Washington (CNN)A Republican congressional candidate is facing a backlash after saying that Puerto Ricans who moved to Florida in the wake of Hurricane Maria last year should not be able to register to vote in the state.
Candidate criticized for saying displaced Puerto Ricans shouldn't be able to vote in Florida
In a video uploaded to YouTube by the campaign of a Republican rival, John Ward -- a candidate in the GOP primary for Florida's 6th Congressional District -- is asked by a voter how he would respond to Puerto Ricans who have "moved either temporarily or permanently to Florida" when "they say that they need more help and that the aid to Puerto Rico is not enough."
Ward replied by saying, "First of all, I don't think they should be allowed to register to vote. It's not lost on me that, I think, the Democrat party's really hoping that they can change the voting registers in a lot of counties and districts, and I don't think they should be allowed to do that."
The candidate went on to say that "we should be looking to put the Puerto Ricans back in their homes. The idea that they can come to the mainland United States, I don't necessarily have a problem with that, but I think we should be thinking about it in terms of getting them back home and providing the capital and resources to rebuild Puerto Rico, which is, I honestly think, is where they belong."
The comment, which Ward made at a candidate forum last month, has generated criticism from fellow Republicans.
Republican Rep. Ron DeSantis, who currently represents Florida's 6th District, issued a statement Tuesday in response to Ward's remarks, saying that "candidates running for office as Republicans need to be committed to equal treatment under the law for all of our citizens."
"Puerto Ricans are U.S. citizens and any suggestion that they should be treated differently than other Americans is beyond the pale," the congressman said in the statement. "These are our fellow Americans and candidates running for office as Republicans need to be committed to equal treatment under the law for all of our citizens."
On Monday, Bob Cortes, a Republican member of the Florida House of Representatives, endorsed Fred Costello, a Republican running against Ward, in his own statement criticizing the comments.
"I find it very ignorant and highly offensive that someone would suggest that an American citizen should not be afforded their constitutional right to register to vote," Cortes said in a phone call with CNN on Tuesday.
In an emailed statement, Ward told CNN on Tuesday, "I stand by what I said," adding, "I do not believe the Democrat Party should be able to take advantage of Puerto Rican evacuees fleeing a natural disaster, here on a temporary basis, in order to manipulate voter registrations rolls in the run up to the 2018 elections. I would welcome any Puerto Rican who wants to permanently resettle in Florida to register to vote here. We're all American citizens together. That said, if a natural disaster displaced me from Florida to some other state temporarily, I'd still want to vote by absentee in FL, my home community and voter registration, and not elsewhere."
Costello, who was also at the voter forum last month and whose campaign uploaded the video to YouTube, told CNN in a phone interview that he "can't imagine anybody endorsing John Ward and aligning themselves with that comment."
In the YouTube video, Costello said he "absolutely disagree(d)" with the comment, adding, "Puerto Ricans are citizens of the United States of America. They have a right to go anywhere in the United States."