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Former TV journalist gives GOP rare dose of hope in Florida

First-time candidate Maria Elvira Salazar, a popular Cuban-American former broadcast journalist, is offering Republicans in Florida a rare dose of hope in their race to defend the House.

Recent internal polls show Salazar ahead or trailing slightly behind Democrat Donna Shalala, 77, a former Health and Human Services secretary in the Clinton administration, in the race to replace Rep. Ileana Ros-LehtinenIleana Carmen Ros-LehtinenElectoral battle for Hispanics intensifies in Florida Florida House race in dead heat in district Clinton won in landslide Election Countdown: Big fundraising numbers in fight for Senate | Haley resigns in surprise move | Says she will back Trump in 2020 | Sanders hitting midterm trail | Collins becomes top Dem target | Takeaways from Indiana Senate debate MORE (R) in the Miami-based district.

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The tight race is a surprise for a seat Democrats had tipped as one of the most likely to flip in 2018 as they look to retake the House in November.

A court order three years ago redrew the lines along the 27th District, concentrating it in parts of urban Miami and its sprawling suburbs — areas that tend to be more favorable for Democrats.

But Salazar, 56, has been heralded by Republican leaders as a potential up-and-coming star with an ability to connect with voters in a district where roughly 73 percent of the population is Hispanic. That includes many of the Cuban-Americans that have shaped South Florida’s political landscape for decades.

Many of these voters are familiar with Salazar, who spent about three decades as a journalist for Spanish-language Telemundo, scoring interviews with Latin American leaders like former Cuban President Fidel Castro and former Chilean dictator Augusto Pinochet.

“It’s a very Hispanic district, and while most of those Hispanics are Democrats, they like to elect people that are from that community,” said Nelson Diaz, the chairman of the Miami-Dade County GOP. 

“Shalala’s not from this community and she doesn’t understand this community, and that makes it tough for people to go out and vote for her,” Diaz said.

Ros-Lehtinen, a Cuban émigré who won reelection in 2016 by 10 points despite President TrumpDonald John TrumpKey takeaways from the Arizona Senate debate Major Hollywood talent firm considering rejecting Saudi investment money: report Mattis says he thought 'nothing at all' about Trump saying he may leave administration MORE’s loss in her district, has endorsed Salazar as her successor, and the candidate also has an ally in another Cuban-American lawmaker, Rep. Carlos CurbeloCarlos Luis CurbeloDems see blue 'tsunami' in House as Senate path narrows GOP spokeswoman says Republicans will lose House seats in midterms Cook Political Report shifts 7 more races towards Dems MORE (R-Fla.), who is facing a competitive race of his own in his Miami-Dade district.

“It’s certainly a factor in the race,” one Democratic official who works on House campaigns said of Salazar’s Cuban-American heritage. “But having ties to the Cuban community isn’t a trump card for Salazar.”

Republicans argue that Salazar is well-known within South Florida’s Hispanic community and speaks Spanish in a district where it is many people’s first language, while Shalala does not.

That has helped position Salazar to compete in an otherwise Democratic-leaning district, said Rep. Steve StiversSteven (Steve) Ernst StiversFormer TV journalist gives GOP rare dose of hope in Florida House Dem campaign chief presses GOP on banning use of hacked materials Trump is wrong, Dems are fighting to save Medicare and Social Security MORE (R-Ohio), chairman of the National Republican Congressional Committee.

“When that seat became vacant, Democrats just assumed they were going to win it,” Stivers said at a breakfast event earlier this month. “And now this match-up is a really good match-up for us. I get really excited about her.”

In fact, the race has gotten more competitive in recent weeks. An internal poll from Salazar’s campaign conducted earlier this month showed the veteran broadcaster leading Shalala by 9 points in a two-way match-up. Another poll earlier this month from Shalala’s campaign had the former HHS secretary up by 4 points, matching the margin of error of 4 percentage points.

Mayra Joli, a Miami immigration attorney, is also competing in the race as an independent. Salazar’s poll did not include Joli, although Shalala’s did.

The increasingly competitive nature of the race prompted the Cook Political Report, a nonpartisan election handicapper, to move the race from “lean Democrat” to the “toss-up” column last week.

Shalala emerged from a contentious and expensive primary race against a crowded field of Democrats in August, spending $1.35 million to win by only 4.4 percentage points over second-place finisher David Richardson, a progressive state lawmaker.

Salazar, on the other hand, spent only a fraction as much as Shalala and coasted to a comfortable win in her primary.

But Democrats say there’s not yet any reason for Shalala to hit the panic button.

To start with, Shalala has more cash on hand, $723,000 compared with $233,000 for Salazar, and a recent internal poll from her campaign also found Shalala leading Salazar by 16 points among the district’s independent voters.

Though Salazar is well known among Hispanic voters, Shalala also has name recognition of her own in the district where she served for 14 years as the president of the University of Miami. As one Democratic operative put it: “Everyone knows Shalala.”

At the same time, Democratic voters have turned out in force so far in 2018, and party officials and strategists argue that Trump’s deep unpopularity will ultimately be an insurmountable obstacle for Salazar.

Shalala has sought to tie her opponent closely to the president. A post on the homepage of her website calls Salazar “another enabler of Donald Trump.”

Democrats were also quick to call Salazar’s internal surveys into question, arguing that the pollster behind it, McLaughlin & Associates, has made inaccurate predictions before, most notably in 2014, when then-House Majority Leader Eric CantorEric Ivan CantorFormer TV journalist gives GOP rare dose of hope in Florida Dave Brat trailing in reelection bid Fake political signs target Democrat in Virginia MORE (R-Va.) suffered a stunning primary loss to Tea Party insurgent and current Rep. Dave Brat (R-Va.).

Looming over the race to replace Ros-Lehtinen, some Democrats said, is a shifting political climate in Miami-Dade County. They pointed to a county commission election earlier this year that saw voters choose a white, non-Hispanic Democrat over the Cuban-born wife of a powerful former commissioner, Bruno Barreiro.

“Partisan identification is becoming more important,” said Steve Schale, a Tallahassee-based Democratic strategist who managed then-Sen. Barack ObamaBarack Hussein ObamaChance the Rapper works as Lyft driver to raise money for Chicago schools Americans are safer from terrorism, but new threats are arising Donald Trump Jr. emerges as GOP fundraising force MORE’s (D-Ill.) 2008 presidential campaign in Florida. “It’s reshaping Miami politics.”

Democrats are running a slate of non-Cuban-American candidates across Miami-Dade this year. Curbelo, for instance, is facing a challenge from Debbie Mucarsel-Powell, an Ecuadorian immigrant, in Florida’s 26th District.

And in the 25th District, Mary Barzee Flores, a non-Hispanic Democrat, is looking to unseat Rep. Mario Diaz-BalartMario Rafael Diaz-BalartFormer TV journalist gives GOP rare dose of hope in Florida The Hill's 12:30 Report — Trump rips 'ridiculous' spending bill | FBI dragged into new fight | Latest on Maryland shooting Jeb Bush campaigns with Rick Scott in Florida MORE (R-Fla.).

Florida’s 27th District was among several redrawn in 2015 in response to a ruling by the Florida Supreme Court that the GOP-controlled state legislature had divided communities in South Florida to turn “one Republican district and one Democratic district into two Republican-leaning districts.”

The new map approved by the court makes the 27th District friendlier territory for Democrats.

These advantages have Democrats hopeful that Shalala may be able to pull off a win, though they acknowledge it will likely be close.

“This is an area that elected Ileana Ros-Lehtinen for 30 years,” said Democratic strategist Schale. “That’s not an accident.”