Washington Post (Opinion)
By Greg Sargent
May 2, 2016
Barely three years after the 2012 election led Republicans to vow to fix their problems with Latino voters, they are on the verge of nominating someone who (at best!) rules out legalization for the 11 million forever (Ted Cruz), or (at worst!) has promised to carry out mass deportations and describes Mexican immigrants as rapists and drug dealers (you know who I’m talking about).
But it’s possible that Republicans may be creating still another problem for themselves with Latino voters on top of all of that: The failure by the GOP-controlled Congress to help Puerto Rico restructure its debt.
In recent years the Puerto Rican population of Florida has exploded, potentially giving Dems an added advantage in the electoral college map, GOP pollsters tell me.
Today, in a big setback, Puerto Rico will not be making hundreds of millions in debt payments, per an announcement by Governor Alejandro Garcia Padilla, who is calling on GOP House Speaker Paul Ryan to overcome the divisions in Congress that have prevented it from passing a measure allowing Puerto Rico to restructure its debt:
The missed payment is the biggest yet in a continuing series of defaults by the struggling United States territory, and a warning that Puerto Rico will probably default on even larger and more consequential payments due on July 1, unless Congress enacts rescue legislation before then.
On that date nearly $2 billion is due, roughly $800 million of which consists of general-obligation bonds that carry an explicit guarantee by the Puerto Rican Constitution. Missing a major payment on such debt would not only set off a wave of creditor lawsuits, but it could also cast a shadow over America’s $3.7 trillion municipal bond market, for decades an essential source of financing for public works.
“This was a painful decision,” the governor said in a televised speech on Sunday, in which he struck a nationalistic tone and said he had to invoke his emergency powers under Puerto Rican law because help from Washington was not forthcoming….
Federal law bars Puerto Rico from restructuring under Chapter 9, the part of the bankruptcy code that insolvent cities and other local governments can use. Lawmakers in the House of Representatives, under the direction of Speaker Paul D. Ryan, have been trying to draft a special law to give Puerto Rico legal powers to abrogate debt, something normally available only in bankruptcy….
“Puerto Rico needs Speaker Paul Ryan to exercise his leadership and honor his word,” he said. “We can’t wait longer. We need this restructuring mechanism now.”
For good overviews of the situation, see this piece by Matthew Yglesias explaining the roots of the crisis or this Q&A on the basics from the Associated Press.
Paul Ryan has been trying to negotiate a rescue package, and has publicly pushed back hard on criticism of it. But as Congressional reporters Steven Mufson and Mike DeBonis explain, a key sticking point is now House conservatives who have taken to describing the effort as a “bailout,” which has become a catch-all pejorative for many on the right (and some on the left). Some House Republicans report that they are under pressure from ads blasting this “bailout” that are being run by outside groups, whose position on this mysteriously lines up with the position taken by hedge funds that stand to lose big bucks if Congress does succeed in enabling the restructuring.
While the rescue effort is still bottled up in committee due to some objections from Democrats, conservative opposition appears to be a major obstacle to Ryan getting this done. Democrats such as Chuck Schumer are increasing pressure on GOP leaders, calling on them to make a deal with Democrats, and pointing out that GOP infighting is putting the prospects of a compromise solution in peril.
And it is possible this battle could actually end up influencing the presidential race.
Here’s why: Florida’s Puerto Rican population has now topped one million, according to Pew Research, as part of a broader trend of Puerto Ricans moving to the mainland amid economic woes back home. NPR recently put the count at over one million, too. And GOP pollsters say that these numbers could make a difference in 2016.
“The increased migration from Puerto Rico to Florida takes existing trends in the growth of the Hispanic vote and accelerates them,” veteran Republican pollster Whit Ayres, who has long warned that Republicans need to deal with the growing demographic threat that Hispanics pose to the GOP, tells me. “It makes Florida even more challenging to win without substantially improved support among Hispanic voters. Florida is obviously an extremely close swing state, where any significant increase on one side of the ledger makes a huge difference.”
It’s hard to say how the battle over the rescue package for Puerto Rico will play out, both substantively and politically. But one thing that is already clear is that in Florida, the GOP’s image is in terrible shape among Hispanic voters. A new poll sponsored by a Florida business lobby finds that Hillary Clinton is soundly beating Trump in the state. But more to the point, Ryan Tyson, the Republican political strategist who works for that business lobby, says the poll shows that Republicans are suffering “substantial brand damage” among Latinos.
It is hard to see Republicans winning the White House without winning Florida. The state is already projected to see the nonwhite share of the vote grow in 2016, a trend that will be “driven primarily by Hispanic growth,” according to one recent demographic analysis. As it is, the GOP standard bearer — whether it is Trump or Cruz — will have positions on immigration that are to the right of Mitt Romney’s in 2012. On top of that, if recent history is any guide, Democrats will seek to crucify Republicans over any failure to come through for Puerto Rico. And in a state where Republicans have found themselves losing among Latinos lately despite the large population of GOP-friendly Cubans, even incremental demographics shifts could make it tougher for them.
“My party is bad at math right now,” GOP pollster Glen Bolger tells me. “We can’t win a national election with 59 percent of the white vote, which is what Romney got, so we need to improve elsewhere. Florida is a perfect example. It, along with Ohio, is ground zero for the presidential campaign. Republicans have to understand that sticking a finger in the eye of Latino voters is a way to guarantee electoral losses.”
Bolger added that, while it’s anyone’s guess how many of the new Puerto Rican arrivals will register to vote, the trend could still loom large. “It could be a sizable chunk in a state that is extremely close in presidential races,” Bolger said. “And that could tilt the scale against Republicans.”
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