After spending the better part of 35 years speaking directly with Miami voters as a TV journalist — which inadvertently amounted to a free advertisement for an eventual foray into politics — freshman candidate Maria Elvira Salazar on Tuesday won the Republican nomination to replace retiring Republican Congresswoman Ileana Ros-Lehtinen in a Miami-area seat Democrats are hoping to flip come November.
“Those viewers turned out to be voters tonight,” Salazar said.
Salazar, who held a wide lead Tuesday night with most of the vote counted for Florida’s 27th Congressional District, beat out a crowded GOP field that included former Miami-Dade County Commissioner Bruno Barreiro — who resigned from his commission seat after 20 years in office to run for Ros-Lehtinen’s seat — and Bettina Rodriguez Aguilera, who made national headlines for a supposed encounter with extraterrestrials she had as a child.
Salazar trounced Barreiro by about 15 percentage points. No other candidate earned more than 10 percent of the vote.
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The congressional seat, held by Ros-Lehtinen since 1989 and redistricted after the 2010 Census, encompasses Miami Beach, most of Miami, Kendall and portions of coastal South Dade.
Salazar, who considers herself a “common sense Republican” who agrees with much of what Ros-Lehtinen does, said she plans to carry on Ros-Lehtinen’s legacy in Congress.
“I don’t think it’s going to be hard [to win in November]. Ileana won by 10 points and she’s very much loved,” Salazar said. “It’s going to be a seamless transition between Ileana and myself.”
At an election night watch party in Westchester, Salazar was joined by Ros-Lehtinen, former U.S. Rep. Lincoln Diaz-Balart and the parents of U.S. Rep. Carlos Curbelo, who won the primary Tuesday night in Florida’s 26th Congressional District.
With the election results displayed behind them, Ros-Lehtinen joined Salazar and told a crowd of a few dozen that she was saddened to leave Washington, but confident that Salazar will make it harder for Democrats to try flipping the district Hillary Clinton won by about 20 percentage points in 2016.
“It’s sad for me to go, just as it was sad for Lincoln to go, but I am so happy to be going because I know that I will be replaced by such a fearsome leader as Maria Elvira Salazar,” Ros-Lehtinen said. “Look at those numbers, they are amazing.”
Salazar, a former news anchor for Miami-based Mega TV who previously hosted a political news show called “Maria Elvira Live,” will face Donna Shalala, the Democratic nominee and former U.S. Secretary of Health and Human Services, in the general election in November.
“Yours will be very big shoes to fill,” Salazar told Ros-Lehtinen. “And I will rely on your support and wisdom to guide me.”
Shalala defeated State Rep. David Richardson and others in a crowded Democratic field.
“We came up a little short, the numbers are on the board,” Richardson told a group of about 100 well-wishers at his election watch party. “But we’re all still winners in my book. I’m so proud of what we did.”
During her acceptance speech, Salazar denounced the “misleading” attacks on her waged by all eight of her opponents, who claimed she ingratiated herself to former Cuban leader Fidel Castro during a rare interview she conducted with him in 1995. During the interview, snippets of which were used in an attack ad by a self-described “political hitman,” Salazar refers to the strong-man dictator as “comandante” and “un revolucionario por excelencia.”
Her demeanor was criticized by some candidates in the primary as “flirtatious” and inappropriate, especially for a politician looking to represent nearly 300,000 Cubans who live in the district and replace the first Cuban-American politician to serve in Congress. She was also criticized for calling former President Barack Obama’s policy change toward Cuba as “noble.”
Salazar, whose parents were Cuban exiles, encouraged her opponents to work together to win in November.
“I hold no grudges,” she said.
Ros-Lehtinen added: “It’s up to us to say to them, ‘Let’s come together and let’s make sure that we do not flip this district. It has got to stay in the hands of someone who understands about limited government, about less bureaucratic regulation, about more freedom — help — for the oppressed people throughout the world.””
Salazar told reporters after the celebration — which included a personalized conga jingle — that she never envisioned leaving the pinnacle of an award-winning broadcast journalism career to run for office. She said Ros-Lehtinen, Diaz-Balart and other members of the community approached her and convinced her to run.
“They wanted to keep the seat in Republican hands and continue the legacy that Ileana has had for 30 years,” Salazar said. “I really thought that I should step up to the plate and help my community.”
Diaz-Balart, one of Salazar’s early supporters, said the GOP nominee will carry on Ros-Lehtinen’s legacy of “integrity.”
“This district has had a historic congresswoman, someone who we are so proud of,” Diaz-Balart said. “And the tradition is going to continue because Maria Elvira Salazar is going to be the new congresswoman, and we’re so happy.”
For Barreiro, Tuesday’s loss is the second political blow his family has been dealt this summer. In June, his wife Zoraida Barreiro lost in her bid to replace him on the Miami-Dade County Commission. His brother Gus Barreiro was defeated Tuesday night by Daniella Levine Cava in his own bid for a county commission seat.
“I’m very happy with all the support I received,” Barreiro said following his concession.
At his election watch party, attended by about 20 people, Barreiro said he was looking forward to spending more time with his family following a grueling campaign.
Miami Herald reporter Charles Rabin and El Nuevo Herald reporter Mario J. Penton contributed to this report