As two Democratic gubernatorial candidates sparred on TV Thursday evening, a different debate played out at a watch party in West Palm Beach.
Hosted by the Palm Beach County Democratic Hispanic Caucus, some 15 attendees watched the one-hour encounter between rivals Charlie Crist and Nikki Fried. They attentively followed the debate, played on a projector at the Box Gallery, while sitting on folded chairs and munching on popcorn.
Crist and Fried traded barbs on a slew of issues, from abortion to affordable housing. But after their debate ended, the discussion among the watchers wasn't just about which candidate they preferred, but whether either of them can win the governor's mansion and end a 28-year losing streak.
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One of the optimists was Rolando Chang Barrero. As the president of the Palm Beach County Democratic Hispanic Caucus, he said both candidates reached out and have been listening to his suggestions on how to reach back out to Hispanic communities.
"Some people, they get caught up in the fodder of the campaign," Barrero said. "But most Democrats are through-and-through Democrats and they are more loyal to the state when they're running than anything else. And both of them would do a wonderful job if elected."
Others, however, say their hope is fading and think Democrats need to step up their efforts in the future.
"We need to get out of la la land and we need to be realistic about our chances," said Sasha Baranov, a member of the LGBTQ+ Democratic Caucus of Palm Beach County.
Baranov said he believed that it is necessary for Democrats to win, but that the chances are low. He said the Democrats need to learn from its mistakes from past elections, need to rethink their election strategies and bring more funding to the campaigns.
"DeSantis is wildly popular in the state," Baranov said. "So beating him – even if he's one foot out the door and into the White House – is going take a vast amount of money and, honestly, it would take nothing short of a miracle."
A month before Democratic Gov. Lawton Chiles defeated Republican challenger Jeb Bush in November 1994, Florida Democrats enjoyed a 424,406 lead in voters. That gap held until GOP voter registration converted the erstwhile chasm into a Republican advantage now of 202,321 voters.
Beyond that, Democrats have been voicing other concerns in recent months. One of those is whether they will be able to galvanize young voters to vote, and for their party's candidates.
Another demoralizing blow: 2018 gubernatorial nominee Andrew Gillum was indicted in June on fraud-related charges. And then there is the still stinging hemorrhaging of Hispanic votes, especially in Miami-Dade County.
South Florida is home to a diverse set of Hispanic communities from countries such as Cuba, Venezuela and Colombia. Miami-Dade County's census data showed that the county was about 69% Hispanic, with Broward County at about 32% and Palm Beach County at nearly 24%.
In the 2020 presidential balloting, former President Donald Trump and the GOP captured a 205,000-Hispanic vote swing there. President Biden won Miami-Dade by just 7 points, far fewer than Hillary Clinton's 29-point margin in 2016, as Trump carried Florida by 373,231 votes.
Since 2020, Florida Republicans have been increasing their traction with Hispanic communities by dubbing Democrats as having socialist agendas similar to regimes in Latin American countries.
While Trump's presidency ardently condemned socialist regimes and appealed to voters through sanctioning Cuba and Venezuela, Biden has sought to reverse hardline policies by relaxing Cuba travel restrictions and even mulling buying oil from Venezuela.
The latter move was criticized by Florida Democrats.
Going into 2022, Barrero said that both Democratic candidates asked what they could do better to reach out to Latino voters. He said Fried and Crist are listening to voters by making efforts to be active in South Florida and reach out to the Hispanic community.
Both candidates have, indeed, made various campaign stops in Palm Beach County. And Crist is scheduled to be back in the Palm Beaches on Saturday.
Yet, during the debate, Barrero said Crist and Fried missed an opportunity to address the issues the electorate cares most about.
"They mentioned DeSantis too much and they spent too much time politicking off of each other instead of concentrating on the few things that they are fundamentally in favor of and in supporting, which they didn't mention but they could have elaborated more," Barrero said.
That is really important because Hispanic voters, who tend to be frontline workers, are worried about the economy, Barrero said. Pew Research Center reported that 55% of Hispanics say that the affordable housing is a major problem where they live. With Biden's record low approval ratings, Democrats are justified to be scared for November.
Another attendee, Tom Valeo, said the Democrats could have done more and that the young Democrats and the Hispanic communities have not worked together enough. They talked about it, but they could have done more, he said.
"There's always discussions, not action," said Valeo, president of the Palm Beach County Young Democrats and Democratic primary candidate for District 93 in the Florida House.