This Florida House race is giving Democrats hope in a brutal year

A congressional race in a hotly contested House South Florida district is providing Democrats with a rare glimmer of hope in an otherwise brutal election year in the Sunshine State.

At a time in which Florida Democrats are already reeling from a tough redistricting outcome and a growing voter registration disadvantage, Florida’s 27th District offers the party its clearest opportunity to flip a GOP-held seat in the state. Not only is it perhaps the most closely divided district in Florida, but one of the most competitive in the country.

“If there’s any district in Florida that’s going to swing, it’s going to be this one,” said Thomas Kennedy, a Democratic National Committee member who lives in the 27th District. “This district, it’s one of the last true battlegrounds here.” 

The party got a major boost last month when state Sen. Annette Taddeo announced that she would drop her bid for Florida governor and would instead challenge Rep. Maria Elvira Salazar (R-Fla.) for her Miami-based House seat. 

The announcement, which came after months of quiet encouragement from party officials and operatives, set up a high-stakes battle with Salazar, a former television journalist who captured the seat nearly two years ago when she defeated former Rep. Donna Shalala (D-Fla.) in a painful upset for House Democrats.

But Democrats are also facing some daunting hurdles. The party’s voter registration advantage in Miami-Dade County has slipped somewhat since 2020. Democrats are also getting a much later start in the race after struggling for months to recruit a high-profile challenger.

Then there are the national headwinds. President Biden’s approval rating is deep underwater, economic concerns are pervasive among voters and Republicans have moved aggressively to solidify their recent gains among Latino voters, especially in South Florida.

And while Democrats insist that the Miami-based 27th District is still within their reach, they are also clear-eyed about their challenges there.

“It’s winnable, but that doesn’t mean it’s a slam dunk for Democrats,” said Fernand Amandi, a Miami-based Democratic pollster who served as a top consultant for former President Obama’s two presidential campaigns. Whether Democrats are able to capture Florida’s 27th District is contingent on the party’s willingness to put up “the resources and attention it takes to flip it.”

“Those things don’t happen by magic,” he said.

Of course, Taddeo is still facing a primary challenge from Miami City Commissioner Ken Russell and progressive candidate Angel Montalvo, though an internal poll released late last month by Taddeo’s campaign showed her with a 36-point edge over Russell. Montalvo, who’s running an entirely grassroots campaign, notched just 1 percent support in that poll.

Taddeo also has the support of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee (DCCC), which added her to its “Red to Blue” program last month in a move that could help boost Taddeo’s organizational and fundraising operations. 

“We’re making sure voters see that while Salazar constantly stands in the way of their best interests, Senator Taddeo is a proven champion who will keep delivering for the community when she’s elected to Congress,” Nebeyatt Betre, a spokesperson for the DCCC, said in a statement. 

The DCCC has also vowed to boost its efforts in South Florida after Democrats suffered a series of disappointments there in 2020. 

Two Democratic House incumbents — Shalala and former Rep. Debbie Mucarsel-Powell — went down only two years after winning their seats, while former President Trump made steep gains in Miami-Dade County, Florida’s most important Democratic stronghold.

In one of the most alarming signs for Democrats in Florida, President Biden carried the 27th District by only 3 percentage points. By comparison, Hillary Clinton, the 2016 Democratic presidential nominee, won the district by about 20 points just four years earlier.

The Republican gains in and around Miami in 2020 underscored an increasingly dire problem for Democrats: the steady erosion of support among Latino voters, a key constituency that, in Florida, includes a diverse mix of Cubans, Colombians, Puerto Ricans and Venezuelans, among others. 

Florida’s 27th District is also among the most heavily Latino in the state. More than 70 percent of its residents are Hispanic.

Taddeo, who was born in Colombia and fled to the U.S. when she was 17 after her father was captured by the FARC, has been particularly critical of Democrats’ lack of outreach and engagement with Latino voters, especially in South Florida. She has also urged her party to more forcefully push back against Republican efforts to cast Democrats as socialists and far-left extremists — a tactic that the GOP used aggressively in 2020 and is deploying once again this year.

“I have been very vocal about the lack of engagement, the lack of response,” Taddeo told The Hill in an interview. “I am a strong believer that all politics is local and you really need to pay attention to the ground and to the issues that people are facing.” 

“And frankly that is why I know we will be successful in this race against Maria Elvira, because you can’t just say one thing and vote against every one of those issues that would actually help your community.” 

Taddeo recalled how, after the 2020 election, Shalala asked her to consider a 2022 bid for the 27th District. 

“Literally the day after Donna Shalala lost this seat, she called me and asked me to run,” Taddeo told The Hill. “And what she said to me is: ‘Annette, you need to run for this seat, you can win this seat, we need a Latina, a strong Latina like you.’ ”

To be sure, Taddeo’s pulled off surprising wins before. In 2017, she became the first Democrat to flip a Florida state Senate seat in a special election in a district that Trump carried in 2020 by 6 percentage points. She won her first full term in 2018 by a 7-point margin. 

Of course, Taddeo is running in a very different political environment this year than she was during her last two state Senate campaigns, when Republicans held the reins of power in Washington and Democrats were expected to gain ground in Congress. 

Democrats now control the White House and both chambers of Congress, inflation is at its highest level in decades and the GOP is poised to make gains in the House from redistricting alone. Republicans need to net just five seats to recapture control of the House this year.

And while The Cook Political Report, a nonpartisan election handicapper, shifted the race toward Democrats late last month after Taddeo’s entrance, it still sits in the “likely” Republican column, suggesting that the district hasn’t yet become competitive for Democrats.

Republicans also see Salazar as a particularly strong candidate for the district. She’s a well-known former news broadcaster and the daughter of Cuban exiles in a state where U.S. relations with Havana are a particularly animating issue. And unlike in 2020, she now has the advantage of incumbency and more than $1 million in her campaign coffers, according to her latest available federal filings. 

“As the daughter of Cuban exiles, Maria Elvira Salazar fits this district perfectly and has done an excellent job of representing FL-27,” said Camille Gallo, the deputy director of media affairs and strategic communications for the National Republican Congressional Committee. “She will be reelected in the fall.”

Taddeo and her allies insist, however, that she’s within striking distance of Salazar. An internal poll conducted shortly before she launched her campaign for the 27th District shows Salazar leading Taddeo 47 percent to 45 percent — well within the survey’s 4.9 percentage point margin of error. 

Despite the make-up of the district, the emerging match-up between Taddeo and Salazar appears likely to pivot around many of the same themes that are playing out in races across the country — rising prices, fears of a looming economic recession and concerns about extremism within both major political parties.

After Taddeo announced her campaign, Salazar quickly sought to tie Taddeo to what she described as “the far-left policies that have penetrated her party,” according to CBS News Miami

“We’re talking about a disaster in the economy. You are talking about high gas prices. We’re talking about no baby formula. We’re talking about people not wanting to go to work because they have received free money. We’re talking about a situation where Americans are not happy,” Salazar said. “So welcome to run, but you have to run on your record.”

Taddeo, meanwhile, has sought to put Salazar on defense over the GOP’s ties to far-right figures and groups, like the Proud Boys. Asked whether she is concerned that the national headwinds facing Democrats this year could cost her in November, Taddeo said she is “cognizant” of the challenge, but pointed to her record of bucking her party in the past.

“I’ve been very much an independent thinker,” she told The Hill. “When my party or the president does something I disagree with, I have no hesitation saying it.”

Tags 2022 midterm elections Annette Taddeo Annette Taddeo Donald Trump Florida Florida 27th District Joe Biden Maria Elvira Salazar Maria Elvira Salazar

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