Potential Puerto Rican migration to Florida could have political impact

By Troy Kinsey, Capitol Reporter
Last Updated: Monday, October 23, 2017, 8:52 AM EDT

With Puerto Rico devastated by Hurricane Maria, the island's commissioner in Congress said as many as 500,000 evacuees could wind up on the mainland.

  • Puerto Rico residents devastated by Hurricane Maria 
  • Hundreds of thousands of Puerto Ricans could end up in Florida
  • Florida Sen. Bill Nelson could benefit 

Florida's emerging as a prime destination as tens of thousands of evacuees have already arrived in the state. 

And those new Florida residents could play a powerful role in the 2018 elections. 

Florida Sen. Bill Nelson was recently in San Juan, where he promised to aggressively register Puerto Ricans to vote in Florida. 

"Now's not the time to talk about their former financial problems, about the debt payments to bondholders," Nelson told Congress. "In a crisis, all that matters is saving the lives and giving people the resources they need to get back on their feet."

It's more than just a compassionate gesture for the third-term Democrat.

Nelson is up for re-election next year, possibly facing current Gov. Rick Scott. 

Florida's current Puerto Rican community already votes overwhelmingly Democratic. 

And Nelson won't be the only Democrat on the 2018 ballot as every multiple statewide offices in Tallahassee will be up for grabs. 

Democratic strategist Steve Schale said Hurricane Maria's impact will mean 30,000 to 40,000 new Puerto Rican Democrats in Florida. That could make the difference in a tight race. 

"I don't think the Puerto Rican migration is going to change the game itself, but I certainly think in an election that could be decided by 50,000 to 100,000 votes," Schale said. "Every single vote is going to matter and getting those voters registered and turning out to vote is a huge part of winning." 

Schale also added that in the last midterm election, 2014, Florida's Puerto Ricans didn't turn out in force. That, potentially, cost Charlie Crist the governor's mansion. 

Democratic party strategist say the voter registration campaign will ramp up over the coming months, with a particular focus on Central Florida, which is overwhelmingly where the majority of the state's Puerto Ricans reside.