Hur­ri­cane Maria vic­tims are not go­ing to de­cide Florida’s statewide 2018 elec­tions

Democrats and Repub­li­cans spent months court­ing Puerto Ri­cans, but one week from Elec­tion Day, there isn’t much ev­i­dence that Puerto Ri­cans who came to Florida af­ter Hur­ri­cane Maria will end up shap­ing statewide races.

Miami Herald (Sunday) - - In Depth - BY ALEX DAUGHERTY, CAITLIN OSTROFF AND MARTIN VAS­SOLO adaugh­erty@mc­clatchydc.com costroff@mc­clatchydc.com mvas­solo@mi­ami­her­ald.com

A hur­ri­cane that made land­fall 1,000 miles from Mi­ami jolted Florida’s po­lit­i­cal ecosys­tem a year ago.

Democrats and Repub­li­cans spent months mak­ing trips to Puerto Rico, jostling for endorsements from is­land politi­cians and cut­ting Span­ish-lan­guage TV ads that reached as far as San Juan.

But one week from Elec­tion Day, there isn’t much ev­i­dence that Puerto Ri­cans who came to Florida af­ter Hur­ri­cane Maria will end up shap­ing the state’s high­pro­file races for gover­nor and U.S. Se­nate, where Repub­li­cans Ron DeSan­tis and Rick Scott are run­ning against Democrats An­drew Gil­lum and Bill Nel­son. Though Puerto Ri­cans are U.S. cit­i­zens who can vote im­me­di­ately upon ar­rival on the main­land, op­er­a­tives from both par­ties ac­knowl­edged that it’s a ma­jor chal­lenge and a drain on fi­nite cam­paign re­sources to get peo­ple to vote who are pri­mar­ily con­cerned about find­ing sta­ble hous­ing, jobs and trans­porta­tion.

Fewer than 8,500 Democrats and Repub­li­cans who regis­tered be­fore the 2018 pri­mary elec­tion did so with cell­phone num­bers con­tain­ing Puerto Ri­can area codes, giv­ing them el­i­gi­bil­ity to vote in the pri­mary, though most Puerto Ri­cans reg­is­ter with­out af­fil­i­a­tion. Go­ing into Tues­day’s elec­tion, they make up about 0.8% of the state’s to­tal 2.2 mil­lion His­pan­ics who can vote in the Novem­ber elec­tion. It’s pos­si­ble that newly ar­rived Puerto Ri­cans could have ob­tained a Florida-based phone num­ber, but the lat­est re­lease of the state’s voter file does not pro­vide any in­di­ca­tion that new ar­rivals will usurp CubanAmer­i­cans in South Florida or Puerto Ri­cans al­ready in Florida as the state’s two biggest and most im­por­tant His­panic sub­groups. A re­cent study by the Uni­ver­sity of Florida sug­gests that be­tween 30,000 and 50,000 Puerto Ri­cans set­tled in Florida af­ter Hur­ri­cane Maria, lower than pre­vi­ous es­ti­mates of 200,000 or more.

“With the post-Maria hur­ri­cane folks, their fo­cus has been es­tab­lish­ing them­selves in the com­mu­nity. They’ve been try­ing to find that first job, get their kids into school or they’re work­ing to trans­fer their pro­fes­sional li­censes. Their fo­cus hasn’t been so much on the elec­tion,” said Wadi Gai­tan, a for­mer Florida Repub­li­can Party spokesper­son who works with the con­ser­va­tive LI­BRE Ini­tia­tive, a His­panic voter out­reach group backed by the Koch brothers. “They don’t view the elec­tion as the sort of so­lu­tion to the chal­lenges they are fac­ing right now.”

In­stead, the con­test for the His­panic vote in Florida will come down to how well Repub­li­cans can mo­ti­vate their Cuban-Amer­i­can base in Mi­ami and stanch losses in Puerto Ri­can-heavy Cen­tral Florida. For Democrats, it’s the op­po­site cal­cu­la­tion, though the state party has in­vested re­sources in His­panic vot­ers out­side of the largest ur­ban coun­ties to ex­pand Democrats‘ com­pet­i­tive­ness and help Nel­son and Gil­lum in places where

Repub­li­cans have dom­i­nated. There are more than 1.4 mil­lion Cuban-Amer­i­cans in Florida and more than 1.1 mil­lion Puerto Ri­cans, the two largest groups of His­pan­ics in the state.

“There are also huge pock­ets of pop­u­la­tions that no one speaks to in our party,” said Florida Demo­cratic Party ex­ec­u­tive direc­tor Juan Peñalosa, who leads the party’s His­panic out­reach ef­forts. “There are ac­tu­ally pock­ets in tra­di­tion­ally red, ru­ral ar­eas. Lake­land has one of the largest grow­ing His­panic pop­u­la­tions in Polk County. You have Mex­i­can farm­work­ers in Glades and Hendry (coun­ties). Th­ese ar­eas are out­side the more tra­di­tional Demo­cratic ar­eas.”

Repub­li­cans are con­vinced that their CubanAmer­i­can base is fired up to elect Scott and DeSan­tis, and about 29 per­cent of Mi­ami-Dade Repub­li­cans who are His­panic turned out to vote in the Au­gust pri­mary, a turnout rate that is 10 per­cent higher than the rate of His­panic Demo­cratic turnout dur­ing the pri­mary among Florida’s largest coun­ties. DeSan­tis’ lieu­tenant gover­nor pick is CubanAmer­i­can state Rep. Jeanette Núñez, R-Mi­ami, and the party’s three CubanAmer­i­can con­gres­sional can­di­dates are all fac­ing com­pet­i­tive re­elec­tion bids, an­other fac­tor that could mo­ti­vate more Repub­li­cans to show up to the polls in South Florida.

