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In Florida's Closely Watched Senate Race, Latino Votes May Be Key


Republicans have some reason to hope the Latino vote will not sink them in this fall's elections. President Trump called Mexicans rapists, was criticized for a slow response to a hurricane in Puerto Rico and then separated migrant families at the border. And there is little doubt that Democrats will win the Latino vote, but by how much? Some Republicans hope to do better than expected, which could be good enough.

Senator Ted Cruz has some Latino support as he runs for re-election in Texas. And then there's Rick Scott of Florida. The Republican governor is running for Senate in a state where the Latino vote is big. NPR's Asma Khalid reports.


UNIDENTIFIED PROTESTERS: (Chanting in Spanish) No mas Nelson. No mas Nelson.

ASMA KHALID, BYLINE: Along a busy street in Orlando, a group of Rick Scott supporters chanted, no more Nelson, in Spanish as they waved Puerto Rican flags. But just steps away, the governor of Puerto Rico was backing Scott's opponent, Bill Nelson.


RICARDO ROSSELLO: I am proud to say that I am endorsing Bill Nelson for once again being a senator of Florida and helping the people of Puerto Rico.

KHALID: But even in endorsing Nelson, the governor of Puerto Rico described Rick Scott as a friend. Scott has gone to Puerto Rico eight times in the last year. He also created a welcome center at the Orlando airport, where Puerto Ricans arriving after Hurricane Maria could immediately get driver's licenses. And through that all, he's won over some skeptics.

KAREN DIAZ SUAREZ: Let me be very honest with you. I don't like Rick Scott in the beginning, when he's governor. Four years ago, I don't like him.

KHALID: Karen Diaz Suarez considers herself a 100 percent Democrat. We first met in 2015. She despised Donald Trump back then, and she still does. But she says Rick Scott is no Donald Trump. Scott has done a lot for Puerto Rico.

SUAREZ: All my family lives in Puerto Rico. You know, he do something good for Puerto Rico, he do for me.

KHALID: And so she plans to vote for Scott this November. Fernand Amandi is a Democratic pollster in Miami. He says there are really two main strategies for any Republican to win Florida. You either maximize the white vote, or you chip away at the Hispanic vote. Polling shows Nelson has the support of a majority of Latino voters. But a couple of surveys in August and September showed Scott doing well with Puerto Rican men and older Latinos.

FERNAND AMANDI: The fact that Scott was doing better than 35 percent suggested that he was in a position to kind of deny Bill Nelson re-election, which I think is the concern of many Democrats - because potentially, it could upend any plans to recapture that chamber.

KHALID: But Amandi says even though Scott is trying to make inroads in the Latino community, Nelson still has one big advantage.

AMANDI: He happens to be on the ballot in a year where at least the political atmospheric conditions suggest that it's good to be a Democrat.

KHALID: Democrats insist the choice is clear when you look at policy. But voters don't always pay attention to policy. Sometimes they pay attention to who reaches out.

MARCOS VILAR: Rick Scott started very early in the year. And it's been constant since then, His presence in the Spanish media, both radio and in TV.

KHALID: That's Marcos Vilar, a progressive who works on Puerto Rican outreach in the Orlando area. He is not a fan of Scott and thinks the governor was disastrous on health care and housing. But he admits Scott is running a clever campaign.

VILAR: What he has done a good job is building a PR campaign that shines on the little victories that he may have had.

KHALID: For months, Scott was bombarding the airwaves in Spanish. And even though Scott previously raised millions of dollars for Donald Trump, he now runs ads in Spanish in which he tries to distance himself from the president.


RICK SCOTT: (Speaking Spanish).

KHALID: Some Democrats privately worry that Nelson's ties with the Latino community are not deep enough. He's been in office for decades. And during that time, the Hispanic population has nearly tripled. But Nelson's campaign dismisses the criticism. Amy Mercado, a state lawmaker supporting Nelson, says Scott might be more visible, but that's not a reason to vote for him.

AMY MERCADO: Honestly, I don't think that's the most important thing. The fact that you see somebody all the time doesn't make them effective. It's what they're doing that's, I think, the most important. So actions speak louder than words.

KHALID: Nelson says he's been busy with the Senate in Washington D.C. He points to his efforts to get hurricane relief funds for Puerto Rico. He's held dozens of events this year focused on Latino voters. And lately, he's stepped up with his own Spanish language ads. Asma Khalid, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Asma Khalid is a White House correspondent for NPR. She also co-hosts The NPR Politics Podcast.