Backlash forced Florida Republican congressional candidate John Ward to backpedal his comment that Puerto Rican hurricane survivors shouldn't be allowed to vote.
Displaced Puerto Ricans have been arriving in Florida by the tens of thousands in the wake of the disastrous hurricane last year. But John Ward, a Republican running for Florida's open 6th Congressional District, wanted them to suffer one more indignity.
Back in April, he said they should not be allowed to vote. It wasn't until nearly a month later, after considerable backlash, that he finally walked that comment back.
On Monday, Politico reported that Ward "clarified his comments ... to stress that he believes Puerto Rican voters are U.S. citizens and that they should be allowed to register to vote in Florida if they decide to become permanent residents of the state."
But his original remark won't be easily forgotten, particularly because his reasoning was stunningly partisan.
At a GOP primary debate in April, a voter asked Ward how he'd respond to the Puerto Ricans who have evacuated to the mainland "when they say that they need more help and that the aid to Puerto Rico is not enough?"
Ward's bizarre response was to say, "I don't think they should be allowed to register to vote."
He promptly attempted to clarify the remark. "It's not lost on me that, I think, the Democrat [sic] Party's really hoping that they can change the voting [registration] in a lot of counties and districts. And I don't think they should be allowed to do that."
The idea of arbitrarily disenfranchising hundreds of thousands of U.S. citizens — many of whom just lost their homes — because they might vote Democratic is outrageous. And it is a politically toxic thing to say, as well. More than 1 in 5 residents in Deltona, one of the largest cities in the 6th district, are of Puerto Rican descent.
Fred Costello, Ward's primary opponent, furiously condemned him. Even the district's outgoing GOP Rep. Ron DeSantis, an avid Trump cheerleader not known for avoiding controversy, called Ward's remarks "beyond the pale."
But Ward's comment was nothing new for the Republican Party. Just recently, Wisconsin Attorney General Brad Schimel bragged that strict voter regulations in his state helped Republicans win in 2016.
If Puerto Ricans are indeed more inclined to vote Democratic than usual, Trump's reckless indifference to their island — from tossing paper towels at displaced Puerto Rican families to getting into a feud with the mayor of San Juan — has not blunted this trend.
The fact that the GOP tax scam squeezes Puerto Rico surely does not help matters, either.
Puerto Rican Gov. Ricardo Rosselló has sworn to unseat the Republicans who have hurt his island. Ward's remarks could provide further ammunition for him, as GOP Florida state Rep. Bob Cortes has noted.
Florida's 6th District sits on the Atlantic coast of the state, and includes suburban Jacksonville and Daytona Beach. It is a reliably Republican seat and not currently rated competitive. But it does not tilt as heavily in the Cook Partisan Voting Index as some other seats that have flipped blue.
Republicans need to stop wishing democracy away, and start trying to win the war of ideas on honest footing. And one of those ideas should be how to actually do right by the people of Puerto Rico.