Donna Shalala seeks comeback in critical Florida House race
MIAMI, Fla. – Donna Shalala is making a comeback in her bid to replace retiring Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-Fla.), a welcome boost for Democrats who see the coveted Miami-area district as a key battleground in their bid to recapture the House.
In recent weeks, the former Health and Human Services secretary and University of Miami president has ramped up her Spanish-language advertising; she more than doubled her Republican opponent’s fundraising haul in the first two-and-a-half weeks of October; and just last week, Hillary Clinton went to bat for her.
Polls are also trending in Shalala’s favor. An internal poll released earlier this month by the Democrat’s campaign showed her with a 5-point lead over Republican Maria Elvira Salazar. Likewise, a recent survey from The New York Times and Siena College put Shalala ahead by 7 points.
Just last week, The Cook Political Report, a nonpartisan election handicapper, moved the race to the “lean Democrat” column from the “toss-up” column.
Voters in the district have sent a Republican to Washington for three decades. But a confluence of factors, ranging from court-ordered redistricting in 2015 to demographic shifts, helped put the district on the map for Democrats, who see it as one of the key battlegrounds that will determine who holds the Speaker’s gavel for the next two years.
“This is one of the true, classic swing districts in the United States given that it’s voters have shown a willingness to support Republicans and Democrats — sometimes at the same time,” said Fernand Amandi, a Miami-based pollster and adviser to Shalala’s campaign.
Democrats need to win at least 23 House seats in November to recapture control of the House, and Florida’s 27th District — a diverse melting pot that includes much of downtown Miami, Miami Beach and affluent communities like Coral Gables — is seen as prime pickup territory for Democrats.
In a crowded banquet hall in Coral Gables last week, Shalala was joined by a slate of prominent Democrats and activists, who sought to make the case for electing Democrats in Miami-Dade and across the state.
Among them were Christina Reynolds, vice president of communications for the abortion rights group EMILY’s List; R. Jai Gillum, the wife of Florida’s Democratic gubernatorial hopeful Andrew Gillum; and Kristen King, the wife of Andrew Gillum’s running mate, Chris King.
But none were as easily recognizable as Clinton, who vouched for the candidate who served for eight years as her husband’s Health and Human Services secretary and later as the president of the Clinton Foundation.
“Donna has been my dear friend for many, many years,” said Clinton, who beat President Trump in Florida’s 27th District in 2016 by nearly 20 points. “And in everything she has ever done … she has lived and worked her heart out to improve the lives of the people she was responsible for helping.”
“There is no better person to have in your corner than Donna Shalala,” she continued.
But Republicans are also convinced that they have a strong candidate in Salazar, a Cuban-American former broadcast journalist, who has proved to be a far more capable challenger than Democrats once thought.
Like Shalala, Salazar is well-known in the Miami area, having used her background as a TV reporter and anchor as a springboard to launch her campaign.
Unlike Shalala, however, Salazar speaks Spanish — a useful quality in a district where nearly 60 percent of registered voters are Latino.
While Salazar has largely campaigned as a moderate, Democrats have sought to cast her as a Trump acolyte. Shalala’s campaign rolled out a new Spanish-language TV ad earlier this month, titled “La animadora de Trump” — the Trump cheerleader.
Republican outside groups and super PACS are also investing heavily in the race. The National Republican Congressional Committee moved earlier this month to redirect $1.5 million to the district after pulling $1 million in ad reservations intended to boost Rep. Mike Coffman (R) in Colorado.
Meanwhile, the Congressional Leadership Fund, a super PAC aligned with Speaker Paul Ryan (R-Wis.), is spending roughly $330,000 on advertisements in the district in the final week of the campaign alone, according to sources watching the advertising market.
But Shalala has also gotten help from outside groups, such as the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, which has spent nearly $1 million on ad buys so far in October, according to recent federal filings.
Likewise, the House Majority PAC, a super PAC supporting Democratic congressional candidates, is running digital and television ads in the district, as well as a direct-mail program.
For her part, Shalala has shown herself to be an adept fundraiser. Between July 1 and Oct. 17, the former University of Miami president raked in more than $1.7 million, according to filings with the Federal Election Commission.
By comparison, Salazar brought in a little more than $900,000 in that same period of time.
Still, the campaign hasn’t been easy for Shalala. For weeks, Democratic operatives and insiders complained privately that Shalala’s general election bid had failed to take off as they had hoped it would.
At the same time, Salazar’s Cuban heritage is widely seen as an asset in Miami-Dade, where scores of Cuban exiles settled in the years and decades following Fidel Castro’s seizure of power on the island.
Republicans have gone on the attack in recent weeks after it was announced that House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) and Rep. Barbara Lee (D-Calif.) would campaign for Shalala.
Lee drew criticism in 2016 after she credited the late Castro for spearheading a revolution that “led social improvements for his people” and said that people should “mourn” his death — statements that were seen as deeply offensive to many Cuban-Americans.
Lee ultimately did not attend the campaign event, and Shalala has distanced herself from the congresswoman’s statements on Castro.
While Cuban-Americans are still a prominent force in Miami-Dade politics, the area has also seen its non-Cuban Latino population grow in recent years as more people from Venezuela, Colombia and other Latin American countries settle there.
Unlike Cuban-Americans, who have historically leaned Republican, many other Latino groups tend to vote for Democrats — a demographic shift that one Democratic operative said plays to Shalala’s advantage.
“The political lines aren’t as clear cut as they used to be,” the operative said. “We’re talking about a district that’s changed quite a bit and is still changing.”
At the same time, Democrats, incensed with Trump and the Republican-controlled Congress, are confident in their prospects for a so-called blue wave in November, pointing to increased voter turnout in primary elections and a surge in small-dollar donations to candidates up and down the ballot as evidence that momentum is on their side.
“It’s no secret that maybe Donna’s campaign got off to a slow start and the Republicans nominated a candidate that was energetic,” said Mike Abrams, a former state representative and ex-chairman of the Miami-Dade Democratic Party.
“I feel personally pretty good that she’s going to win the seat,” he said. “I think turnout in Dade is healthy on the Democratic side and I think at the end of the day the built-in Democratic advantage is too much for Salazar to overcome.”