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-LehtinenRepublican Salazar seeks rematch with Shalala in key Miami House district Latina leaders: 'It's a women's world more than anything' Ex-GOP Rep. Roskam joins lobbying firm 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 TrumpWarren defends, Buttigieg attacks in debate that shrank the field Five takeaways from the Democratic debate in Ohio Democrats debate in Ohio: Who came out on top? 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 CurbeloThe Memo: Bad polls for Trump shake GOP Anxious GOP treads carefully with Trump defense The Memo: Trump's rage may backfire on impeachment 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 StiversFinancial sector's work on SAFE Banking Act shows together, everyone achieves more GOP ratchets up 2020 attacks as impeachment storm grows Let's improve state and federal regulation of bank vendors 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 CantorMeet Trump's most trusted pollsters Embattled Juul seeks allies in Washington GOP faces tough battle to become 'party of health care' 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 ObamaIraq is not yet lost, but if we continue to ignore it, it soon will be Obama praises marathon runners Eliud Kipchoge and Brigid Kosgei for 'remarkable examples of humanity's ability' Each of us has a role in preventing veteran suicide 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-BalartTrump calls on Supreme Court to strike down DACA, says deal possible Yes, President Trump, we do have a homelessness crisis and you're making it harder for us to address Congress sends a clear message that America is stronger for helping refugees 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.”