Florida Dem Candidate Struggles to Hold off Republican Opponent in District Clinton Won by Nearly 20 Points

Donna Shalala / Getty Images
September 19, 2018

Democrats fear the congressional campaign of Donna Shalala, the Democratic candidate for Florida's 27th Congressional District, may be in "sleep mode" and falling behind her Republican opponent's campaign.

Local Democrats in Florida are worried Shalala is struggling to hold on against Maria Elvira Salazar, a popular former newswoman who worked for Spanish-language networks like Univision and Telemundo, Politico reports.

Internal polls from both campaigns, obtained by Politico, show Salazar is either ahead or just narrowly trailing the Florida Democrat. Salazar has a lead over Shalala, the former head of the Clinton Foundation, by 7 percentage points in a poll conducted by the Republican campaign. The Democratic campaign also conducted a poll, completed Sept. 1, which concluded Salazar was down by 4 percentage points.

"Donna’s campaign changed in April. It went from active mode to sleep mode. And she hasn’t woken up," said Grant Stern, a Miami-Dade County Democratic Executive Committee member and a longtime critic of Shalala.

Stern said a friend of his, a middle-aged Democrat who would like to vote for Shalala even though she knows Salazar personally, recently complained about the Democratic candidate's lack of presence. Stern said the friend complained Democratic gubernatorial candidate Andrew Gillum’s "campaign has already reached out to her. But she has never heard from Donna. Donna hasn’t messaged her. She doesn’t know what her platform is."

"Donna needs to rescue this campaign. And now she needs to do it in two languages," Spanish and English, Stern said.

Salazar, 56, speaks English and Spanish, but Shalala, 77, only speaks English, a potential advantage for Salazar. Fifty-seven percent of the registered voters in the district are Hispanic, and many of them are Cuban-American like Salazar.

"The swing voters in that district are non-Cuban Hispanics," said Rep. Carlos Curbelo, a Miami Republican and ally of Salazar’s. "They know her. They’ve watched her for 30 years report about Venezuela, Nicaragua, Ecuador, Peru. Donna Shalala is going to have a really hard time connecting with them. This could be the biggest mistake Democrats have made in the recent political history of South Florida."

Salazar gives frequent personal interviews in both Spanish- and English-language media, while Shalala is personally limited to the latter.

In Salazar’s poll, conducted by McLaughlin & Associates, she led Shalala among Spanish speakers 70 percent to 15 percent, while Shalala led Salazar among English speakers by 52-30 percent.

In Shalala’s poll, conducted by Bendixen & Amandi International, the Democrat had a 55-27 percent edge among non-Hispanic whites but the Republican led among Hispanics by 55-35 percent.

Among the major differences between the polls: Shalala’s survey shows the Democrat winning independents by 16 points and Salazar’s shows the Republican winning independents by 9.

A five-candidate Democratic primary took a toll of Shalala, who is known within her district as the former president of the University of Miami. Her opponents spent over $1 million combined in negative TV ads and mailers castigating her.

"Despite the massive negative ad campaign against Donna Shalala she ran a positive issues-based campaign about what she will deliver to this district," Shalala’s pollster, Fernand Amandi, told Politico. "Voters in this district understand that a vote for Maria Elvira Salazar is a vote for Donald Trump, and his extremist chaotic agenda for America that she embraces."

Florida's 27th District is located in South Florida and includes a large portion of Miami. The district's current representative, Republican Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, won reelection to her seat in 2016 by 10 points but announced in April 2017 she would not run for reelection. She has endorsed Salazar.