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Insight: Donna Shalala poised to follow Hillary playbook and lose an unloseable race

Lack of Latino connection, combined with 2018’s worst political gaffe, could keep Florida’s 27th District in GOP hands

♦By Rich Shumate, ChickenFriedPolitics.com editor

MIAMI (CFP) — Miami Democrats may be about to learn that hard way that even in a race where the odds seem decidedly in your favor, your candidate and her campaign matter. A lot.

ChickenFriedPolitics.com editor Rich Shumate

On paper, Florida’s 27th U.S. House District should have been an easy layup for Democrats. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, a fixture in Cuban-American politics for more than three decades, was retiring. Hillary Clinton carried the district by 20 points, giving the 27th the distinction of being the location of Donald Trump’s worst loss in a Republican-held congressional district anywhere in the country. And younger Cuban voters have been showing less fealty to the GOP in recent election than did their ferociously anti-communist elders.

Yet, despite all that, when the smoke clears on November 6, there is a very good chance that the new congresswoman from the 27th District will be a Republican, and a race Democrats thought they couldn’t lose will be lost.

So what happened? Donna Shalala happened.

After months of ambitious Miami-Dade Democrats plotting and jockeying for position in what was assumed to be a wide-open race for a sure seat in Congress, Shalala big-footed her way into the contest in March, deciding to enter elective politics at age 77 after a career spent in academia and eight years as Bill Clinton’s health secretary and two years as head of his foundation.

She instantly became the “big name” in the race and the favorite. Three Democratic rivals withdrew; another switched to a congressional race in another district.

Among the candidates who withdrew was popular State Senator José Javier Rodríguez, and his departure left Democrats with a handicap that has since turned into an albatross — he had been the only Latino Democrat running in a district in which seven out of 10 residents, and nearly six in 10 voters, are Latino.

In the end, the Democratic primary in August came down to a race between Shalala and State Rep. David Richardson, the first openly gay man to serve in the Florida legislature. She won, but with only 31 percent of the vote against a field of four rivals.

Meanwhile, in the Republican primary, Maria Elvira Salazar — running against eight rivals — was taking 40 percent of the vote, and her total vote was nearly 1,700 more than Shalala’s total, even though more people had voted in the Democratic primary than the Republican primary.

Salazar is no Trump-loving ideologue. As a journalist for 35 years, she has pushed back against the president’s characterization of the news media as the enemy of the people, and she is for immigration reform and a pathway to citizenship for Dreamers and against separating migrant families at the U.S.-Mexico border.

And perhaps more significantly, Salazar has three qualities Shalala can’t match: She’s a Latina. She speaks Spanish. And she has deep roots in Miami, where she was born and has been in the living rooms of her Latino constituents as an anchor and reporter on Spanish-language television.

Shalala’s inability to speak Spanish has given Salazar the advantage of being able to speak to Latino constituents in the district in their own language. And while someone entering a race in March probably can’t be expected to be fluent in October, those constituents probably found it telling that Shalala has lived in a bilingual city for 17 years, and served as president of its namesake university, without bothering to enough Spanish to give a simple speech. (Even George W. Bush speaks enough Spanish to make do in a pinch.)

More inexplicable was the decision by Shalala’s campaign not to begin running Spanish language ads until mid-October, an egregious oversight in a district where Spanish is ubiquitous.

And then, the campaign invited Democratic U.S. Rep. Barbara Lee appear at an event with Shalala and House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi.

The same Barbara Lee who said, after Cuban dictator Fidel Castro died, “we need to stop and pause and mourn his loss.” The same Barbara Lee who wrote lobbied against placing sanctions on the socialist dictatorship in Venezuela, many of whose victims have sought refuge in Miami.

Shalala’s campaign managed to extricate themselves from Lee actually appearing, but the damage was already done. When Pelosi and Shalala arrived at a Miami restaurant for the October 18 event, they were greeted by protestors calling them “communists” and “witches” — and much worse that isn’t printable here.

After news broke of Lee’s aborted visit, Salazar and Shalala met in a Spanish-language debate, where Shalala had to rely on an interpreter for the particulars of a rather vigorous denunciation from her Republican rival — a scene that summed up all that has gone wrong for Democrats in the 27th District.

There is a curious echo here: A woman with an impeccable resume handed a Democratic nomination on the basis of her presumed invincibility, only to see it turn to ashes thanks to personal deficiency and questionable strategy.

After 2016, Democrats waxed wistful of the might-have-beens if Vice President Joe Biden or another big name Democrat had challenged Hillary Clinton for the nomination in 2016. If Shalala loses, we will see the same wistfulness for a different outcome with Rodríguez, or even Richardson who, although not Latino, has won election twice to a majority-Latino Florida House seat.

Perhaps Shalala will squeak through in the end. If so, she’ll have some serious fences to mend, not to mention a new language to learn.

But if she loses, Miami Democrats will have created a new Republican political star who will be exceedingly difficult to dislodge.

Your candidate and her campaign matter. A lot.

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