Targeting Florida Republicans in 2018 will be tricky for Puerto Rican leaders

Puerto Rico Gov. Ricardo Rosselló intends to campaign against “those who turned their backs” on the island during the 2018 elections.
Puerto Rico Gov. Ricardo Rosselló intends to campaign against “those who turned their backs” on the island during the 2018 elections. jiglesias@elnuevoherald.com

Puerto Rico Gov. Ricardo Rosselló intends to throw his political weight around in the 2018 elections, mobilizing Puerto Ricans who recently moved to the mainland to vote against lawmakers he says “turned their back” on the U.S. territory in its time of need.

Rosselló’s threats are ostensibly aimed at Republicans in Congress tasked with doling out billions in disaster aid and in charge of an overhaul of the nation’s tax system, where Puerto Rico’s status as a U.S. territory creates rules that don’t exist on the mainland. He called out Sen. Marco Rubio by name in December, saying he was “disappointed” in his tax bill vote, though Rosselló stopped short of offering any specific political retribution against the Florida Republican.

“Once it’s crunch time for the elections, that’s when our organization is going to start saying, ‘These are the folks who have been for Puerto Rico and these have been the folks that are against Puerto Rico,’” Rosselló said this week in Washington.

But carrying out political advocacy in swing state Florida, where Puerto Ricans who are Democrats and Republicans hold elected office, is a tricky balancing act for Rosselló, a Democrat.

Puerto Ricans in Florida could form a large enough voting bloc to affect statewide elections for governor and U.S. Senate in 2018. But Florida Republicans like Rubio and Gov. Rick Scott enjoy widespread support among many members of Rosselló’s pro-statehood New Progressive Party, in contrast to heavily Democratic states with many Puerto Ricans, like New York, Illinois and Connecticut.

“You don’t bite the hand that feeds you,” said state Rep. Bob Cortes, one of two Puerto Rican Republicans in the state Legislature.

Cortes said Rosselló and other pro-statehood Democrats in Puerto Rico who have many Republicans within their own party must carefully pick and choose when to get involved in Florida politics. Going after Rubio or Scott could backfire, especially if Scott runs for Bill Nelson’s U.S. Senate seat and wins.

“I think it was more out of frustration on the tax bill and everything else. If you notice he’s not really doubled down on those statements since,” Cortes said, referring to Rosselló’s comments about Rubio in December. “I think it was more of... he spoke too soon and he probably regrets those words, in my opinion.”

Republicans are also aware of the potential electoral impacts of new Puerto Rican voters. A conservative Hispanic group called the LIBRE Institute backed by the Koch brothers is organizing English classes and civics lessons in Central Florida, while Scott has traveled across the state in recent months to meet with Puerto Rican community leaders.

“Rick Scott did not start this all of a sudden when [Hurricane] Maria hit,” Cortes said. “This was a pattern that he was already doing and establishing. It continued with Maria but only at a bigger scale.”

Puerto Rico’s non-voting Resident Commissioner in Congress, Republican Jenniffer González, is also a Scott supporter who plans to campaign for him and newly minted gubernatorial candidate Rep. Ron DeSantis in 2018, potentially muddying Rosselló’s message if he campaigns for Democrats in either major statewide race.

“I am going to be very involved in supporting Republican candidates,” González said. “What [Scott’s] been doing with Puerto Rican people moving from the island to Florida, I saw what he did in all the airports. He’s been calling the mayors asking ‘How can I help you?’ I have never seen that level of coordination ever before.”

But getting involved in Florida politics could reap political rewards in Congress for Rosselló and Puerto Rican Democrats, especially since Puerto Rico lacks voting power in Washington. Registering and mobilizing voters in areas like Central Florida will force politicians from both parties to pay attention to the island’s concerns.

Kenneth McClintock, a pro-statehood Democrat like Rosselló who served as Puerto Rico’s secretary of state from 2009 to 2013, said that selectively campaigning against Republicans who are already in trouble due to a poor national environment is the best option for Rosselló. McClintock got involved with Democratic Rep. Stephanie Murphy’s ultimately successful campaign against longtime GOP Rep. John Mica in Orlando in October 2016 after determining that Mica was in trouble.

“Even though [Mica] had been nice to Puerto Rico and all that, I saw an opportunity for Puerto Ricans to flex their muscles,” McClintock said. “So I joined Stephanie Murphy in a couple of campaign events and did a robocall and a public statement, and she won by a very slim margin. Puerto Ricans did not make the total difference but they certainly helped her get over the line. Sometimes it’s important for emerging constituencies that they can make a difference.”

Former Puerto Rico Gov. Luis Fortuño, a pro-statehood Republican who served from 2009 to 2013, said he campaigned on the mainland while in office, though he avoided campaigning against Democrats who were helpful in Washington.

“I tried to see who was more helpful than others, and also with people who were very helpful and did not belong to my national party association, I stayed clear of those districts,” Fortuño said. “We have friends on both sides of the aisle.”

And as Rosselló continues to advocate for Puerto Rican statehood and billions in disaster aid in the coming months, keeping an eye on behind-the-scenes shifts that doomed Republicans like Mica in 2016 and primary elections that put Puerto Rican Democratic Rep. Darren Soto into Congress will be necessary if the governor wants to become a political force in the years to come.

“It could be in Florida, it could be in five or six other states where you might find the districts where Puerto Ricans could make a difference and where the conditions may be right,” McClintock said. “It may be an open seat not necessarily against an incumbent Republican. Puerto Ricans can flex their muscles in a handful of races nationwide.”

Alex Daugherty: 202-383-6049, @alextdaugherty