Florida Dem Senator Struggles With Name Recognition Among Hispanic Voters

Bill Nelson faces a 2018 election challenge from GOP Gov. Rick Scott

Sen. Bill Nelson / Getty Images

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Sen. Bill Nelson (D., Fla.) is facing an uphill battle for reelection as he faces Republican Gov. Rick Scott (Fla.), who has stronger name recognition in Hispanic communities.

Democrats believe maintaining Nelson's Senate seat is essential for the party to take back the Senate majority this fall. However, they are concerned will Nelson's lackluster outreach to Hispanic communities and the disadvantage he's at by having lower name recognition than his opponent among immigrant communities in Miami, Orlando and Tallahassee, Politico reports. Nelson's dilemma became especially evident in May after four focus groups, conducted in Central Florida’s influential Puerto Rican community, revealed few people knew who he was.

"There’s a lot higher awareness of Rick Scott. He’s got much higher name recognition. And people associate him with trying to do something for Puerto Rico," said Marcos Vilar, director for United for Progress PAC.

"Bill Nelson has very little name recognition," Vilar said. "The people who know him don’t know what he’s done. They don’t know him in the community. They don’t see him out to the community as much."

Nelson has attempted to tie Scott to President Donald Trump and the condemnation the president received from many Puerto Ricans who expected a stronger response and more quickly delivered resources after Hurricane Maria. But Scott has garnered some well earned media with multiple high profile trips to Puerto Rico alongside the island’s governor, Ricardo Rosselló. This led to Rosselló's Lieutenant Governor and Secretary of State Luis G. Rivera-Marin endorsing his senate candidacy, in addition to the later endorsement of non-voting member of Congress Jenniffer González-Colón. And the governor has actively reached out to Florida's Hispanic communities more broadly, according to Politico.

Florida doesn’t have a single Hispanic community. It has Hispanic communities: Cuban, Puerto Rican, Colombian, Venezuelan, Nicaraguan, to name a few. Most are clustered in South Florida, where Spanish-language journalists say Scott’s campaign is far more proactive and accessible than Nelson’s.

"I haven’t really seen that much activity as far as being open to the media from Nelson. And as far as the same intensity as Governor Scott, I don’t see it from Nelson," said Rene Pedrosa, a Miami-based reporter for América TeVé and a commentator for Caracol Radio.

Pedrosa notes that Scott on Monday held a Colombian outreach event in Coral Gables at a coffee shop right next to the Colombian consulate on the first day of absentee early voting for that nation’s presidential election. At least 87,000 Colombia natives are on Florida’s voter rolls, the second-highest number of Latin American foreign-born Florida voters behind the 325,000 Cubans, said University of Florida political science professor Daniel A. Smith who has studied Florida’s immigrant voters. Smith said the total number of voters of Cuban and Colombian descent is far higher.

Pedrosa and other Spanish-language reporters say it’s no surprise Scott was campaigning with Colombians because he has systematically targeted different Latino populations in recent months: Venezuelans at the El Arepazo restaurant in Doral, Cubans at a Cuban Independence Day event with Bay of Pigs Veterans in Miami, and an event for Nicaraguans at a local Miami-Dade business.

Party insiders and Latino activists in Washington, Miami, Orlando and Tallahassee believe Scott is going to spend tens of millions of dollars out of his own pocket to drown out Nelson's message, potentially disconnecting him further from the Hispanic community.

"At the end of the day, [Nelson] can be great on all the issues but if people don’t know that that’s happening, it almost doesn’t matter," said Mayra Macias, the political director for the group Latino Victory. "There seems to be a disconnect between the outreach to the community and the policy work that he’s doing, the advocacy for our community – he’s been spot-on on our issues."

Roberto R. Tejera, a veteran political commentator and host of "The Roberto Rodriguez Tejera Show" on Actualidad Radio in Miami was asked about the differences between the Scott and Nelson campaigns.

"Who is Bill Nelson?" he joked in response.

Cameron Cawthorne

Cameron Cawthorne   Email Cameron | Full Bio | RSS
Cameron Cawthorne is a Media Analyst for the Washington Free Beacon. He graduated from the University of Virginia in 2013. Prior to joining Free Beacon, Cameron was a Legislative Assistant in the Virginia General Assembly and a War Room Analyst at America Rising.

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