Donna Shalala says she ran for Congress because she was angry at Donald Trump. And now Shalala has Trump to thank for her new seat in Congress.
Shalala’s victory over Republican Maria Elvira Salazar in the blue-leaning Miami-area congressional district that Democrats hoped to flip in a bid to seize control of the U.S. House was due in large part to Democratic fury with the president. Voters and political observers say Shalala, who enjoyed huge name recognition after a mostly successful stint as president of the University of Miami, ran a lackluster campaign.
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At one point, Democrats worried that she was in danger of losing what had been assumed to be an easy win for the party: a district that had overwhelmingly supported Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton in 2016.
“I pretty much had to choose her,” acknowledged Andrew Loughridge, a 30-year-old Miami Democrat who said he ultimately voted for Shalala, but couldn’t muster much enthusiasm.
Shalala’s campaign said it won by sticking to its plan, contending that the former Health and Human Services Secretary was the only candidate in the race with the experience to hit the ground running on Day One.
“We stayed on message,” said Craig T. Smith, a Shalala campaign strategist. “It’s easy to get distracted during a campaign because people are telling you, ‘This is the most important issue, you need an ad on this, a press conference on that.’ ”
Smith said that a campaign in a diverse and expensive media market needs a consistent appeal to break through and that the campaign stuck to its positions on healthcare, the environment, guns and immigration.
“We talked about who Donna was and what she was going to do and we talked about her opponent,” he said.
The campaign persistently sought to tie Salazar to Trump, who is hugely unpopular in the district. Shalala’s first Spanish-language ad tagged Salazar as “La animadora de Trump,” or “Trump’s show host.”
Nick Hauser, 32, a Miami physician and unaffiliated voter, was part of that target audience. He said his vote wasn’t as much pro-Shalala as it was anti-Salazar.
“My main concern was how closely her opponent seemed to align herself with Trump,” Hauser said. “We need a check on him, not an enabler.”
Democrats said Salazar played into the perception in the closing days of the contest when she appeared open to Trump’s 11th hour announcement that he wanted to revoke birthright citizenship for the U.S.-born children of undocumented immigrants.
Salazar said Trump’s proposal deserved review, saying Trump was giving voice to “what I think my community shares, the fact that we do not want abuses.”
That gave Shalala the opening to reiterate a frequent campaign theme, accusing Trump of “blatantly attempting to rewrite our Constitution as he continues to stoke hatred and fear.”
Shalala also benefited from decades of experience, in contrast with Salazar, a former television journalist. Voters said Salazar was not as well-versed as Shalala on the issues, particularly on healthcare, and the contrast only widened as Election Day neared.
“You would hear the same thing from Salazar, a repeat of talking points without going very deep,” said Rosa Verdeja, 53, a Miami Democrat who voted for Shalala. “After people listened to them for awhile, it speaks to itself who has the depth of knowledge.”
Shalala’s résumé helped her as well with younger voters, including those at the University of Miami: Khaila Prather, 22, who plays on UM’s women’s basketball team, said she voted for Shalala because she was the campus president.
“I am constantly hearing positive feedback from the professors and students around campus,” Prather said.
Still, that experience was a two-edged sword. Shalala, 77, deflected critics who said her age and her health — she suffered a stroke in 2015 — would play a factor. And several Democrats said that voters did have concerns about Shalala, who will be the second-oldest House freshman in history.
“People asked me about how could she do it, how long she could serve,” Verdeja said. “They were worried about her health, if she could endure.”
Shalala had to fight the perception, a month after she emerged from a fractious primary victory, that her general election campaign was sluggish. Two internal polls in mid-September showed her either losing or nearly tied with Salazar, and a non-partisan election handicapper downgraded her chances of flipping the district, long held by Republican Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen.
Fernand Amandi, a Miami-based pollster and adviser to Shalala’s campaign, said the first-time candidate showed she could work, routinely putting in long days.
“People should be under no impression that this was a coronation. From Day 1 she was committed to doing everything to win this race,” Amandi said. “Every campaign has high and low points, but when it mattered most Donna Shalala did what she needed to do.”
Shalala told reporters ahead of Election Day that she’d met thousands of people in the district and believed her outreach and her campaign’s ground game would prevail: “I’ve never believed you could run on your résumé, I’ve always believed that you have to run on what you can do for people.”
Shalala was a non-Hispanic running in a district where 63 percent of the voters are Hispanic. Her inability to speak Spanish meant she had a harder time reaching some voters, and her campaign did not start advertising in Spanish until less than a month before the November election, six weeks after Shalala won the Aug. 28 primary.
But her campaign had Cuban-born Shalala cousins, who arrived in Miami a decade ago from the island nation, who made phone calls and cut a Spanish-language ad for her.
And strategists of both parties note that parts of Miami are turning increasingly blue, pointing to Eileen Higgins’ victory for a Miami-Dade County Commission seat over a Cuban-born opponent to argue that non-Hispanic candidates with a message can be contenders.
Shalala voted Tuesday with Higgins, who calls herself “La Gringa.” “La Gringa and La Shalala,” Higgins said, grinning and embracing the candidate.
Shalala was hammered by ads in the closing days in both English and Spanish from the National Republican Congressional Committee and the Congressional Leadership Fund, a super PAC affiliated with House Speaker Paul Ryan, which pulled TV ads scheduled for other Republican incumbents to go after Shalala.
The English-language ads accused her of a track record of “scandals and cover-ups” at the University of Miami and the Clinton Foundation. Spanish-language ads sought to portray her as out of touch with working class voters in the district, noting that she lived in a mansion while serving as the president of the University of Miami and led the university when its janitorial staff went on strike.
Together, the groups spent about $1.7 million in the last two weeks of the campaign. “That’s a whole lot of money in two weeks,” Smith said.
But Democrats nationwide unrelentingly torched Republicans for seeking to dismantle the Affordable Care Act and its patient protections. Shalala, the longest serving Health and Human Services Secretary in U.S. history, made it a signature issue — a significant factor in a district that has one of the highest number of Affordable Care Act enrollees in the country.
She got a break when Republican attempts to denounce her campaign event with House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi backfired on them. Instead of a storyline about Shalala’s ties to the Democratic leader that Republicans revile, Republicans were left apologizing for a raucous protest that included an appearance by so-called Proud Boys, a national organization characterized as a “hate group” by the Southern Poverty Law Center.
The protest, which included banging on doors and shouts of obscenities, drew condemnation from Republicans, including House Majority Whip Rep. Steve Scalise, R-La., who disavowed the protest.
For Shalala, who put up digital ads reminding voters of Trump’s failure to condemn white nationalists after the deadly protests in Charlottesville, Va., it was, in the closing moments, another opportunity to continue to tie Salazar to Trump.
Herald staff writers Alex Daugherty, Alex Harris and Rebecca Rae Ripley contributed to this report.