New poll shows Democrat Shalala trailing GOP opponent in a district Trump lost badly

Donna Shalala may be in trouble.

Shalala, a Democrat running in a district that President Donald Trump lost by nearly 20 percentage points in 2016, is trailing Republican TV journalist Maria Elvira Salazar by 2 percentage points in a Mason Dixon-Telemundo 51 poll. The independent poll’s margin of error was 4 percentage points and included a pro-Trump non-party candidate who could siphon votes from Salazar.

Salazar’s unique background as a journalist in a party dominated by President Donald Trump and her appeal with older, Spanish-speaking voters has enabled the GOP to remain competitive. Shalala, one of the most experienced first-time congressional candidates, won a competitive Democratic primary by less than 5 percentage points and has faced criticism from liberal Democrats and Republicans alike for her tenure leading the University of Miami, when campus janitors went on a hunger strike over low wages and the school acquired Cedars Medical Center.

“The numbers look good, they’re great,” Salazar campaign manager Jose Luis Castillo said. “She’s focused on job creation, healthcare, the environment and education. These numbers really reflect that her message, her ideas and vision are continuing to resonate throughout with voters in District 27.”

The poll of 625 registered likely voters was conducted from Oct. 1 to Oct. 6, before Shalala began airing a TV ad that attempts to tie Salazar to Trump. Forty-three percent of respondents approve of Trump while 46 percent disapprove, according to the poll, while Salazar has a net favorable rating of 22 percentage points and Shalala has a net favorability rating of 4 points, though more voters recognize her than Salazar. Forty-two percent of voters support Shalala while 44 percent support Salazar, with 13 percent undecided.

“In our view, the Mason-Dixon poll is an outlier,” Shalala spokesperson Mike Hernandez said. “It does not match our internal polls both in terms of what the electorate will be or voter intention.”

Shalala’s campaign noted that Trump’s approval ratings in the district in the poll are much higher than expected and that a 2012 Mason Dixon poll sponsored by the Miami Herald showed Barack Obama winning Miami-Dade by 9 points when he ended up winning the county by 24 points.

“It’s difficult for our campaign to accept that this is the only congressional district in the country that Trump is becoming dramatically more popular,” Hernandez said.

No-party candidate Mayra Joli received just 1 percent in the poll, noteworthy because she’s positioned herself as the pro-Trump candidate in a race where the Republican candidate is trying to cast herself as independent from the president.

As evidence increases that the race is tightening — and that Shalala is the one behind — the Democrat’s campaign has sought to frame the contest as one of qualifications; with their take being that Shalala has more.

But in what may be her first and possibly only chance to differentiate herself, Shalala appears to have done little to knock Salazar back.

The three candidates faced each other for the first time Wednesday night in a taped Spanish-language debate that will air at 1 p.m. Saturday on Telemundo 51. The station released a transcript Thursday.

Having spent her entire career on Spanish-language media and in front of the camera, Salazar appears to have treated the hour-long event like it was on home turf. She advocated for a path to citizenship for millions of undocumented immigrants, criticized the inadequacies of Obamacare (in the district with the most enrollees in the country) and touted the economy — all between jabs at Shalala’s record.

When Shalala countered Salazar’s praise of the economy by calling for higher wages and mentioning struggling union workers at Miami International Airport, Salazar evoked the janitors’ hunger strike in order to win higher pay from a university contractor, when Shalala led the University of Miami. And when questioned about their qualifications, Salazar went on the attack by ripping Shalala’s role in UM’s purchase of Cedars Medical Center, a decision criticized for its cost and its consequence of bringing the university into competition with the public Jackson Memorial Hospital.

“So, that type of leadership, that type of initiative is not what we need to represent us in Washington,” said Salazar, who worked in a dig about Shalala sleeping in the president’s mansion and owning four beds for her dog, Sweetie, while janitors were hunger striking.

Shalala, whose comments will be translated to viewers who watch the program, insisted that both UM’s hospital and Jackson are healthy, and noted that the union behind the janitors’ hunger strike has endorsed her campaign. But at that point, she was the one defending her qualifications, not Salazar.

It’s possible that Joli’s presence interrupted Shalala’s ability to parry, or that the format — which required Shalala to wear an earpiece through which her opponents’ words were translated into English — complicated the debate. But Shalala seemed to treat the debate as if she were the frontrunner, even though she isn’t. She didn’t once refer to Salazar or attempt to put her on her heels. And she did little to try to contrast herself with her Republican opponent or to undercut the former journalist’s platform. At one point, she referred to herself in the third person.

“I have deep roots in this community, and I love Miami. But Miami is about people. I’ve educated thousands of students who’ve come from this community,” she said. “And each one of those students will tell you that Donna Shalala cares about them.”

It’s unclear if Shalala and Salazar will debate in English, or again at all. The two candidates have sniped over debate dates the last week and an English-language debate has not been confirmed as of Thursday.

Shalala’s campaign, who announced that they raised more than $1 million in the latest fundraising quarter, will likely maintain a pace capable of sustaining a TV campaign through Election Day. Former Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton, a close friend of Shalala’s, will be raising money for Shalala in Miami on Oct 24.

Salazar’s campaign has not released fundraising numbers yet but said her haul has been “steady and growing.”

Democratic Sen. Bill Nelson also holds a 4 percentage point lead over Gov. Rick Scott in the race for Nelson’s Senate seat while Democratic gubernatorial nominee Andrew Gillum holds a 4 percentage point lead over Republican Ron DeSantis. The poll’s results are only within Florida’s 27th congressional district, which includes parts of Miami Beach, Kendall, downtown Miami and Little Havana, a district that is more Democratic-leaning than the state as a whole.

Alex Daugherty, @alextdaugherty, 202-383-6049