Anna Paulina Luna throws a coming-out party for new MAGA generation

Anna Paulina Luna after giving her victory speech at her election night party in St. Petersburg, Fla., on Nov. 8. (Thomas Simonetti for The Washington Post)

ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. — It was still early, just 26 minutes after polls closed, when a young campaign staffer backstage ducked through the curtains and ran into the crowd, pumping his fist, a thumbs-up in the air. He threw back his can of watermelon-flavored Celsius energy drink. “She’s pulling ahead,” he said. “Excuse my French: We effin’ did it.”

Anna Paulina Luna was 4,000 votes up.

The crowd yelled.

It was 7:30 p.m. She was 10,000 votes up.

A man in the ballroom was texting Charlie Kirk, the 29-year-old who runs the conservative group Turning Point USA. “How much has reported?” Kirk was asking.

“It’s done,” the staffer said. “Dude, she just won.”

At 7:44 p.m., the candidate arrived, hand-in-hand with her husband, Andy Gamberzky, stepping through the front doors of the ballroom of the St. Petersburg Yacht Club.

Downstairs, a members-only dress-code crowd, White and wealthy, sampled a monthly buffet dinner just off the Commodore Room, where identically framed pictures of men lined the walls in four perfect rows. Upstairs, a different kind of Republican was on the cusp of becoming a congresswoman-elect in Florida’s 13th, a newly redrawn congressional district that leaves out more liberal parts of St. Petersburg and once belonged to Democrat Charlie Crist.

“Luna! Luna! Luna!” The chants filled the room. They rushed around her, a crush of red, white, blue, sequins, Donald Trump and Ron DeSantis gear. They raised their phones. A man held up his iPad to live-stream the scene. A woman held up her phone to live-stream the man with the iPad.

At 8:01 p.m., Luna stepped aside from the crowd: Kevin McCarthy (Calif.), the Republican who will oversee the House Class of 2022, was calling to offer his congratulations. She held a finger to plug her other ear as she nodded. “Thank you, thank you,” she said handing the phone back to Gamberzky. There was another call that they were expecting, one from Trump. “We’re waiting,” Luna said. “That’s why I have my husband holding the phone.” At 8:10 p.m., the race was over. She took the stage, “honored to be endorsed by the greatest president of our lifetime, President Trump," and, she said, "by Gov. Ron DeSantis.” She cut herself short — her Democratic opponent was calling to concede. “I have to answer a call from Eric Lynn, so I’m going to hop off,” she said.

“Put him on speaker!” a man yelled.

“Yeah, put him on speaker,” said another.

You should know the name Anna Paulina Luna. In two months, it will be etched outside a congressional office in D.C., a marker of a younger, more diverse, more online generation of Trump’s Republican Party. Soon it will appear alongside names you already know, like Marjorie Taylor Greene (R-Ga.), on the rolls of the House Freedom Caucus, a hardline conservative group poised to push Trump’s agenda with even more power in a Republican House.

You will find her in the halls of Congress and on Instagram, @realannapaulina or @apl, where she shares conservative headlines, gauzy selfies and Reels about online shopping to her more than 486,000 followers. “That’s Anna Paulina Luna,” said Kirk, who hired Luna to be Turning Point USA’s Hispanic outreach director in August 2018, as he introduced her on his podcast last month.

“APL,” Kirk said, “possibly against AOC. That’ll be really fun.”

You should also know that Anna Paulina Luna, or APL, is a name and brand she chose for herself. In today’s politics, in a party modeled after a Queens-born business executive who remade himself into a conservative icon testing out new rhetoric and slogans in real-time, on stages, in front of crowds, on the campaign trail and in the Oval Office conservative identity is a thing you take hold of and make for yourself.

Like some of her counterparts elected on Tuesday night, Luna has made false claims about election fraud and advanced the antiabortion movement, a cause she first came to after dissecting a chicken egg in college and seeing the baby chick flinch beneath her scalpel. “God was using that opportunity to really wake me up,” she said in a podcast interview this summer. But what makes Luna a cause among Republicans is her ability to defy assumptions about the politics of her generation: “It’s very widely assumed that younger voters tend to be more liberal-leaning,” Luna said at the Yacht Club. “Conservative politics is truly transcending age, race, gender. We’ve been able to bridge the gap. This idea is more than just politics — it’s a lifestyle. It’s something that we truly believe in.”

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Luna was born in 1989 in Santa Ana, Calif., as Anna Paulina Mayerhofer.

