Maria Elvira Salazar is trying to hug her way to Congress.
The telegenic former TV host turned Republican candidate is at Las Mercedes senior center in West Dade, a campaign stop full of elderly Cuban-American voters who helped fuel the GOP’s dominance in Miami for the last 40 years.
Everyone recognizes her. Most do not speak English.
Salazar works the room, hugging dozens who are eager to chat with someone they saw on TV for years. One asks her how she’s in such good shape for a 56-year-old.
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“I don’t eat dairy,” Salazar replies with a laugh.
She is seeking to pull off an upset in the country’s most Democratic-leaning district currently under GOP control in a year where Democrats are poised to make gains in Congress. Her opponent is former University of Miami president and Health and Human Services Secretary Donna Shalala, one of the most experienced first-time congressional candidates ever.
In an era where President Donald Trump shouts “fake news” at unflattering news coverage and belittles journalists who ask him tough questions, the Republican Party is putting its faith in a woman who touts her 35-year career in news reporting — and has vowed to serve as a centrist not beholden to the conservative wing or the president.
Republicans need to keep 24 seats from flipping blue if they want to maintain the House of Representatives for the latter half of Trump’s first term in office. Salazar, who voted for Trump, is running in Florida’s 27th Congressional District, one that Trump lost by more than 19 percentage points in 2016, the largest margin of defeat for the president in any district held by a Republican. But Salazar has the support of retiring Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen — who won reelection in 2016 by 10 percentage points despite Trump’s presence on the ballot — and local Republicans like Sen. Marco Rubio and Rep. Carlos Curbelo.
“Being a journalist for 35 years it’s very difficult to stop being one,” Salazar said. “I covered the first year of [Trump’s] presidency so there is my record. I’ve always covered the issues, not on the fluff or on the words.”
Salazar is campaigning as Ileana 2.0. She’s indicated an openness to a ban on assault weapons, backs Curbelo’s new carbon tax proposal and says she’ll fight for comprehensive immigration reform if elected.
And she’s aware of the potential challenges Trump poses to her candidacy.
“The Republican Party, its values, the values that are entrenched are bigger than the president,” Salazar said. “I understand that Trump is an unconventional guy, I get that sometimes his words are not the proper ones, but I see what he’s done for the country, and what he’s done for China and North Korea no other president did.”
Salazar insists that she’s seeing a path to victory, and polling shows a closer-than-expected contest between Shalala, a former Clinton administration official and Clinton Foundation executive who does not speak Spanish, and Salazar, a known presence on Spanish-language television.
“Surprise!” she says when asked about her potential to steal what should have been a Democratic layup. “I can’t tell you the secret but the path to victory is there.”
On primary night, the emotional climax of a bruising nine-way contest, Salazar told reporters that she had found a way to turn “viewers into voters” and brush off negative ads criticizing a 1995 interview she conducted with then-dictator Fidel Castro as ‘flirtatious.”
Salazar won with 40 percent of the vote, defeating longtime Miami-Dade County Commissioner Bruno Barreiro by 15 percentage points.
In her five-way Democratic contest, Shalala took 31 percent of the vote, just squeaking by state Rep. David Richardson by 4 percentage points.
In a district in which 57 percent of registered voters are Hispanic, the majority of them Cuban-American, Salazar’s stints as a Spanish-language broadcast journalist for Telemundo, CNN en Español and the local station MegaTV and as a frequent guest on Fox News proved to be paramount to her victory.
As the Central America bureau chief for the Univision TV network for a number of years, Salazar was based in El Salvador and Nicaragua, seeing first hand the violence and poverty that drives so many families across the U.S. border.
In Miami-Dade County “we’re 70 percent Hispanic, and the other 30 percent, they know us,” Salazar said. “We’re like the ultimate melting pot. And we love it, and we know each other. We are not just one community, many communities living together in peace.”
Salazar calls herself a “daughter of Miami” who, as a former local reporter, intimately understands the issues plaguing South Florida, like the rising cost of healthcare, skyrocketing rent and sea-level rise. And as the daughter of Cuban exiles, a powerful voting bloc in Miami-Dade County that reliably leans Republican, she is among friends at most every comedor, or cafeteria for seniors, she visits.
Nelson Diaz, the chairman of the Republican Party of Miami-Dade County, called Salazar “electric” and a force of change willing to stand up to the “Washington establishment.”
“Maria Elvira is going to win this election because she is so clearly the better candidate,” he said in a statement. “She doesn’t stop working. She is all over the district, talking to voters all day, day and night. The voters of CD 27 deserve someone like Maria Elvira who will take that incredible energy to Washington to fight for us.”
After announcing its support for her, the conservative political committee FreedomWorks for America issued a statement marveling at her grassroots support.
“Maria Elvira Salazar has the advantage every Republican candidate is looking for this year: authentic grassroots enthusiasm surrounding her campaign,” said executive director Noah Wall.
A middle-aged single mother of two daughters, Salazar has said she wants to inject “new blood” into Miami politics. While not explicitly mentioning the age of her opponent — Shalala is 77 — Salazar has cast herself as the more energetic candidate who is “full of stamina, full of energy [and] at my prime.”
And she plans to use the persistence she learned as a journalist to try lobbying the federal government to invest in South Florida’s fight against rising sea levels, and to hound Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos into moving the company’s newest headquarters to South Florida.
“Poor Mr. Bezos won’t be able to sleep,” she said in an interview with Cuban-American actor and web talk show host Alex Otaola. “Because you already know [if Amazon does not come to Miami] he is going to be in trouble.”
