Will Hurricane Maria turn Florida blue?

Puerto Ricans who fled to Florida after the devastating hurricane could dramatically reshape politics in this battleground state

DELTONA, Fla. — When Hurricane Irma hit Florida in September, it claimed the lives of 134 people and laid waste to $65 billion worth of property. But for Republicans here, it was another hurricane that could wreck their chances of future electoral success.

Hurricane Maria struck the U.S. territory of Puerto Rico two weeks after Irma, wiping out much of the island’s drinking water and power grid, and prompting thousands of Puerto Ricans to flee the island. More than 140,000 have landed in Florida so far, and the vast majority are expected to remain in the Sunshine State.

The influx of Puerto Ricans to Florida has many Florida politicos wondering whether the newcomers could help deliver the state to Democrats for years to come.

Evaluations of Republicans’ responses to the natural disaster have been mixed. Florida Gov. Rick Scott has received praise for setting up relief centers, waiving public school enrollment rules and giving Puerto Rican college students in-state tuition rates, among other welcoming gestures. Term limits prevent Scott from seeking re-election as governor, but he is widely expected to run for U.S. Senate next year.

President Trump’s response, in contrast, has been criticized as combative and tone-deaf. At one point he tweeted in response to criticism of federal recovery efforts that Puerto Ricans “want everything done for them.”

Puerto Rico experts and community leaders I spoke with used words such as “disheartened,” “very disappointed,” and “absolutely furious” to describe Puerto Ricans’ reaction to Trump’s handling of the crisis.

In fact, Trump’s response to Hurricane Maria is an explosive subject among Puerto Ricans here. Consider Deltona resident Jose Amaro, who shot his stepdaughter with a handgun after an argument with his son-in-law over Trump’s handling of the crisis.

Josh, a cook I met at Sabor Latino Puerto Rican Cuisine & Gallery in a strip mall in Deltona, offered a more sober appraisal.

A Puerto Rican Trump voter, Josh thinks Trump is doing only “50-50” in his response to the hurricane. Josh, a cook at Sabor Latino Puerto Rican Cuisine & Gallery in Deltona, wishes the administration had reacted faster and done more to help repair the island’s damaged infrastructure.

Josh is not one of the tens of thousands of Puerto Ricans who have moved to Florida in the wake of the disaster; he arrived here as a teen with his mother and brother a decade ago. But he knows a few people who have come since the hurricane hit, including a barber friend who moved to the area after Scott issued an executive order suspending all occupational license application fees for residents of Puerto Rico.

A Trump voter who said the president is “doing well” overall, Josh thinks Trump is doing only “50-50” in his response to the hurricane. He wishes the administration had reacted faster and done more to help repair the island’s damaged infrastructure. He worries because much of his family is back home, including his grandmother, who is in the hospital in Fajardo, a region in eastern Puerto Rico that went without power for several weeks.

In late October, Trump signed a $36.5 billion emergency aid package that included $5 billion for FEMA to assist Puerto Rico’s government in addressing the crisis. In early November, the Trump administration directed FEMA to cover 90 percent of the costs of fixing the island’s devastated infrastructure, more than the usual level of 75 percent. A couple weeks later, Trump requested another $44 billion in additional aid from Congress.

But many Puerto Ricans see Trump’s response to the hurricane as lacking. Puerto Rico’s governor has asked Washington for a staggering $94 billion in reconstruction aid. Many Puerto Ricans believe that the Trump administration has not acted with the urgency that it did to assist other states affected by recent natural disasters. 

Trump won Florida and its 29 electoral votes by just 1.2 percentage points over Hillary Clinton last November. Trump triumphed by scoring large victories in counties on the Florida Panhandle and in Central Florida. Trump also benefitted from Republicans’ superior voter turnout operation.

Trump flipped Volusia County on the eastern end of the famed I-4 Corridor, adding more than 30,000 new voters to Mitt Romney’s 2012 narrow victory in the county. Those new Volusia voters gave Trump more than a quarter of his margin of victory in the state. Republicans in the county registered thousands of new voters and got them to the polls. On Election Day, 80 percent of registered Republicans voted, compared to just 72 percent of Democrats.

But Florida’s increasing ethnic diversity may give Democrats new life. Nearly 25 percent of Florida’s population is Hispanic, including 5 percent who are Puerto Rican. Clinton won nearly two-thirds of Florida’s Latino vote in 2016, including nearly three-quarters of Puerto Ricans.

Florida is one of America’s fastest-growing states, a growth that‘s fueled not only by an inflow of retirees from the Midwest and northwest but also by Puerto Ricans, roughly 2,000 of whom are fleeing the island every day.

These numbers are a source of anxiety for Republican leaders in the state. MaryAnn Pistilli, president of the Republican Club of Southeast Volusia County, said she is “very worried” about what the influx of Puerto Ricans will mean for Republicans’ electoral prospects.  

While most Hispanics vote Democratic, many Puerto Ricans are political independents and most do not vote at all, at least not yet. As U.S. citizens, Puerto Ricans can register to vote in any state once they establish residency. In order to vote in next year’s congressional and gubernatorial elections, Puerto Ricans in Florida will have to register by July 30. Pistilli is pessimistic about Republicans’ chance of attracting their support but said there is “nothing we can do but try to flip them.”

Puerto Ricans’ increasing political power can be seen most in Central Florida, where last year Democratic Rep. Darren Soto became the state’s first Puerto Rican member of Congress.

Soto said Puerto Ricans in Florida are “absolutely furious” with Trump because of the comments he made over Twitter that seemed to suggest that the island shouldn’t receive disaster relief from FEMA. “When people are down, these statements can be hurtful,” he said.

Luis Martinez Fernandez, an expert on Latin America who teaches history at the University of Central Florida, offered a similar criticism. “The people of Puerto Rico, for the most part, even very conservative people, have been very upset by their treatment,” he said. “Not so much slow pace of help, but Trump’s words and that episode when he was throwing paper towels at a crowd.”

Martinez-Fernandez was referencing a bizarre moment when Trump playfully tossed rolls of paper towels into a crowd of people while handing out supplies at a relief center on the island, an episode that struck many as disrespectful. Martinez-Fernandez said Trump should “treat people with dignity and use the language of respect. I don’t think he’s able to do that.”

Back at Sabor Latino, Josh became animated as he described Trump’s pledge to pay off the island’s debt, which stands at $70 billion. “That would be super nice” of the president, Josh said.

Although highly unlikely, that gesture may be of the sort that would be necessary for many Puerto Ricans to consider supporting Trump.

 Could Puerto Ricans make a significant difference politically in Florida? Jorge Duany, a professor of anthropology at Florida International University, said caution is in order in predicting how much of an impact the Puerto Rican vote will have. “Since the 1990s, there is always talk of Puerto Ricans being sleeping giants in elections. But it hasn’t happened.” 

Still it’s hard to ignore the numbers. Last year, a report from the Hispanic Federation predicted that by 2020 Puerto Ricans would surpass Cubans in Florida to become the state’s largest group of Hispanics. 

That’s quite a surge. And, as De Soto said, in a state in which five of the last major elections were decided by 1 percentage point or less, “having as many as 200,00 new residents will have a major impact.” 

For Trump, that impact could be a direct consequence of perceptions of his response to Hurricane Maria. “We can expect that there will be ramifications for [Trump’s response],” said Martinez-Fernandez, “The U.S. government has not treated Puerto Ricans the way they would treat citizens from the mainland. That would very much count against Trump’s candidacy in 2020.”

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