With Democratic Rep. Donna Shalala the heavy favorite to keep her seat against her two-time Republican challenger, former TV journalist Maria Elvira Salazar, in the race for Miami’s 27th congressional district, Salazar has increasingly gone on the attack, in ads and in person, as Election Day closes in.
In one TV ad, Salazar criticized Shalala after she broke the law by failing to disclose stock sales during her congressional term. In another, she says Shalala “broke the law to enrich herself off coronavirus” without providing evidence for the claim. In a mailer sent to voters, she tries to tie Shalala to socialists in the Democratic Party, a common attack across the country by Republicans. And in a meeting with the Miami Herald editorial board, she accused Shalala, 79, of staying home rather than working for her constituents during the pandemic.
“I think that she should have been around during the pandemic. She didn’t do the job but she kept the title,” Salazar, 58, said during a meeting with the Miami Herald editorial board.
When asked if she was saying that Shalala — who frequently traveled between Miami and Washington during the height of the pandemic to vote on legislation — was too old for the job, Salazar evaded the question: “I leave [questions of] the energy, the age and the stamina up to you.”
Shalala’s campaign manager Raul Martinez provided a list of Shalala’s media appearances and meetings during the pandemic, saying any suggestion that Shalala isn’t up to the job is “reprehensible.”
With the election already well under way, thousands of votes cast through mail ballots or in person early voting, and a pandemic still worrying voters, the fight for Florida’s 27th Congressional District, which includes most of coastal Miami-Dade County and Miami Beach, is being fought largely in TV ads.
Shalala has fired back in at least one recent attack ad. It includes video of a masked Salazar at a Trump rally, with the implication that a vote for Salazar is a vote for President Donald Trump’s policy agenda including the dismantling of Obamacare, the landmark healthcare law that provides insurance to millions of Americans including those with preexisting conditions.
“Salazar supports Trump, who wants to eliminate the Affordable Care Act and remove coverage of preexisting health conditions,” the ad said. “Maria Elvira Salazar still wants ‘four more years.’ ”
Salazar has released three television ads, two of which attack Shalala for not disclosing stock sales she made while in Congress within 45 days as required by law.
“Shalala broke the law repeatedly, selling stock as COVID ravaged us,” Salazar’s most recent ad said. “Politicians shouldn’t enrich themselves like Donna Shalala. That’s why Maria Elvira Salazar will donate her entire salary.”
Salazar also says in the ads that she supports term limits for politicians and will donate her entire $174,000 congressional salary if elected, though she hasn’t said where she’ll donate the money.
In her editorial board interview, Salazar also attacked Shalala for buying and selling stock in Tencent, a Chinese conglomerate that owns WeChat, a Chinese social messaging app. Salazar called Tencent the “surveillance arm of the Chinese Communist Party.” Federal financial disclosures show that Shalala bought between $1,001-15,000 of Tencent stock in January 2019 and sold the stock in June 2019.
Martinez, Shalala’s campaign manager, said Shalala — the former Health and Human Services Secretary under President Bill Clinton — is an opponent of the Chinese Communist Party and introduced bipartisan legislation to limit the influence of cultural and exchange programs at U.S. universities that are funded by the Chinese government.
Salazar’s third TV ad is an anti-socialism spot with Sirley Ávila León, a human rights activist who sought asylum in the United States after being attacked by the Cuban police with machetes.
By midweek, more than 114,000 voters in the district had already cast ballots, according to Shalala’s campaign. Registered Democrats are the largest bloc of people who have already voted in the district, though Republicans are voting at a higher rate during the first few days of early voting while Democrats make up the majority of voters mailing in their ballots.
Salazar has outpaced Shalala in fundraising in recent months, raising $1.1 million in August and September compared to Shalala’s $834,000, making her one of a few House Republican challengers around the country outraising a Democratic incumbent. But Shalala has more cash on hand to spend in the race’s final weeks and outside groups from both parties that spend millions on TV ads are staying out of the race, a sign that neither party considers the race particularly competitive.
Obamacare is continuing to be a focus in the race — which pits the candidates against each other for the second time — in part because about 100,000 residents of District 27 obtain their insurance that way.
In recent weeks, Salazar has gone on record as saying, “if you like your Obamacare, you can keep it,” adding that she does not support eliminating the program without a replacement plan. Republicans have offered no replacement plan, despite the Trump administration’s years-long efforts to gut the program.
Salazar would not say whether she agrees with the Trump administration’s Obamacare lawsuit, saying she hasn’t seen the litigation that began in 2018 when 20 states sued the federal government.
“I am going to be a member of Congress. I’m not the presidency and I’m not in the courts,” Salazar said. “I have no comment right now because I haven’t seen the lawsuit. Once I’m in Congress and I see all the sides, then I can answer that question intelligently.”
Shalala supports expanding Obamacare through a public option but isn’t in favor of Medicare-for-all, a single-payer national health insurance program that would replace private health insurance.
Salazar is hoping that recent polling showing Trump performing better with Latino voters in Miami-Dade County than he did in 2016 will help bridge the six point gap from her 2018 loss to Shalala. Salazar said internal polling in September indicated she had a three percentage point lead and that Shalala trailed her by nearly 20% among Latino voters. But the campaign would not supply the poll’s questions nor supply information about Trump’s performance in the district. Election forecasters rate the race as “likely Democratic.”
Shalala’s campaign also shared recent internal polling with the Miami Herald, showing Shalala up 7% over Salazar and Democratic nominee Joe Biden ahead of Trump by 13% among likely voters in the district. According to the poll, Shalala also leads with Latino voters, though Salazar holds an edge with Cubans. Shalala’s poll was conducted by Bendixen and Amandi from Oct. 9-13 with 500 likely voters and has a margin of error of 4.4 percentage points.
In a Spanish-language debate on Wednesday evening between the two candidates, a significant chunk of the questioning was devoted to socialism. Shalala, while using a translator, declared herself a capitalist and Salazar attacked the Democratic Party for being too far left.
In a recent Miami Herald interview regarding her outreach to Cuban voters, Shalala said, “I think we have a very good chance of making our case that we’re pragmatic capitalists.”
“There’s a lack of enthusiasm among the hardcore for the way Obama opened up our relationship with Cuba and they are interested in what President Trump has done,” Shalala said. “Although I think Joe Biden ... will put conditions on any discussions with the Cuban government and he has a strong anti-regime position.”
But Salazar is continuing to sound the alarm over socialism, noting that Shalala skipped a vote on an anti-socialism resolution offered by Miami Republican Rep. Mario Diaz-Balart that was attached to an unrelated anti-vaping bill.
“Between ‘18 and ‘20, the political forces have changed,” Salazar said.” One of the issues is specifically socialism. Between ‘18 and ‘20, the Democratic Party has changed. Radical forces have been able to control the mind and soul of the party. Socialism is misery, oppression and exile. Democratic socialism is a lie.”
Salazar and other Republicans have also used a three-second clip from an interview with NBC 6 on Sunday, where Shalala referred to herself as a “pragmatic socialist,” to argue that she’s too close to left-leaning figures like Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders and New York Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, even though Shalala was one of Sanders’ most vocal Democratic critics while he was in contention for the presidential nomination.
Shalala said on Twitter afterward she misspoke during her interview and meant to use the phrase “pragmatic capitalist” to defend long-running social programs like Social Security and Medicare.
“I’m a pragmatic socialist and that is I consider Social Security and Medicare and the Affordable Care Act social programs that are critical to our community,” Shalala said in the interview. “I’m as far from being a socialist as anyone you’ll ever meet. I’m a capitalist. I’m proud of it.”