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Senate hopefuls woo Puerto Ricans in Florida

October 1, 2018

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

Puerto Rican Gov. Ricardo Rossello endorsed incumbent Democratic Sen. Bill Nelson, who is locked in a toss-up election against Republican challenger and Florida Gov. Rick Scott.

“I believe in Bill Nelson,” Mr. Rossello, the son of a former governor who was elected in 2016 as a representative of the New Progressive Party, said in a press conference in Orlando to announce the endorsement. “I am grateful for his long-standing 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 him in his first bid for federal office.

In backing Mr. Nelson, Mr. Rossello cited the senator’s efforts to get money for Puerto Rico’s nearly bankrupt Medicaid program as well for as community development and storm relief after Hurricane Maria tore into the U.S. commonwealth in September 2017.

But Mr. Scott’s Puerto Rican backers chided the senator 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 storm’s aftermath.

“Senator Nelson has had decades to stand up for Puerto Rico but we only hear from him in election years,” said Jenniffer Gonzalez-Colon, currently the island’s resident commissioner and 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.”

Indeed, Mr. Rossello and Ms. Gonzalez-Colon are often political allies, and there was some grumbling Monday from Republicans that some backroom strong-arming was used to pry Mr. Rossello’s endorsement of both Mr. Nelson and Andrew Gillum, the Tallahassee mayor who won the Democratic gubernatorial nomination.

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

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

Three recent polls have given Mr. Nelson a slight advantage, putting him up 1.1 points in the Real Clear Politics polling average, but the gap among Latino voters is greater, according to 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 largely votes as a cohesive bloc, experts said. For example, while the large Cuban American population in southern Florida is a famously active group politically, the engagement appears much more pronounced among the older population there than the younger, said Carol Weissert, a political science professor at Florida State University.

Plus, the Puerto Rican community that has come to Florida since Maria uprooted them remains preoccupied with all the ramifications that change entails and thus their engagement with the election is difficult to gauge, Ms. Weissert said.

“There is one argument that the post-hurricane Puerto Ricans are too busy getting their lives in order here to vote,” she 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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