Puerto Rico Gov. Wanda Vázquez on Tuesday endorsed Donald Trump for reelection, a move that belies the president’s tense relationship with the island and its diaspora — particularly in his must-win state of Florida.
“I ask all the Puerto Ricans who are listening to me to go vote… and evaluate who has represented themselves as someone who thinks about Puerto Ricans and their needs in the most difficult moment: It’s Donald Trump,” Vázquez said in an interview with Telemundo Puerto Rico.
As a Republican, Vázquez’s endorsement isn’t a surprise. But it’s raised eyebrows because of Trump's strained relationship with Puerto Rico and its leaders over the past three years, stemming from his administration’s handling of Hurricane Maria and subsequent disaster aid.
Last month, however, Trump announced plans to award nearly $13 billion in federal aid to help repair the island’s electrical and education infrastructure — a sharp reversal after Trump’s repeated comments about not wanting to provide more aid.
The governor’s endorsement is designed to help Trump court the Latino communities that he increasingly needs to win the battleground state of Florida. While much of the president’s campaign outreach has been aimed at drawing support from South Florida’s Cuban Americans and Venezuelan Americans, he’s also looking to draw Puerto Rican support in Central Florida — a growing bloc in the state.
Florida now has more than 1 million Puerto Ricans, with more living in Florida than New York. The state’s Puerto Rican population exploded as the island’s economy deteriorated, even before the devastation from Hurricane Maria. As their numbers have grown, the Democratic Party has sought to enlist them as a counterweight to GOP-leaning Cuban Americans. But Cuban Americans have higher turnout rates overall and outnumber Puerto Ricans by about 500,000 in the state, according to Census estimates.
About 17 percent of Florida’s 14 million registered voters are Hispanic. Pollsters estimate more than 30 percent are of Cuban descent and about a quarter have Puerto Rican roots.
Trump Victory, the joint committee of Trump and the Republican National Committee, welcomed the governor’s endorsement as “further proof of the enthusiasm that President Trump is generating among Boricuas and all Hispanics,” spokesperson Danielle Alvarez said.
Trump’s campaign on Tuesday released a Spanish-language radio ad targeting Puerto Ricans, arguing “Joe Biden and Democrats have never cared about Puerto Rico.”
Vázquez’s endorsement was initially set to take place in Central Florida last Friday during Trump’s scheduled rally in Sanford, Fla., she said in the Telemundo interview. However, that rally was canceled due to the president’s Covid-19 diagnosis.
Last month, Biden made a campaign stop in nearby Kissimmee, Florida to release his policy plan for Puerto Ricans, flanked by Puerto Rican singers Ricky Martin and Luis Fonsi.
Democrats on Tuesday were quick to call out Vázquez’s endorsement as payback for Trump’s promise to give the island disaster money.
“There’s no other explanation. After all, she’s from the pro-statehood party on the island and the president has made it clear that he’s vehemently against statehood,” said Florida Rep. Darren Soto, a Democrat who is the state’s first congressman of Puerto Rican descent.
Pointing to polling that shows Florida Puerto Ricans overwhelmingly back island statehood, Soto said Vasquez’s endorsement of Trump is even more laughable if Republicans believe it will benefit his campaign in the state. Trump has long been opposed to Puerto Rican statehood.
Vázquez’s endorsement is unlikely to sway significant numbers of Puerto Rican voters given her own unpopularity on the island. In August, she lost the primary of her pro-statehood party. She had never actually been elected governor — Vázquez assumed the office following former Gov. Ricardo Rosselló’s resignation after weeks of protests over a series of scandals.
“She’s so unpopular on the island she couldn’t even win a primary as a sitting governor,” said Charlie Rodriguez, chair of the Puerto Rican Democratic Party. “I can’t see anyone in a state like Florida, where it matters, caring about this or changing their vote.”
Marc Caputo contributed to this report.