Shalala lags behind in seat Democrats hoped to win easily

Former Clinton Foundation head Donna Shalala is trailing former Spanish-language TV newswoman Maria Elvira Salazar, according to a new poll of a crucial, GOP-held Florida congressional district that Democrats had once counted on as an easy pickup.

Salazar’s narrow 2-percentage point lead is well within the Mason-Dixon Polling & Research survey’s 4-point margin of error. But the result stands in contrast to how the Democratic nominees for Senate and governor are faring in the Miami-based 27th Congressional District — both are ahead of their Republican opponents by 4 points — providing fresh evidence of Shalala’s underperforming campaign.

The big factor: Hispanics, who account for 57 percent of the voters and who came to know Salazar relatively well over her three decades broadcasting on Spanish language networks Telemundo, Univision, Mega-TV and CNN Español.

“Shalala definitely lags when you compare her with the other Democrats. A big part of it is Shalala’s Hispanic, and there’s a sizable Democratic Hispanic vote, particularly non-Cuban Hispanics in the district,” said Mason-Dixon pollster Brad Coker, who conducted the survey of 625 likely voters for Telemundo 51. “There may be also be a carpetbagger issue in the district: ‘yeah, Shalala, she was University of Miami president for years. But she’s not from here. She’s not a local. She’s not one of us.’”

Shalala doesn’t speak Spanish, and Democrats have faulted her campaign for months for being so slow-footed that it was in ‘sleep mode.’ Before the Aug. 29 primary and for seven weeks after, Shalala’s campaign ignored calls from fellow Democrats to advertise in Spanish, which she finally began doing Tuesday with an ad attacking Salazar for being a cheerleader for President Trump in a district he lost to Hillary Clinton by nearly 20 percentage points in 2016.

Democrats saw the large anti-Trump margin as an indication that the district race would be easy to win with the retirement of longtime Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, a Republican Cuban-American who typically won reelection easily. Another Cuban-American on the ballot at the time in 2016, Republican Sen. Marco Rubio, nearly won the Democratic-leaning district — he fell short by only 0.6 points — despite a Democratic turnout advantage of 2.8 percentage points.

Cuban-Americans in Miami tend to vote Republican and Salazar, who’s of Cuban descent, is carrying this group by 69 percent to Shalala’s 15 percent. Non-Cuban Hispanics — voters of Nicaraguan, Dominican, Colombian, Venezuelan, Salvadoran and Puerto Rican descent — tend to vote Democratic and Shalala leads among this demographic by 50-29 percent.

But Shalala’s 21-percentage point margin among this crucial bloc of voters falls well-behind the 55-point margin with this group in favor of her fellow Democrats: Tallahassee Mayor Andrew Gillum in the gubernatorial race and Sen. Bill Nelson in his reelection.

Gillum’s GOP opponent, Ron DeSantis, is leading by a 45-point margin among Cuban-Americans — in large part because his running mate is a popular Cuban-American from Miami, state Rep. Jeanette Núñez.

Nelson’s opponent, Gov. Rick Scott, is carrying Cuban-Americans by 39 points, according to the survey. Scott’s lieutenant governor, Carlos Lopez-Cantera, is also a Cuban-American from Miami, but the governor’s sidelining of his no. 2 has led to some minor discontent in elite Republican Cuban-American circles in Miami.

Overall, Nelson is carrying the district by 48-44 percent and Gillum leads by 45-41 percent. But Shalala trails Salazar, 44-42 percent.

Both Shalala and Salazar emerged from crowded primaries. But Salazar cruised in her race while Shalala was attacked repeatedly by numerous Democrats and absorbed more than $1 million in negative TV ads and mailers. At the same time, the pace of Shalala’s fundraising fell off and Democrats said she wasn’t doing enough campaigning in the Hispanic community.

The poll shows the two candidates are both roughly equally well-liked: Shalala’s favorability is at 37 percent while Salazar is at 40 percent. But only 18 percent have an unfavorable view of Salazar compared to 33 percent who view Shalala unfavorably. Calculated another way, Shalala’s net favorability rating is +3 and Salazar’s is +22.

In the other races, Gillum’s net favorability rating is +8; DeSantis’ is +2; Scott’s is +5; Nelson’s is +10; and President Trump is underwater at -3.

To drive up Salazar’s negatives, Shalala is currently trying to tie the Republican tightly to Trump as “another TV celebrity” in English and Spanish campaign ads.

Last week, a super PAC began airing digital ads on Salazar’s behalf blaming Shalala for the University of Miami football program’s decision to leave the historic Miami Orange Bowl, which used to be in the district before it was knocked down.

Coker said that line of attack could also leave a mark and help explain some of Shalala’s relatively high negative ratings when compared to Salazar.

“She took the University of Miami out of the Orange Bowl and there’s some hard feelings,” Coker said.

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