One of the early must-stops for Democratic presidential aspirants running in 2020 is an island whose citizens can’t vote in the presidential election and whose primary falls at the back end of the electoral calendar.
In the past month, two Democrats with their eyes on the White House—former HUD Secretary Julian Castro and Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-MA)—have already visited Puerto Rico. At least three others have tentative plans to go as well, and the progressive political action committee, Latino Victory Fund, is putting out an invitation to every Democrat in the field urging them to pay the island a visit. The attention is both new and universal and it’s happening, Democrats say, for both political and moral reasons.
“The Hispanic vote has increased in importance since I ran 10 years ago,” remarked former New Mexico governor and 2008 presidential candidate Bill Richardson. “I think Puerto Rico offers a lot of opportunities for national candidates.”
Puerto Rico does hold a Democratic primary on June 7—though that comes some four months after voters in Iowa go to their caucus sites. And states like Florida, an integral swing state every election, have large Puerto Rican populations, which have ballooned in size as citizens have been displaced by Hurricane Maria. Visits by politicians to the island don’t just present a chance to win support there and stateside, they give candidates an opportunity to go above paying lip service to an enormous Latino voting bloc in the country.
But what has made Puerto Rico more of a draw this cycle is the island’s literal and symbolic representation of the Trump administration’s mismanagement and mistreatment. A visit to Puerto Rico, Democrats say, can be used to highlight the continued fallout of the administration’s botched recovery effort after one of the worst hurricanes in American history as well as allowing for Democratic candidates to explain how they can better serve these citizens. That’s continued even as memories of Maria’s devastation have receded. One recent report indicated that the White House was looking into using earmarked disaster relief funds, including those for Puerto Rico, to fund a long-promised wall at the U.S.-Mexico border.
“Castro went there to send a distinct signal that every person in America counts,” Jennifer Fiore, senior adviser to his campaign, told The Daily Beast. “Puerto Ricans—American citizens—have been abandoned by the federal government. And as he starts his presidential campaign he wants everyone to know that, as President, he would not abandon anyone.”
Castro’s trip to Puerto Rico, his first stop outside of Texas as a candidate, included an address to a summit organized by the Latino Victory Fund and a tour of areas affected by Hurricane Maria and the earlier Irma. The annual summit had previously been held in Washington D.C., but it took place in San Juan this year in part to reflect the fallout of the devastating storm as well as the political ramifications of the administration’s actions.
On Friday morning, the Latino Victory Fund will go a step further, calling on every candidate to visit Puerto Rico and to emphasize that recovery efforts remain a national priority.
“This election will define who we are as a nation and what we stand for. Latino issues are American issues, and that’s why it’s so important for presidential candidates to engage with the Latino community from day one and hear firsthand how President Trump’s policies are impacting their daily lives,” Cristóbal J. Alex, Latino Victory Fund president, said in a statement to The Daily Beast. “This starts by going to Puerto Rico and hearing from those impacted by the hurricane.”
Given the current trend of candidate visits, they may just get their wish.
Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-MA), who started her campaign barnstorming Iowa, went to the island this week, prior to a visit to South Carolina, which hosts the fourth election in the Democratic primary.
An adviser to Warren said the trip was a logical extension of the work she has done in the Senate, where she has focused on the Puerto Rican debt crisis, visited with the Massachusetts delegation after the hurricane, and pursued oversight on the Trump administration’s failures to restore housing, electricity and provide an accurate death count.
“It’s also, obviously, a way to highlight how incompetent and disrespectful his administration has been,” the aide explained.
While in Puerto Rico, Warren hit on just those themes and castigated the president and his team for their inattention to the island.
“Even now, even after the Trump administration has denied how many died, and has dragged its feet on sending adequate disaster relief funds, the president of the United States has doubled down on the insult by toying with the idea of diverting your recovery funds to build a wall,” Warren said in part. "It is disrespectful. This ugliness has gone on for long enough.”
Warren won’t be the last candidate to make a stop in Puerto Rico. The campaigns for Reps. John Delaney (D-MD) and Tulsi Gabbard (D-HI) have tentative plans to visit as well and South Bend Mayor Pete Buttigieg told The Daily Beast on Thursday that he’s planning on going, noting that “these are fellow U.S. citizens who have been let down” and that they ought to have “a say on the presidency.” Senators Harris (D-CA) and Kirsten Gillibrand (D-NY) did not immediately share plans they have at the moment, though both have prioritized the island in their Senate work.
Gillibrand had also extended an invitation to San Juan Mayor Carmen Yulin Cruz to attend this year’s State of the Union, though it no longer appears likely to take place. And the prospect of Puerto Rico getting statehood has also become a growing topic of conversation for some Democrats, who see it as the logical extension of representative governance and a morally justifiable way to bring in like-minded voters. So far, the candidates who have visited have not explicitly advocated for statehood and instead said the decision is in Puerto Rico’s hands.
For former candidates like Richardson, the increased importance of Puerto Rico became more apparent after the president’s visit to the island in Maria’s wake where, among other things, he threw paper towels into a crowd and began a personal and vicious feud with Yulin Cruz. Richardson said that he was withholding support for any of the candidates but was impressed with Castro’s campaign and advised him in a phone call to focus on states with large Hispanic populations. He emphasized that traveling to Puerto Rico could allow any candidate to engage on issues of statehood, environmental protections, and housing.
“Puerto Rico’s importance in the primaries and the national election has dramatically increased because of the hurricane, because of the population flow to other states and because it signals the Hispanic connection and because of the president’s treatment of Puerto Rico,” Richardson said.
—Sam Stein contributed reporting