Sunday, May 27, 2018
Politics

Democratic momentum, strategy combined to propel Bob Henriquez over Ronda Storms

TAMPA — The map depicting where Bob Henriquez won precincts in his bid for Hillsborough property appraiser bears a striking resemblance to that of another candidate on the ballot — President Barack Obama.

Henriquez and his supporters insist it takes more than coattails to explain his commanding victory Tuesday over better-known Republican state Sen. Ronda Storms. Hard work and strategy came into play too, they say.

"I would not have won just because I had a 'D' behind my name," Henriquez said. "If people did not know who I was, I would not have won. It would have been one of those close outcomes."

Henriquez and Storms got into the property appraiser's race at the last minute. The Tampa Bay Times reported in May that incumbent Rob Turner had sent porn to his human resources director, a woman he dated while she worked in the office.

Storms faced an uncontested re-election bid for the Senate, but had just two years left under term limits. She steam-rolled Turner, who was seeking a fifth term, getting 70 percent of the vote in the Republican primary.

The wind appeared to be at Storms' back, with Henriquez and two no-party candidates awaiting in the general election.

Henriquez is a former state representative who was last in office six years ago. He may be best known as the football coach at Tampa Catholic High School.

His own polling after the primary revealed a daunting challenge. Those who answered said they favored Storms by double-digit margins. Three in four questioned had heard of Storms. Henriquez? About one in four.

But compared to Storms, those who knew Henriquez generally liked him or had no particular thoughts about him. Storms generated strong and nearly equal feelings of love and loathing.

Storms has served six years in the Senate and was a Hillsborough County commissioner for four years. She is best known for her strident advocacy of socially conservative causes, having alienated groups from blacks to gays over her sometimes incendiary comments.

Henriquez's campaign focused almost exclusively on independent voters, figuring Storms had little shot of building on her base outside of eastern Hillsborough. They sent mail, enlisted former Gov. Charlie Crist to record a robocall and advertised on sports talk and Hispanic radio.

The fliers cast him as experienced in management and level-headed, and Storms as a bully who picks fights with others.

"They voted against her," said Ana Cruz, a friend and consultant to Henriquez, explaining his 9 percentage point victory margin. "They voted against a candidate that has made dividing the electorate part of her platform."

Republican insiders say that read is a bit of an overreach. At-large Democrats up and down the ticket prevailed in Hillsborough, and some candidates who thought they had safe Republican seats struggled.

"It has nothing to do with who likes or dislikes Ronda Storms," said Anthony Pedecini, a political consultant who worked on her campaign. "It has everything to do with who likes Mitt Romney and Barack Obama. The Democrats did an excellent job of turning out their people."

Others not connected to either campaign said a combination of factors was likely at work.

Kevin Cate, who performed media relations duties for Democratic County Commissioner Kevin Beckner's campaign, said coattails certainly helped. Then again, U.S. Senate hopeful Connie Mack showed a sharp dropoff in support compared with what Mitt Romney enjoyed at the top of the Republican ticket, likely dampening prospects for GOP candidates down ticket.

East county Republican activist Sam Rashid said he never believed Storms had a particular advantage, though he heard Henriquez had poll results suggesting she did. When you consider there are 6 percent more Democrats registered to vote than Republicans in the county, and Storms draws such harsh assessments from many of them, that didn't make sense, he said.

"Her unfavorables in the same polls were so high," Rashid said. "Where were the independents going to jump to?"

He said Democratic turnout ruled the day.

Either way, Henriquez carried almost all precincts within Tampa, those in urban areas by large margins. He also carried much of the Interstate 75 corridor, including parts of Brandon, Gibsonton, Riverview and Wimauma. Much like Obama.

"It's like football. A win is a win," said the football coach. "And this was not an ugly win."

Bill Varian can be reached at [email protected] or (813) 226-3387.

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