Leonor Figueroa, 82, center, a survivor of Hurricane Maria, is surrounded by her daughters after arriving at the Orlando airport from Puerto Rico in September 2017. Photo: Joel Achenbach / The Washington Post

By Ed O'Keefe
8 January 2018

(The Washington Post) – A massive influx of Puerto Rico residents displaced by recent hurricanes is transforming communities in Florida and other states, and a conservative group is moving quickly to woo them ahead of the midterm elections.

The Libre Institute, an offshoot of the Libre Initiative, a group backed by the billionaire Koch brothers, is launching new outreach programs this week in the Orlando area designed to provide English-language courses and civics lessons to thousands of Puerto Ricans living at least temporarily in Central Florida as the island continues rebuilding after deadly hurricanes Irma and Maria last fall.

Full power has not yet been restored on the island, and Florida officials say more than 300,000 people have at least passed through the Sunshine State from Puerto Rico in pursuit of new opportunities or temporary shelter. Thousands of young island residents have been enrolled in Florida schools while their parents seek work and housing.

Residents of Puerto Rico are U.S. citizens who can participate in presidential primaries but cannot cast a vote for president — unless they move to the mainland and register to vote. With hundreds of thousands of Puerto Ricans leaving the island, they are poised to transform several communities in Florida and bolster fledgling island communities in Georgia, North Carolina and Texas while adding to their already large numbers in New Jersey, New York and parts of New England. The ongoing churn has the potential to transform the political dynamic ahead of November’s midterms, especially in down-ballot races, in which even a few hundred new voters could make a difference.

The Libre Institute’s “Welcome to Florida” classes will launch this week at the group’s offices in the Orlando area, part of an initial $100,000 commitment by the group that is set to grow in the coming weeks as the program expands to centers in Miami and Tampa, two other parts of the state attracting Puerto Ricans. […]

Democrats and progressive organizations have sounded the alarm about Libre’s work in the past, accusing the group of skirting nonprofit laws by handing out ideological material; collecting names, email addresses and phone numbers; and basically doing the early legwork that Republicans should otherwise be doing to win over new voters.

Doing anything to track down and even indirectly woo potential Latino Republican voters could be critical next year in Florida, which faces an open gubernatorial race, a competitive reelection fight for Sen. Bill Nelson (D) and a handful of congressional races that could tip the balance of power in the House of Representatives. [more]

As influx of Puerto Ricans continues, Koch-backed group starts seeking them out in Florida

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