She worked as an airfield manager in the Air Force, enlisting at the age of 19. Eight months after she joined the military, she met Gamberzky. After moving to Florida and eventually leaving the Air Force, Luna worked as a model, a cocktail waitress at a gentlemen’s club and an influencer on Instagram. She has said she went from 30 to 40,000 followers before she even got into politics. Her introduction to an even wider audience came after a video she recorded about human trafficking on the Mexican border went viral, attracting a call from Kirk.

“I didn’t really know who Charlie was,” Luna said on her podcast. “I know this sounds weird, but I didn’t know what conservative was.”

In 2019, according to the Tampa Bay Times, she filed paperwork with the Clark County Clerk in Washington state, where she and Gamberzky owned a home, to change her last name. She chose a name from her maternal grandmother, who came from Mexico City, to honor her Hispanic heritage, Luna’s mother, Monica Todd, said at the Yacht Club. Todd said that her family was Mexican and that her daughter’s father was half-German, half-Mexican. Luna has identified as half-White, half Mexican, saying she doesn’t feel the need to favor one side or the other.

She was 29 years old when she became Anna Paulina Luna.

That was the name on the ballot as she arrived to cast her vote on Election Day in St. Petersburg, pulling up to St. Luke’s United Methodist Church in a black SUV. Luna stepped out onto the pavement in a red dress and matching heels. In the evening, she would change to all-blue. Her husband trailed close behind: “Ready for the red wave?” he asked.

“We’re in a red mood!” Luna said. “I’m excited.”

In the parking lot, Sam Wilson, 22, and Olivia Carson, 19, stood outside in matching Luna T-shirts, waiting to greet the candidate. Wilson, the staffer who would kick off the party that night at the Yacht Club, connected with Luna while interning for Lauren Boebert (R-Colo.) on Capitol Hill. Carson met her at a Donald Trump Jr. rally when she was still in high school. They are Luna’s top two campaign staffers — and also the only campaign staffers, another emblem of the new Republican grass roots, where campaigns have cast off D.C. strategists in favor of young, devoted volunteers and candidates who can run the show themselves, navigating the glare of a TV camera.

Luna’s campaign here in St. Petersburg, as well as an unsuccessful congressional bid two years ago to challenge Crist, when he still held the seat, has attracted speculation, intrigue and wild headlines. In August, before Luna’s primary race, the conservative agitator Roger Stone zeroed in on her race, writing an op-ed attacking Luna and calling her dishonest. Trump, he said, had “made an error” in endorsing her campaign. In a text message, Stone said that while he stood by the assertions in his piece, “I think it’s more important for Republicans to win the house and therefore I hope she is successful in winning today.” (“He’s an interesting guy,” Wilson said, when asked about Stone.)

Outside the polling place, next to a One America News camera, a reporter stood ready for a live interview with the candidate. Luna took off her sunglasses and squinted in the sun as the reporter asked about Trump.

The former president has hinted he is preparing to launch another reelection campaign on Nov. 15, teasing the announcement during a rally in Ohio the night before the midterm races. “Every time I see him, I feel like he gets younger and younger,” Luna said. “So I don’t know what he’s doing, but I’m very excited and I hear that he has a pretty good announcement on Nov. 15.”

Twenty miles away in Tampa, Trump’s potential challenger and Luna’s governor, Ron DeSantis (R), was preparing his reelection night rally. Luna has been loyal to both. (“It’s not uncommon now to see Trump-DeSantis 2024 flags,” Luna said in 2021.)

In the parking lot, Wilson and Carson readied their election night plans.

“How big is a 65-inch TV? Because I got two 65-inch TVs.”

“Oh, that’s perfect.”

At the election night party eight hours later, no one needed the televisions to watch returns.

Luna’s race was over as soon as she stepped through the ballroom doors.

She and her husband stayed until just after 9 p.m., posing for photos until the room had almost thinned out. Her margin had widened to 20,000 votes. DeSantis was leading by a million.

As they left, Luna’s husband still had his phone in his hand, waiting for that call from Trump.

The 2022 Midterm Elections

Georgia runoff election: Sen. Raphael G. Warnock (D) won re-election in the Georgia Senate runoff, defeating Republican challenger Herschel Walker and giving Democrats a 51st seat in the Senate for the 118th Congress. Get live updates here and runoff results by county.

Divided government: Republicans narrowly won back control of the House, while Democrats will keep control of the Senate, creating a split Congress.

What the results mean for 2024: A Republican Party red wave seems to be a ripple after Republicans fell short in the Senate and narrowly won control in the House. Donald Trump announced his 2024 presidential campaign shortly after the midterms. Here are the top 10 2024 presidential candidates for the Republicans and Democrats.

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