Maria Elvira Salazar says her Republican opponents could learn a thing or two about reporting.
The longtime broadcast journalist is the favorite to replace retiring U.S. Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen as the GOP nominee in Tuesday’s primary, and in response her opponents have launched coordinated attacks over an interview she did 23 years ago with Fidel Castro.
“They have nothing to catch me on, my record is very clean,” Salazar said. “Otherwise they would have brought it out. They had to go 25 years back. What about the last 15 when I’ve been on the air at 8 o’clock at night Monday through Friday for 52 weeks every year? It’s been 25 years, couldn’t you dig something?”
Salazar has largely avoided appearing with the large Republican field in public as she maintains a double-digit lead in polls conducted by her campaign and her opponents. She didn’t show up to a TV debate on Tuesday night, saying America TeVe didn’t have a defined criteria for who was invited to speak on air.
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During a campaign stop on Friday at Las Mercedes Adult Daycare in Southwest Miami-Dade, Salazar was a recognizable face to the crowd of about 200 senior citizens who wore red lanyards adorned with her name. When Salazar asked how many of them were registered Republicans, about 75 percent raised their hands.
“I have spent the last five months, ever since I filed, touching the base, touching the real base which is this,” Salazar said, referring to the older Cuban voters who her opponents think will abandon her candidacy if she is perceived as pro-Castro.
Ada Borees, a 75-year-old retiree and registered independent, plans to vote for Salazar in the general election if she advances from the primary.
“She’s talking about Cuba. The people here appreciate that,” Borees said. “I don’t like [Donald] Trump but I like Maria.”
Voters like Borees will be the key for Salazar if she wants to pull off an upset in a district that voted for Hillary Clinton over Trump by more than 19 percentage points. For years, Ros-Lehtinen was able to comfortably win reelection by appealing to independent and some Democratic voters, though election prognosticators have largely said the seat is Democrats’ to lose in November.
But first, Salazar must beat a large GOP field filled with underfunded candidates like Bettina Rodriguez Aguilera, a former Doral councilwoman who once claimed she boarded a spaceship with blond aliens, and quixotic candidates like Stephen Marks, a former GOP operative who funded thousands of dollars of attack ads against Salazar only to drop out of the race at the last minute and endorse Democrat Donna Shalala.
Salazar said she hasn’t heard much about aliens on the campaign trail, but that anyone is free to vote for whomever they want.
“My opponents? It’s odd, but we are in a very free country, which is what I love,” Salazar said. “You vote for whoever you want to, you register in the party that you want to and if you want to gang up against me, let the voters decide.”
In addition to the interview with Castro — in which opponents say she appeared overly effusive toward the Cuban leader — Salazar said her second biggest get of her television career was an on-camera interview with right-wing Chilean dictator Augusto Pinochet, which she argued shows her journalistic independence and tenacity. She said the older Cuban voters whom she talks to respect the necessity of a free press after they came from a place without it.
“I’ve interviewed the two most important dictators of the 20th century in the Americas,” Salazar said. “When I was able to acquire that interview with Fidel I was lauded, I was very much complimented for having been able to sit in front of him and ask him tough questions.”
She said the attack ads from Marks were edited in a “malicious way” and that he misconstrued her comments on Fox News after Castro’s death in which she praised President Barack Obama’s efforts to reestablish relations with Cuba. Her biggest challenger, former Miami-Dade commissioner Bruno Barriero, has parroted Marks’ attacks in campaign mailers.
“That [Castro] interview has been on YouTube for 25 years. There’s nothing new about it,” Salazar said. “I myself over the years I have played it over and over again, the same interview, without any editing for the people to see.”
Salazar also has the support of former Rep. Lincoln Diaz-Balart, one of the most recognizable anti-Castro figures in Miami, though Ros-Lehtinen and Sen. Marco Rubio have stayed neutral during the primary. She has at least $231,000 to spend during the final weeks of the primary compared to Barreiro’s $146,000, according to campaign finance documents filed two weeks ago.
“The result is that out of eight people running in the primary I am, what, 20 points ahead in every single poll that has been conducted ever since I filed,” Salazar said. “I got the path to victory and I know what it looks like.”