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Bill Nelson, Rick Scott reach out to Puerto Rican voters

October 1, 2018

Florida’s U.S. Senate hopefuls reached out Monday to one of the state’s newest growing blocs of voters Puerto Ricans in a day of dueling endorsements from current and former island officials.

In Orlando, Puerto Rico’s Gov. Ricardo Rossello endorsed Democratic Sen. Bill Nelson, the incumbent who is locked in a toss-up bid to hold onto his seat against challenger Republican Gov. Rick Scott.

“I believe in Bill Nelson,” said Mr. Rossello, the son of a former governor who was elected in 2016 as a member of the island’s New Progressive Party. “I am grateful for his longstanding relationship for the people of Puerto Rico and I am proud to say that I am endorsing Bill Nelson for, once again, being the senator of Florida and helping represent the people of Puerto Rico.”

Meanwhile, from Tallahassee, the Scott campaign released statements from some of the 60 island officials who are backing the Republican in his first bid for federal office.

In backing Mr. Nelson, Mr. Rossello cited the senator’s efforts to win federal funding for Puerto Rico’s near-bankrupt Medicaid program as well as community development and storm relief after Hurricane Maria devastated the island in September 2017.

But Gov. Scott’s Puerto Rican backers chided Mr. Nelson for spending money from afar as opposed to rolling up his sleeves after the Maria catastrophe. Mr. Scott has visited the island eight times since Maria hit, and made a point of welcoming many Puerto Ricans at airports when they fled the typhoon’s aftermath.

“Sen. Nelson has had decades to stand up for Puerto Rico but we only hear from him in election years,” said Puerto Rico’s Resident Commissioner Jenniffer Gonzalez-Colon, who is a longtime politician in both the Republican and New Progressive parties. “Today’s announcement is just another example of the senator only turning to Puerto Rico when he needs to protect his own job not when he needs to help the rebuilding of our families and communities.”

It remains unclear just how many Puerto Ricans have taken up some form of permanent residency in Florida since Maria. While Gov. Scott began 2018 using the figure of 300,000, some bureaucrats and academics, citing school enrollments and other data, call that figure was wildly overstated.

Nevertheless, as Mr. Scott’s myriad trips make clear, the Puerto Rican segment is one portion of the state’s large Hispanic population that both politicians are courting.

Three recent polls have given Mr. Nelson a slight advantage, putting him up 1.1 points in the RealClearPolitics polling average, but the gap among Latino voters is greater, according to the oddsmakers. The most recent Quinnipiac poll, for instance, put Mr. Nelson ahead with Hispanics by a 61-39 margin.

On the other hand, the Sunshine State’s Hispanic community does always vote as a cohesive bloc. The large Cuban American population in southern Florida, for example, is a famously active group politically, but engagement in that community appears to be much more pronounced among older voters than younger voters, said Carol Weissert, a political science professor at Florida State University.

In addition, Puerto Ricans who only recently fled the island for Florida may find themselves preoccupied with the demands and ramifications that change entails, so their engagement with the Senate race is difficult to gauge.

“There is one argument that the post-hurricane Puerto Ricans are too busy getting their lives in order here to vote,” Ms. Weissert said. “At this point, we just don’t know if this is true. What I do know is that Gov. Scott has been courting this group enthusiastically, so he must think they will turn out.”

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