The humanitarian crisis and relief efforts are in full swing in Puerto Rico in the wake of Hurricane Maria. As the scope of the damage and the rebuilding of the island's infrastructure becomes more evident, one result of the disaster is the influx of residents from the island territory expected on the United States mainland, and in Florida in particular.
Looking forward, this could have wide-reaching effects on the political landscape, both in Florida and nationally.
In particular the decimation of the island’s power grid means the outlook is bleak for a quick recovery, and long-term restoration is certainly facing residents. A large number of Puerto Ricans are already eyeing the prospect of moving to the U.S. mainland for better opportunity and some semblance of returning to a normal life. On the other hand, this is nothing new. For years, as Puerto Rico has fallen deeper in debt, an increasing number of its citizens chose to move north to the States. The surge there has been a flow of citizens from the territory as it has been mired in an economic debt crisis, and the surge from the storm devastation will expand this flight.
So, how much will this impact things politically? It's a tough answer, with ever-fluctuating numbers and unknown results. One thing most are anticipating is a general benefit for Democrats. Puerto Ricans are a majority-Democrat voting demographic historically. Although they cannot vote in presidential elections, once they establish residency in one of the 50 states, their ability to enter the voting rolls is a smooth process. The turnout last year during the Puerto Rican primaries -- when they can vote -- was nearly 58,000 for Democrats versus nearly 37,000 for Republican candidates.
Florida is the expected landing pad for many of the transplants, and there is already a voting record to look over that does not deliver firm expectations. It has been estimated that the number of Puerto Ricans transplanted to Florida since 2012 is in the 200,000 range, pushing the residency totals in the state to over one million. This influx was expected to be enough of an edge last November to give Hillary the victory in Florida, but Trump took the state’s delegates.
The political alignment of the new Puerto Rican arrivals is only assumed; the reality of their voting is still not cemented. Politico explained one reason Hillary’s assured Florida victory did not materialize: There is a tendency for many of the new arrivals to register as Independent -- perhaps because they are fleeing an area enduring economic hardship at the hands of their elected officials.
Political observers are keeping an eye on how Puerto Rican voters could change the scenery in the Florida Legislature. Some have speculated the influx of new voters -- assuming they are largely Democratic -- could have a drastic "flip" effect, particularly in the Senate but possibly the House as well. This too will depend on unknown variables.
One area expected to see a large increase from Puerto Rico is Central Florida, particularly the Orlando region, where a large enclave of Puerto Ricans exists. However, Orange County and Osceola County are already deeply Democratic areas. The net gain in Tallahassee may be mitigated by that incumbency.
Certainly Republican operative Rick Wilson thinks Hurricane Maria could be a game changer favoring Democrats in Florida. “If you put an influx of 100,000 Puerto Ricans who vote Democratic eight times out of 10 in the Orlando area, there you go,” Wilson told The Washington Post. “Nobody can afford a big change in the registration pattern or a change in the voting pattern that offsets Florida’s narrowness. You could end up with a big advantage for Democrats in 2018 if they play it right. The Puerto Ricans would be coming here because they feel like Donald Trump left them high and dry. That won’t fade away. … It could be a very, very big deal.”
Since the Democratic windfall is not a foregone conclusion, many politicians -- Marco Rubio, for one -- are focused on championing the island's relief efforts, looking to gain the new voters' favor. Rubio, embraced at least by island conservatives, was among the first politicians to visit following Maria. Miami Beach Mayor Philip Levine has visited and brought supplies, a move likely inspired by his probable campaign for governor.
Gov. Rick Scott has toured areas of the island, and Sen. Bill Nelson talks of making a trip to the stricken island during meetings with Puerto Rican groups in Orlando. Both men are expected to run against each other for Nelson’s seat.
However, the biggest influence on the future votes of transplanted residents will probably rest with President Donald Trump.
His quality of relief efforts, and the perception of those covered through the media, will likely be the biggest indicator on which way those arrivals approach the ballots in the coming years.
Brad Slager is a Fort Lauderdale freelance writer who wrote this piece exclusively for Sunshine State News. He writes on politics and the entertainment industry and his stories appear in such publications as RedState and The Federalist.