MIAMI — Florida Republicans are angered by President Donald Trump advancing a conspiracy theory casting doubt on Hurricane Maria’s estimated death toll in Puerto Rico. Even Trump’s two top Florida allies, Gov. Rick Scott and GOP gubernatorial candidate Ron DeSantis, disagreed with his insensitive comments.
Exploding on Twitter two months before Election Day, Trump’s comments have the potential to intensify Boricua voter registration efforts and perhaps election turnout. And that, Republicans and Democrats say, could prove crucial in Florida’s hotly contested races for U.S. Senate and governor, which are essentially tied races.
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“3000 people did not die in the two hurricanes that hit Puerto Rico. When I left the Island, AFTER the storm had hit, they had anywhere from 6 to 18 deaths. As time went by it did not go up by much,” Trump wrote on Twitter, ignoring the fact that the island’s government paid for independent research to determine the death toll, which was impossible to measure after last year’s storm because it crippled every aspect of Puerto Rico’s government.
Trump also blamed Democrats for releasing the casualty numbers to make him look bad.
“I disagree with @POTUS– an independent study said thousands were lost and Gov. Rosselló agreed. I’ve been to Puerto Rico 7 times & saw devastation firsthand,” Scott, the Republican nominee for Senate, wrote hours later on Twitter. “The loss of any life is tragic; the extent of lives lost as a result of Maria is heart wrenching. I’ll continue to help PR.”
Facing Sen. Bill Nelson (D-Fla.), Scott has increasingly put some distance between himself and Trump. But DeSantis, who owes his Aug. 28 gubernatorial primary win to Trump, hadn’t criticized the president publicly. That changed Thursday.
“Ron DeSantis is committed to standing with the Puerto Rican community, especially after such a tragic loss of life. He doesn’t believe any loss of life has been inflated,” DeSantis’ campaign said.
Scott, whose Senate bid was encouraged by Trump and who raised money for Trump’s 2016 super PAC, had no comment through his office or Senate campaign. Both Scott and DeSantis have campaigned for Boricua votes in Florida and traveled to the island.
But Alan Levine, a Republican appointed Scott to Florida’s university governing board, couldn’t keep quiet.
“Mr. President. SHUT UP,” Levine replied to Trump on Twitter. “Any death, whether one or 3,000 is a tragedy. That doesn’t mean you caused it, and its not about you. Show compassion for the families,” Levine wrote. “Learn what we can so future response can improve. Honestly….”
Levine told POLITICO he was shocked the president was focusing on this rather than Hurricane Florence as it takes aim at the Carolinas. Levine is one of the top government experts in hurricane response. He was hospital agency director under Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, a Republican, when eight hurricanes damaged the state in 2004 and 2005. And he led Louisiana’s hospital agency under Republican Gov. Bobby Jindal when hurricanes Gustav and Ike damaged that state.
Florida state Rep. Bob Cortes, a Republican of Puerto Rican descent who heads DeSantis’ Boricua outreach, fretted at the comments from Trump.
“Every morning there is something new that the president tweets,” Cortes told WFTV. “I have no reason to doubt the number of 2,975 deaths in Puerto Rico.”
Earlier in the week, Trump reignited a feud with Puerto Rican officials over what he felt was a lack of credit for his administration’s storm response, which was widely panned.
Florida has more than 1.1 million Puerto Rican residents, and as many as 500,000 could be registered to vote among the 13 million active registered voters. Thousands flocked to Florida after the hurricane. While as many as eight in 10 Puerto Ricans often vote Democratic, a higher number register as independents, and polls suggest Republicans can make big inroads this year.
But Trump might be an impediment.
A recent poll of 1,000 Florida Puerto Ricans found only 18 percent approve of the president, and 72 percent disapprove. His net rating is a negative 53 percent. By contrast, Scott’s net approval rating is a positive 57 percent — so he’s running 104 percentage points better than the president. Scott has held his own with Puerto Rican voters in a head-to-head poll against Nelson, whose campaign got off to a late start in reaching out to Puerto Ricans while Scott figuratively opened Florida’s doors to them.
Nelson today called Trump‘s comments “shameful.”
Focus groups show, however, that Trump’s association with a Republican drags down a candidate’s support among Puerto Ricans.
To that end, Nelson’s campaign the day before began running a new Spanish-language ad called “amigos” that links Scott with Nelson.
“Dime con quien andas y te diré quiten eres,” the ad says, meaning “tell me who you are with and I’ll tell you what you are.”
Democratic state Rep. Amy Mercado, who’s also of Puerto Rican descent and who has deep roots in the Central Florida Boricua community, said she took little pleasure out of the “disgusting” comments made by Trump. She called the Republicans who support Trump “enablers.”
“As for outreach,” she said via text message, “the Prez and his supporters have shown their true colors, so what they are doing is actually empowering the people on the ground especially evacuees to pay attention and organize.”
Scott’s appointee, Levine, did not want to discuss the politics of it. But, when asked about the potential political damage, Levine said via text message that “I can’t imagine it helps. Rick Scott genuinely earned their trust and faith through his work I helping Puerto Rico … The President’s crass statements about himself are so disgraceful and hurtful to people who did die.”