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Relocated Puerto Rican Voters Will Play A Big Role In Fla. Senate Race


Puerto Rico does not have a voting member of Congress, but the federal response to the island after Hurricane Maria is shaping one of this year's biggest Senate races. That's in Florida, where tens of thousands of people from the island have relocated and many more already live. Democratic Senator Bill Nelson and his main challenger Republican Governor Rick Scott both want their votes. NPR's Greg Allen reports.

GREG ALLEN, BYLINE: Rick Scott has made six trips to Puerto Rico since Hurricane Maria, bringing aid, advice - on one trip, even a delegation of utility providers to consult on how best to restore the island's power grid. On his most recent trip, a reporter asked him what he would have done differently from the federal government in its response to Hurricane Maria.


RICK SCOTT: I don't know. I don't know what I would do differently. What I've learned...

ALLEN: Scott went on to say that, in his seven years as governor, he'd learned the most important thing in hurricane recovery is communicating well with the public. Bill Nelson immediately took to Twitter. Really, Nelson tweeted. Nine months after the hurricane, and people still do not have electricity, water and jobs. Rick Scott does not understand that people are hurting and in need. Nelson's also been a regular visitor to the island, including a trip in May in which he visited a community where he said nearly a third of the people still didn't have electricity.


BILL NELSON: This is unacceptable. It's eight months. (Speaking Spanish). We will continue to fight, to try and see that Puerto Rico is treated like Puerto Rico should be.

ALLEN: Scott's campaign struck back at Nelson last week with an online video ad.


UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: Senator Bill Nelson is playing politics on Puerto Rico. Nelson has no problem exploiting the suffering of others for his own political gain. Now Nelson is attacking the one public official who has actually helped the people of Puerto Rico - Governor Rick Scott.

ALLEN: Democratic political strategist Steve Schale says there's a very good reason why Scott and Nelson are battling for the Puerto Rican vote.

STEVE SCHALE: Puerto Ricans now are probably the largest Hispanic voting bloc in the state, and Orlando is now the second largest media market.

ALLEN: Well over a million people of Puerto Rican descent are now estimated to live in Florida - nearly as many as the state's 1.2 two million Cuban Americans. Since Hurricane Maria, their numbers have grown greatly, especially in the Orlando area. Because they're U.S. citizens, Puerto Ricans can register to vote as soon as they arrive in Florida, boosting their presence at the polls. Bob Cortes, a Republican and Puerto Rican who serves in the state legislature, says those newcomers aren't automatic Democratic votes. Politics and the parties they're familiar with in Puerto Rico, he says, are completely different than those on the U.S. mainland.

BOB CORTES: These are voters that do not understand what the ideologies of the parties mean. They are not familiar. Therefore, most of them have been coming here, they have actually been registered NPA.

ALLEN: That's no party affiliation. What's not clear is how many new arrivals from Puerto Rico have resettled permanently in Florida. Recent estimates now put the range somewhere between 50 and 150,000. Jared Nordland is with UnidosUS, a nonpartisan group that has registered more than 12,000 new Puerto Rican voters in Florida in just 2 1/2 months. He says many of the newcomers are getting engaged politically. And there is one overriding issue - what happened after Hurricane Maria.

JARED NORDLAND: You know, they are fully aware of the response of the government and what it lacked. And, you know, I think there's some anger within the community around that.

ALLEN: Bill Nelson recently held a news conference where he received the endorsement of former Puerto Rican Governor Pedro Rossello, the father of the current governor. Rick Scott has been endorsed by Puerto Rico's delegate in Congress, Jennifer Gonzalez. Scott also has the support of President Trump, a longtime friend. And in the contest for the Puerto Rican vote, Democratic strategist Steve Schale says, that may be Scott's biggest challenge.

SCHALE: For Puerto Rican voters who are angry about Maria, who want to send a message to Trump, the likelihood of them doing it through voting for Rick Scott is very low.

ALLEN: Although Puerto Rican voters have mostly supported Democratic candidates in some past elections, like the 2016 presidential race, their vote has been offset by another population that's growing in central Florida. Those are retirees from the Northeast and Midwest, reliable Republican voters. Greg Allen, NPR News, Miami.

(SOUNDBITE OF PEDRO GUZMAN'S "AGUZATE") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.