MIAMI – For the first time in almost three decades, Florida’s highly competitive 27th Congressional District seat, long held by Republican, Cuban-American Congresswoman Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, is up for grabs.
Now all eyes are on the close race that, just months ago, Democrats considered the easiest midterm pickup in the country, after Hillary Clinton won the district in 2016 by a 20-point margin over Donald Trump.
“This will be the marker for, if and possibly when, the Democrats might pick up the House for the 2018 elections,” said Florida International University political science professor Kathryn DePalo. “If Democrats pick this up, then I think it’ll be a good night for Democrats in Florida and perhaps around the country.”
Despite widespread name recognition in her first run for office, Donna Shalala, the Democratic candidate, is in a surprisingly tight race against her lesser-known GOP opponent, Spanish-language journalist and political rookie, Maria Elvira Salazar, because of the makeup of the district, which spans across Miami Beach, Coral Gables, Key Biscayne and Little Havana.
Fox News’ Midterm Power Rankings sees the matchup, predicted to have national implications, as “Lean Democrat.” But a Mason Dixon-Telemundo poll released Thursday shows Salazar edging past Shalala by 2 percentage points, 44 percent to 42 percent.
"Salazar is certainly well-known in the district and is relating well with voters, a majority of whom are Hispanic," DePalo said. "[Many independents are Hispanic], so while they may have largely voted for Clinton in 2016, it is not surprising that many are supporting the Republican candidate, Salazar, this time around."
Shalala, who served as president of the University of Miami and was Health and Human Services Secretary during the Clinton Administration, got 32 percent of the vote in a five-way field in the August primary, while Salazar picked up 41 percent of the vote in a field of nine.
Shalala is campaigning on her knowledge of many key Democratic issues, such as the environment, immigration reform, healthcare and preventing gun violence, while Salazar is emphasizing her personal connection to the debate over immigration, sea level rise, education reform and economic growth.
The district is known to be tricky to win as over 70 percent of constituents are Hispanic and, in Miami, cultural connection can make a big difference.
“My opponent is an implant. She doesn’t represent anybody...she cannot connect because we have a cultural code that we share…we may speak Spanish, but it goes over and beyond that,” said Salazar, a Cuban-American Miami native who at one time was a contributor to Fox News. “You need to be part of this city in order to know how it works and how it feels and how it vibrates. If not, you can’t connect."
Although the area has become more Democratic through the years, Ros-Lehtinen’s loyal supporters—mostly conservative Cuban-Americans—re-elected her to a fifteenth term in 2016.
“I think identity politics are extremely important in this district…I think speaking Spanish matters and you see Shalala’s team trying to catch up on some of those things,” DePalo said. “But Shalala for sure has connected with Hispanic Democrats in the district who really relate to her on a lot of the issues that she is promoting.”
Democratic strategist Maurizio Passariello said Cuban-American voters are no longer as conservative as they used to be.
“It’s a very Hispanic district, but the problem is that once Hispanics begin to integrate and no longer consume Hispanic media or don’t speak Spanish in their daily lives at home, they begin to act more like the general voters in the population,” he said. “So, although there is a significant Hispanic component to this, they’re not necessarily moved because a candidate is of one ethnicity over another.”
Democrats said they are not worried about Salazar. They believe Shalala has a strong chance at picking up the seat.
“Washington’s unpopular agenda has forced Republicans to play defense across the country, making this open seat a top pick up opportunity for Democrats," said Cole Leiter, a spokesperson for the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee. " And the matchup between Donna Shalala, a proven, independent leader who has made health care more affordable for millions of Americans, against a Republican whose loyalty is to President Trump and not South Florida, gives working families in Miami a stark choice this November.”
Both candidates have been endorsed by prominent political names—Shalala by Hillary Clinton and Salazar by the retiring congresswoman herself.
In a statement to Fox News, a spokesperson for the National Republican Congressional Committee, or NRCC, said, “We couldn’t be more pleased with the striking contrast between Donna Shalala and Maria Elvira Salazar…We are working closely with the Salazar campaign and are excited about our chances to keep this seat in our column. In a district that Clinton won by 20 points, this is shaping up to be a devastating loss for Democrats.”
DePalo said Hispanics will be the wildcard in a district that is one-third Republican, one-third Democratic and one-third independent.
Early voting for the midterm elections in Miami-Dade County begins October 22.