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Puerto Rican Voters Could Secure Republican Majority in Florida

May 25, 2024

Florida’s status as a pivotal swing state is well-established, with its razor-thin margins often determining the outcomes of presidential elections. Central to this political battleground are over 1.1 million Puerto Rican voters who have historically leaned Democratic. Yet, recent trends indicate these voters may flip this year – cementing the Sunshine State as a Republican stronghold.

Florida’s Puerto Rican community has steadily increased in size and political significance. In the aftermath of Hurricane Maria in 2017, 300,000 Puerto Rican refugees migrated to Florida, particularly to the central regions of the state, such as the Orlando metropolitan area. Florida Democrats have relied on a high turnout of this crucial demographic, and the influx of Puerto Ricans has only fortified this Democratic coalition in Central Florida and statewide. These voters have been pivotal in counterbalancing the Republican stronghold in the state among other Latino ethnicities – including Cuban Americans – in South Florida.

Republican politicians in the state recognize the importance of the Puerto Rican vote in Florida politics. Ron DeSantis traveled to Puerto Rico to garner Puerto Rican support for his 2018 gubernatorial campaign. Then-Gov. Rick Scott, now a U.S. senator, made multiple trips to Puerto Rico to discuss the island’s recovery and worked to ease Puerto Ricans’ transition to Florida. Scott’s actions became extremely popular among the community. During his 2018 campaign for Senate, Rick Scott received about 29% of Florida’s Boricua voters, a small but pivotal performance in a race decided by only 10,033 votes.

Former Congresswoman Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, a Cuban American Republican from Miami, acknowledged the importance of winning the Puerto Rican vote and Central Florida’s role in statewide elections. “My party, the Republican Party, cannot win Florida without winning Central Florida. And we can no longer win Central Florida without carrying a high enough percentage of this Puerto Rican ‘diaspora’ vote,” Ros-Lehtinen told the Orlando-Sentinel in November 2022. “Central Florida has been decisive for every Republican presidential candidate since 1992 … As Central Florida goes, so goes the road to the White House.”

Years later, Republican efforts finally appear to be paying off. During the 2022 midterms, the Puerto Rican community largely supported Republicans. Boricuas supported Gov. Ron DeSantis in his bid for a second term, marking a significant 20% increase from his first gubernatorial run in 2018. Osceola County, home to Orlando and many Puerto Ricans in Florida, is rapidly becoming Florida’s newest bellwether county. The successful outreach efforts by the state’s Republican Party, focusing on issues such as economic opportunities and elected officials’ openness to Puerto Rican statehood, have played a crucial role in this realignment.

Donald Trump’s relationship with the Puerto Rican community is complicated, however, and diverges from Florida Republicans more generally.

The electorate’s general distaste for Trump is primarily attributed to his relationship with the island during his presidency. Many Puerto Ricans criticized the Trump administration’s handling of the aftermath of Hurricane Maria as slow and inadequate, even neglectful by comparison with the administration’s response to natural disasters on the mainland. This perception was reinforced by his controversial actions, including his infamous tossing of paper towels to hurricane survivors during a visit to Puerto Rico, which many saw as out of touch. His opposition to Puerto Rican statehood likely exacerbated this sentiment. In the 2020 election, after many Puerto Ricans had resettled in Florida, Trump earned a mere 31% of Florida’s Puerto Rican voters.

However, with the 2024 presidential campaign on the horizon, Boricuas are shifting and opening up to Donald Trump.

Trump’s 2024 campaign has already jumped on this opportunity. Danielle Alvarez, a Cuban American spokeswoman for his campaign, asserts that Biden’s policies are failing the Puerto Rican community. “Boricuas won’t forget that Crooked Joe shipped Puerto Rico’s pharmaceutical industry to China and President Trump fought to bring it back,” Alvarez suggests. “Biden is a disaster for all Americans, especially La Isla Del Encanto.”

Trump is reportedly considering Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida as his running mate. Rubio, a Cuban-American and former opponent of Trump’s during the 2016 primaries, could boost Trump in the Sunshine State. Rubio’s decisive reelection victory in 2022, where he secured 54% of Puerto Ricans, highlights his broad appeal in this Latino community. By contemplating Rubio as his running mate, Trump is not only positioning himself to tap into Rubio’s appeal within the Latino electorate but also incorporate Puerto Ricans into the Republican fold and establish Florida as a red state.

Trump’s recent gains in Puerto Rico’s Republican primary could also signal his growing influence within the Puerto Rican electorate. During the 2016 primaries, Sen. Rubio won the territory with over 70% of the vote, and Trump barely cracked double digits. In the 2024 Puerto Rico Republican presidential primary, however, Trump swept all 23 of the territory’s delegates.

Florida Republicans, many of whom have yearned for the days of Puerto Ricans becoming Republicans, must act on this opportunity and welcome them into the fold. The party should fully embrace this community and work together to transform Florida into a Republican stronghold in November.

This article was originally published by RealClearPolitics and made available via RealClearWire.

Brett Patrick is a Young Voices contributor studying political science at Binghamton University. He is a member of the university’s honors program. His political commentary has appeared in the Washington Examiner and The DC Journal.

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