“The Repub­li­can has to get out there and hold 60 per­cent of the Cuban-Amer­i­can vote in South Florida, and you have to keep the Demo­crat un­der 75 per­cent among [non-Cuban His­pan­ics],” said Jorge Bonilla, a Puerto Ri­can Repub­li­can and ra­dio host who ran for Congress in 2014. “A big chunk of every­body else is go­ing to be Puerto Ri­cans.”

Repub­li­cans, and Scott in par­tic­u­lar, have made court­ing Puerto Ri­cans a cen­tral part of this elec­tion cy­cle. Scott has vis­ited Puerto Rico eight times since Maria made land­fall, and he’s spent mil­lions on Span­ish­language TV ad­ver­tise­ments to boost his al­ready high name recog­ni­tion num­bers among boricuas.

“We’ve al­ways kind of had a ground game fo­cused on Puerto Rico,” said Repub­li­can Party spokesper­son Taryn Fenske. “We’ve had some­one on the ground since 2014.”

Both par­ties are quick to tout their paid and vol­un­teer or­ga­niz­ers placed in His­panic com­mu­ni­ties. Repub­li­cans have 19 His­panic staff mem­bers around the state and Democrats have hired more than 70 His­panic or­ga­niz­ers. They both have hired vol­un­teers and or­ga­niz­ers who have ex­ist­ing ties to the com­mu­ni­ties they cover, rather than staffing up from out of state or out of town.

“We wanted to in­vest in boots on the ground ear­lier, not just in Mi­ami-Dade and Or­ange but also in Polk and Osce­ola and Semi­nole,” Peñalosa said, adding that the state party has pri­or­i­tized or­ga­niz­ing ef­forts in ar­eas where out­side groups who work to elect Democrats don’t have much of a pres­ence.

And Democrats aren’t em­pha­siz­ing an anti Don­ald Trump mes­sage or harp­ing on the ad­min­is­tra­tion’s im­mi­gra­tion poli­cies to His­pan­ics in Florida, choos­ing in­stead to fo­cus on the econ­omy and health­care. Trump’s false as­ser­tions that Democrats in­vented a higher death count in Puerto Rico af­ter the hur­ri­cane to hurt him po­lit­i­cally forced Scott and DeSan­tis to dis­tance them­selves from the pres­i­dent’s com­ments af­ter spend­ing months court­ing Puerto Ri­can vot­ers.

“Trump not­with­stand­ing, the party has done a far bet­ter job of rec­og­niz­ing the Puerto Ri­can vote,” Bonilla said. “I do see the ef­fort on the part of the GOP that has not been there in the past.”

Bonilla added that some groups work­ing to elect Democrats have done work to reg­is­ter and en­gage Puerto Ri­can vot­ers, but that oth­ers waste re­sources putting on events like protest­ing Trump in Mar-aLago in­stead of try­ing to ex­pand the Puerto Ri­can elec­torate. And he said a por­tion of the Puerto Ri­can elec­torate in Florida is drawn to the Repub­li­can Party by is­sues like school choice, abor­tion and pro- mot­ing law and or­der.

There are Puerto Ri­can Repub­li­cans hold­ing elected of­fice like state Rep. Bob Cortes, DeSan­tis’ Puerto Ri­can out­reach chair.

About 1 in 6 regis­tered His­panic Democrats voted in the 2018 pri­mary, while about 1 in 4 His­panic Repub­li­cans voted in the pri­mary, ac­cord­ing to a Mi­ami Her­ald anal­y­sis of the state’s voter file. By con­trast, about 1 in 3 black vot­ers cast a bal­lot in the pri­mary, pow­er­ing Gil­lum to an up­set vic­tory in the gover­nor’s race.

But as Repub­li­cans in­vest in Demo­cratic turf in Cen­tral Florida, Democrats are do­ing the same in parts of Mi­ami-Dade.

An­drea Mer­cado, the ex­ec­u­tive direc­tor of the New Florida Ma­jor­ity, which de­scribes it­self as “work­ing to in­crease the vot­ing and po­lit­i­cal power of marginal­ized and ex­cluded con­stituen­cies,” said the gu­ber­na­to­rial race be­tween Demo­crat Gil­lum and DeSan­tis has par­tic­u­larly en­er­gized the His­panic and mi­nor­ity com­mu­nity in South Florida. The group or­ga­nized a march of 100 His­panic women in down- town Mi­ami and rode a tra­di­tional “Chiva Bus” to the polls over the week­end to con­duct “Colom­bianstyle voter out­reach” in Hialeah.

“I think we are see­ing a lot of peo­ple en­er­gized and mo­bi­lized by the cam­paign of An­drew Gil­lum,” Mer­cado said. “At the end of the day, he’s putting for­ward a peo­ple’s plat­form for all of us.”

And na­tional Democrats have helped fi­nance Span­ish-lan­guage ads around the state to counter the well­funded Scott and boost Nel­son.

“I think we took lessons away from 2014 and 2016,” Peñalosa said. “We learned that we can’t ig­nore vot­ers and we have to speak to them through many dif­fer­ent voices and we ac­tu­ally have to go af­ter their vote. We can’t as­sume that His­panic vot­ers are go­ing to vote for us be­cause we aren’t as evil as other peo­ple or sep­a­rat­ing peo­ple at the bor­ders. We have to give peo­ple a rea­son to vote.”

ERIKA P RO­DRIGUEZ NYT

A Puerto Ri­can flag in­side a pair of shoes at a makeshift memo­rial for the vic­tims of Hur­ri­cane Maria in San Juan.

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