Democrats exulted when U.S. Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen announced last year she was retiring. Because the Republican congresswoman’s district leans Democratic, one prominent Washington election watcher immediately labeled the race “lean Democratic.”
On the heels of two internal polls Wednesday that showed Democratic nominee Donna Shalala either losing or nearly tied with GOP opponent Maria Elvira Salazar, the Washington non-partisan election handicapper, the Cook Political Report, moved the needle back to the middle to “toss-up.”
David Wasserman, who tracks House races for Cook and last week suggested that some Democrats were worried that Shalala had not pulled away, called it a “stunning turn” for a race that should be a “slam dunk” for Democrats.
“Democrats believe the race is tied and that Trump’s rampant unpopularity in the district will ultimately tilt the scales to Shalala,” Wasserman wrote. “But Democrats are now on the verge of frittering away what was once considered their easiest pickup of the cycle.”
He cited a bad candidate match up, noting that Shalala, 77, would be the second-oldest House freshman in history and is seeking to represent an overwhelmingly Hispanic district, despite not speaking Spanish.
Her Republican opponent, Maria Elvira Salazar, 56, is a well-known former Spanish language television reporter who has “been savvy in attracting free media.”
The downgrade follows two recent polls that suggested Shalala would have a tougher time than expected flipping the seat.
The two internal campaign polls, conducted by Salazar and by Shalala’s own campaign, show a narrow race to replace Ros-Lehtinen, who is vacating a Democrat-friendly district that Hillary Clinton won in 2016 by 19 points.
In the poll conducted for Salazar’s campaign by McLaughlin & Associates, Salazar leads Shalala by 51 percent to 42 percent, with 7 percent undecided. The poll also found Shalala’s negatives were twice those of the former television journalist, “yet her favorables are 14 points lower.” A memo accompanying the poll says that “while Salazar is ahead, she must not take anything for granted and will need significant resources to continuing running a very strong campaign.”
In her own poll conducted by Bendixen & Amandi International, Shalala, the former Clinton-era Health and Human Services Secretary tops Salazar, but only by narrow margin: 46 percent to 42 percent. No-party candidate Mayra Joli, the self-described master of selfies, polled at 8 percent, with 4 percent undecided.
A spokesman for Shalala’s campaign said the Republican poll was a “push” poll that used negative statements about Shalala to pose questions.
“Given that, it’s no surprise the result,” said Mike Hernandez. “This will be a competitive race, no doubt. But this study is not an accurate snapshot of where the contest stands today.”
He said the Democratic poll is a more accurate representation.
“Any Democrat could have beaten Donald Trump in this district in 2016,” he said. “But Secretary Shalala isn’t running against Donald Trump. She is running against a Donald Trump supporter who has been on television for over 20 years.”
Democrats have eagerly eyed the open congressional seat, believing it’s one they could pick up as they attempt to harness discontent with President Donald Trump and turn it into a blue wave that results in Democratic control of the House.
But Salazar was in Washington last week meeting with Republican lawmakers to tout her candidacy and raise money.
They came away impressed: Minnesota Rep. Tom Emmer, a leader of the House Republicans’ political arm, said Salazar was the best possible candidate for the majority Latino district where Donald Trump lost by more than 19 percentage points in 2016.
And Salazar enjoys the backing of all three Republican House members from Miami-Dade including the retiring Ros-Lehtinen and Sen. Marco Rubio. Shalala has the endorsement of former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton.
“She’s a great candidate, I’ve known her for a long time,” Rubio said of Salazar. “I think she’s going to win.”
Down ballot Republicans have outperformed the top of the ticket for years in Miami-Dade County, and Trump’s 2016 performance was the weakest in recent history by a Republican presidential candidate in South Florida.
Ros-Lehtinen won by 10 percentage points despite Trump losing by 19 and Rubio lost Ros-Lehtinen’s district that includes his West Miami home by less than one percentage point. Newly elected Miami-Dade commissioner Eileen Higgins did win a seat within Ros-Lehtinen’s district earlier this year after the Democratic Party supported her over two GOP opponents.
“I don’t see that on the field,” Salazar said when asked if she is at a massive disadvantage due to Trump’s 2016 performance in the district. “I think that conservative values entrenched within the Republican Party are the same values that the Hispanic community has. Our values, our core conservative values are more than the words of the president and that’s what I see.”
Ros-Lehtinen predicted in an interview with McClatchy last week that Republicans would hold the seat.
“Pundits say that my race is over because Hillary Clinton won by 20 points,” Ros-Lehtinen said. “However, those pundits have not met Maria Elvira Salazar. She’s a firebrand, she’s poised, she’s intelligent. She’s telegenic, she knows the issues and I think they will change their calculations soon.”