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As Puerto Ricans’ numbers grow in Florida, Hurricane Maria becomes pivotal campaign issue

"We're a highly motivated vote, because Trump and the Republican Congress failed Puerto Rico."

Rep. Darren Soto, D-Fla., attends a news conference in the CVC with House democrats to call for immediate assistance for victims of Hurricane Maria in Puerto Rico and the Virgin Islands on September 28, 2017. (Photo By Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)
Rep. Darren Soto, D-Fla., attends a news conference in the CVC with House democrats to call for immediate assistance for victims of Hurricane Maria in Puerto Rico and the Virgin Islands on September 28, 2017. (Photo By Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)

Puerto Ricans hit by Hurricane Maria often complained that they were not treated by the Trump administration like full-fledged U.S. citizens. Now thousands have relocated to Florida after fleeing the devastating storm and are preparing to flex their political clout at the ballot box this November.

Puerto Ricans who leave the island are eligible to vote as soon as they establish residency on the U.S. mainland, making them an immediate potential political force in the midterms.

The hurricane in Puerto Rico nine months ago has become a major campaign issue across Florida, home to a large Puerto Rican diaspora community that has grown substantially since the category four storm ravaged the island last September, which sustained $100 billion in damage.

For many new arrivals — and for their family members already established in the United States — the  federal government’s handling of the hurricane recovery back in Puerto Rico will determine which party they register for, and how they vote in November.

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“We’re a highly motivated vote, because Trump and the Republican Congress failed the island,” U.S. Representative Darren Soto (D-FL) told ThinkProgress in an interview at his office on Capitol Hill.

“It used to be difficult to explain the difference between Democrats and Republicans with new arrivals from the island. Now we simply ask, ‘Do you support or oppose Donald Trump?’” he said.

“You can imagine how many people say they oppose. ‘So you’re a Democrat.’  And it makes the decision much more crystallized now.”

Soto, who represents the Orlando area, the epicenter of Florida’s Puerto Rican community, told ThinkProgress there are more island-born Puerto Ricans in his district than in any other state.

Last September’s storm is a big political issue even beyond the state’s boundaries. The two major party candidates for Florida’s Senate seat, Democrat Bill Nelson and his Republican challenger Rick Scott, the state’s governor, have traveled several times to campaign events in Puerto Rico, in hopes of securing support from Puerto Rican voters in their state.

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In April, Puerto Rico’s Governor Ricardo Rossello announced the launch of a new political organization to influence the November 2018 midterms, with the express aim of rallying the Puerto Rican vote in Florida. And the Democratic National Committee announced last week that it was giving Florida Democrats $100,000 to broaden outreach efforts in the Puerto Rican community.

Among the most bitter memories for many new arrivals is the image of President Trump tossing paper towels to Puerto Ricans who had hoped for greater compassion and more substantive relief from the federal government.