While also tip-toeing around Shalala’s lack of Spanish-speaking skills, Salazar has taken shots at her opponent’s inability to connect with “all of you” in the district.
“She’s not part of the melting pot,” Salazar said. “Forget about the polls. I have a deep connection with this county.”
As a veteran journalist and political commentator, Salazar said she didn’t think about running for office until a GOP donor approached her in 2017 about the possibility of replacing Ros-Lehtinen. Further conversation with party leaders, and Ros-Lehtinen herself, convinced Salazar that transitioning from one type of public service in journalism to an elected position would be feasible for her.
“In politics, there are two types of people: those who want to be somebody and those who want to do something,” she said in her interview with Otaola. “I already am. I am Maria Elvira Salazar. I could just as well be working at Fox, at CNN, at MSNBC, at Mega [TV], at Telemundo.... Journalism is one way, and this is another public service.”
Very much casting herself as the second coming of Ros-Lehtinen, who is known to balk at some of President Trump’s more controversial tirades, Salazar said she will “ask tough questions” in Washington and focus on pushing through legislation that helps her constituents.
And it won’t be the first time she tried to question the president.
“We — you, me, us — we are not the enemies of the people,” Salazar said at a campaign stop in Little Havana, referring to President Trump’s popular position on critical reporters. “The president in that regard is not correct.”
She had been addressing members of the Bay of Pigs Brigade 2605 at a museum dedicated to their sacrifice, one that Trump had visited himself during the 2016 campaign.
It was there in 2016, when Salazar — then a reporter for Miami-based MegaTV — was denied a pre-organized interview with then-candidate Trump following a stump speech. Video of the interaction shows Salazar and Trump speaking before an aide guides Trump away.
Appearing on Fox News’ “O’Reilly Factor” in late October of that year, Salazar said she didn’t feel snubbed.
“I think it was the right thing to do. I think it was the right move. You know, he called me on the phone... and said he wanted to apologize for not talking to us.”
As a newcomer, Salazar has benefited from her virtual clean slate — and has pounced on her opponent’s history of working for or around the Clintons.
She has accused Shalala, who served as the president and chief executive officer of the Clinton Foundation from 2015-17, of being complicit in the so-called “pay to play” allegations lodged against the foundation that came into intense focus during the 2016 presidential election.
She has also positioned herself, like Republican gubernatorial candidate Ron DeSantis has, as a force of change fighting against the Democratic Party’s leftward shift, invoking the communist government of Cuba in her warnings against impending “socialism” at the hands of single-payer healthcare.
Her own stance on healthcare, much like her positions on guns or the environment, leaves plenty to the imagination. She is in favor of letting “the forces of capitalism” drive down health insurance prices, and has openly said she would be willing to listen to all sides when it comes to guns or the environment.
“We’re at a crossroads,” she told CBS4 Miami. “They’ll decide [if] we continue with the economic policies [of Trump] or we go to socialism.”
And Shalala has mostly let it slide. During a recent interview with the Miami Herald editorial board, Shalala said she could not comment on Salazar’s politics because she didn’t know what they were.
While she supports legal status for immigrants who have been in the country for a period of around 15 years, Salazar is a fierce critic of so-called sanctuary cities, and she has supported Trump’s plan to build a wall across the southern border of the U.S., though she proposed to create a virtual barrier by forcing employers to vet their workers using the program known as E-Verify.
She has spoken out against his “zero-tolerance” immigration policy that resulted in more than 2,000 immigrant kids being split up from their parents by the U.S. government at the southern border.
“I do not like what [Trump] has done with immigration,” she said. “There are some aspects of the immigration policy established by the White House that need to be rectified and changed now.”
On gun control, while she says she is open to banning assault weapons and regulating all private sales, she is more steadfast in her support of early intervention programs that she says could catch potential school shooters before they even walk into a pawn shop or gun store.
Her plan is to create a system of counselor-staffed “trauma centers” inside the nation’s high schools — she wants to start small, with a pilot program in her district — that would exist to sniff out school shooters or other troubled youths with violent thoughts.
“If we would have had an early intervention center in Parkland, where trauma therapists would have been there just to spot people like him, with all his problems, chances are, they would have been able to neutralize him,” she told the Miami Herald.
She has also questioned the effectiveness of raising the age limit to purchase assault rifles and other firearms, while sounding the horn against violent video games.
“Guns don’t shoot themselves,” she said in a recent interview. “If you increase the age from 18 to 21, even if they raise it to 25, to 39, if [Parkland shooter] Nikolas Cruz wanted to... he would buy it on the black market.”
Salazar said she would not accept money from the National Rifle Association, but that she would support the organization’s funding of early intervention centers.
Salazar said she wants to be an advocate for her district, and represent the desires of those who vote for her.
“I convinced them in the primary, and I proved to the electorate, to Republicans, that I had real life experiences, that I knew the topics that affect them,” she told the Herald. “That I have covered those topics for 35 years night after night, and I am a product of Miami.”
And Salazar has a gift for charm, ripping off 10-second TV-friendly soundbites when asked about her vision if elected.
“I want to leave a mark within the next two years, not for reelection, but for me to feel good that I have done my job,” Salazar said. “I left a wonderful career to do something even more wonderful, so I am in a hurry to do it.”
Salazar smiles and marvels at her own quote.
“That was a good bite. Jesus, that was good,” Salazar said. “That was like 10 seconds, like seven seconds.”
Correction: A previous version of this article states that Maria Elvira Salazar has said she would accept contributions from the National Rifle Association. Salazar said she would not accept money from the NRA, but that she would support the organization’s investing in early intervention centers.