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As Florida Democrats confront losses, Tampa organizers are undeterred

“You learn more from losing than you do from winning,” said a volunteer for Charlie Crist’s campaign.
Signs promoting Charlie Crist and local Democratic candidates are among the items left at a Democratic field office the day after he lost his gubernatorial bid on Wednesday, Nov. 9, 2022, in Tampa.
Signs promoting Charlie Crist and local Democratic candidates are among the items left at a Democratic field office the day after he lost his gubernatorial bid on Wednesday, Nov. 9, 2022, in Tampa. [ ANGELICA EDWARDS | Times ]
Published Nov. 10, 2022|Updated Nov. 10, 2022

TAMPA — In the darkened corner suite of a largely abandoned strip mall, a worker packs cardboard boxes with her belongings as she empties her desk.

She’ll take home a tapestry, Aveeno lotion and a thrifted office lamp. The campaign signs — for Democrats Charlie Crist, Val Demings and Janet Cruz — she’ll dump in a pile to recycle.

For the last several months, the halls of this office have bustled with staff and volunteers who gathered at Hillsborough’s Democratic Hispanic hub, largely known as “Casa Crist,” with the goal of drawing Latinos to the polls for blue candidates.

Related: How Florida, the nation’s biggest swing state, turned deep red

As election night rolled in, hope and energy was still abundant. At a watch party Tuesday night, volunteers filled plastic chairs in a backroom of the winding space off Dale Mabry Highway. People cracked open pop cans. Somebody brought a keg.

Then, the polls closed. Votes were counted. And Florida turned a burning red.

Related: Republicans dominated Florida elections. What happened to Democrats?
Signs promoting local Democratic candidates and empty chairs are among the items left at Hispanic field office the day after Republicans swept Florida.
Signs promoting local Democratic candidates and empty chairs are among the items left at Hispanic field office the day after Republicans swept Florida. [ ANGELICA EDWARDS | Times ]

As key races were called for Republican Gov. Ron DeSantis, for representative-elect Anna Paulina Luna, for Sen. Marco Rubio, the party died down. They took the personal belongings that had accumulated at the office this election season. And as was the case for many field offices post-Election Day, the lights were turned off and the space transformed into a ghost town.

The morning after, Hispanic organizers began to think about the future.

“This was a wave election, it’s hard to swim against the wave,” said Victor Rudy DiMaio, the Hillsborough Democratic Hispanic Caucus president. “But the pendulum swings back and forth. There’s always another day.”

DiMaio’s tone was matter-of-fact. Worn, not beaten, as he reflected on the results from 24 hours earlier.

Related: Florida Republicans cut further into Democratic support among Hispanics

For Democrats in Florida, engaging Hispanic voters has been a challenge.

Getting folks to the polls is one piece of that. In Hillsborough, majority-Hispanic precincts had a turnout 12 points lower than the countywide participation.

But there’s also an increasing number of Hispanics who lean red, data shows. In Miami-Dade, for example, Hispanics who register Republican outnumber Democrats by more than 81,000.

Signs for candidates are piled in the "Casa Crist" office in Tampa on Wednesday, Nov. 9, 2022 after the election.
Signs for candidates are piled in the "Casa Crist" office in Tampa on Wednesday, Nov. 9, 2022 after the election. [ ANGELICA EDWARDS | Times ]

DiMaio said talk about the “Hispanic voter” fails to acknowledge the diversity in interests and experiences among the population. Hispanics are not monolithic, he said.

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“You have Mexicans, Puerto Ricans, Colombians, Venezuelans, Cubans,” DiMaio said. “They’re all unique, so you have to play to a very wide and vast audience.”

Related: DeSantis or Crist? What Tampa Bay Latinos say about governor’s race

Jose Vazquez, who leads the Caribbean Caucus, echoed that. He added that education around the importance of midterms for new voters is necessary, noting that people focus on the presidential elections. He also said combatting misinformation and appealing to younger voters is crucial.

Part of that, said Mario Núñez, a volunteer with Casa Crist, is investing more in messaging.

He said throughout the campaign, Republicans flooded Spanish-language television and radio stations in ads. That was a tell, he said.

On the day after the election, Núñez said volunteers were feeling “battered and bruised.”

But like DiMaio and Vazquez, he expressed hope — and a desire to look forward.

“We’re Democrats. We’re the eternal optimist,” Núñez said. “You learn more from losing than you do from winning.”

Related: What Florida could expect from Ron DeSantis’ second term