissimmee, a major center of Florida’s Puerto Rican community, Gillum claimed he wanted to be the “candidate of the Boricuas,” saying “I want that label, and not in a tokenizing way.” He added, “I want it in a way that says we understand each other, in a way that says we’re one and the same. You’re not gifting any of us anything. We work for what we’ve got.”

On November 6, Gillum will face Donald Trump-endorsed Republican candidate Ron DeSantis. DeSantis, flew to Puerto Rico in August for a town hall with Governor Rosselló and Resident Commissioner Jenniffer González Colón (NPP, R), as well to tour to study the ongoing Hurricane recovery efforts also looks to appeal to his state’s Puerto Rican community. In September, DeSantis’ campaign released a a rare contradiction of the president in a public statement, claiming he “doesn’t believe any loss of life has been inflated,” referring to Trump’s public rejection of the estimates of Hurricane Maria victims.

“We think there is a real opportunity to pick up Puerto Rican votes for Republicans in Florida, despite what Democrats say,” claimed DeSantis spokesman Brad Herold. The DeSantis campaign has yet to court any high-profile Puerto Rican endorsements.

Senate Race

Endorsements in the race for Florida’s US Senate seat are much less one-sided, where Democratic incumbent Bill Nelson will face Republican Governor Rick Scott. While Nelson secured the endorsement of Governor Rosselló and his father, a former governor, Scott touts the endorsement of 59 Puerto Rican officials; including former governors, Senators, and other elected representatives.

Notable among Scott’s endorsements are Resident Commissioner Jenniffer González-Colón (NPP, R), who campaigned with the governor in September, and current Secretary of State of Puerto Rico, Luis G. Rivera Marín (NPP, R).

“They say that hard times will always reveal true friends, and I cannot think of a better friend to the American citizens of Puerto Rico than Governor Scott,” said González-Colón in her May 2018 endorsement, referring to Scott’s seven trips to Puerto Rico in the aftermath of Hurricane Maria, and his highly-publicized welcoming of those displaced from the territory.

Echoing González-Colón, Secretary of State Luis G. Rivera Marín told POLITICO that “on a scale of 1-10, I’ll tell you Rick Scott is a 10 for me.”

Scott’s success in courting endorsements mirrors his popularity with Puerto Ricans in Florida, where some polls show him with a higher favorability than his democratic rival. A July poll of 1,000 Puerto Ricans by Florida International University found that 75% of Puerto Ricans in Florida had a favorable opinion of the governor, compared to only 62% for Bill Nelson. Other polls have Scott outflanking Nelson with both Puerto Rican voters and Hispanic voters in general, despite the same polls from the AARP/Univision/Bendixen & Amandi International survey having Gillum outpacing DeSantis with Puerto Rican voters 2-1.

Despite his past relationship and cooperation with Governor Scott, Governor Rosselló, who is affiliated with the Democratic party, endorsed Bill Nelson on the same day as his endorsement of Mayor Gillum, calling it a “tough decision.” But he did not criticize Scott, and thanked the governor for visiting the territory times and providing state aid. Rosselló cited support for federal benefits and statehood for Puerto Rico among his reasons for endorsing Nelson.

The Puerto Rican outreach liaison for the DeSantis campaign, Republican State Rep. Bob Cortes called the endorsement “treacherous,” and he has hoped the governor would “stay out of it.”

Nelson also secured the endorsement former Governor of Puerto Rico Alejandro Garcia Padilla, and current mayor of San Juan Carmen Yulín Cruz (PDP, D).

“You deserve people that take your opinions into account. And two of those people are [Rep.] Darren Soto [D-Fla.] and Sen. Bill Nelson,” said Cruz, speaking at a Democratic Party event in Orange County. “Do you want Donald Trump to keep doing what he does? Stay home. But if you want real change, the kind of change that moves people to be better, it’s simple: Register to vote, and vote.”

In a written statement, Nelson’s campaign said that Mayor Cruz is “a tremendous leader and advocate for the people of San Juan and all Puerto Ricans and it’s an honor to receive her endorsement along with Florida’s first Puerto Rican Congressman, Rep. Darren Soto.”

The wave of Puerto Rican endorsements in Florida races for Governor and US Senate may sway the election in the Sunshine state, where campaigns from both parties shape up to be the most expensive midterm contest in the country this year. The results of the election will determine who will govern the state with the third-largest population in the country and will factor into which party will hold a majority in the US Senate.