National Republicans are getting serious about trying to beat Donna Shalala.
The Congressional Leadership Fund, a super PAC aligned with House Speaker Paul Ryan, is running a Spanish-language ad targeting Shalala starting today. The six-figure buy on TV and digital platforms is the super PAC’s first foray into retiring Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen’s district, a Miami-based seat where President Donald Trump lost to Hillary Clinton by nearly 20 points.
The ad titled “$7” tries to portray Shalala as out of touch with working class voters in the district, noting that she lived in a mansion that eventually sold for $9 million while serving as the president of the University of Miami and led the university when its janitorial staff went on strike because their wages amounted to about $7 an hour. Shalala’s Republican opponent, former TV journalist Maria Elvira Salazar, levied a similar attack on Shalala during a recent Telemundo debate.
“Donna Shalala is just another politician who puts herself first,” said CLF communications director Courtney Alexander. “As president of the University of Miami, Shalala lived in a $9 million mansion, but only paid university janitors $7 an hour while denying them health insurance. Donna Shalala is out for herself, not Floridians.”
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The ad includes footage of a mansion juxtaposed with Shalala giving a speech in her UM regalia while criticizing her leadership when university janitors went on a hunger strike over low wages, attacks that she also faced during the Democratic primary.
“As president of the University of Miami, Shalala lived in a nine-million dollar mansion,” the ad says. “But only paid university janitors seven dollars an hour while denying them health insurance.The scandal made national news and Shalala was called an enemy of the working poor.”
The CLF investment is important beyond the attack on Shalala because it is another sign that Republicans think the race between Shalala and Salazar is winnable for Salazar despite the district’s Democratic leanings in a year where Democrats are expected to make gains in the House of Representatives. The Ryan-aligned group has pulled scheduled TV ads for other Republican incumbents around the country, a signal that they think the races are already lost, and has declined to run ads on behalf of other Republicans, a signal that they see the race between Shalala and Salazar for an open seat as more competitive than a few races with a Republican incumbent.
An independent Mason Dixon-Telemundo 51 poll last week showed Shalala trailing Salazar within the margin of error, meaning the race is a toss-up.
According to the latest federal disclosures, Salazar is keeping pace with the well-connected Shalala in fundraising, though Clinton is coming to raise money for Shalala later this month. Salazar raised over $520,000 from August 9 to the end of September with over $382,000 to spend while Shalala raised over $796,000 over the same period over $438,000 to spend, though she also has $295,000 in debts.
Before Salazar entered the race, national Republicans considered Ros-Lehtinen’s seat unwinnable. But then Shalala entered a crowded Democratic primary and emerged victorious by single digits after being attacked for months from her left and Salazar cruised through a crowded Republican primary. Salazar is well-known by older Spanish-speaking voters from her time on TV while Shalala cannot speak Spanish, though she is well-known herself.
CLF has also built a long-term field operation to protect incumbent Republican Rep. Carlos Curbelo and has run TV ads targeting his Democratic opponent Debbie Mucarsel-Powell. Both Democrats and Republicans are investing heavily in that race, a Miami-to-Key West seat that Trump lost by more than 16 points in 2016.
CLF is one of the biggest spenders in House races nationwide, having invested $87 million on 51 races around the country this election cycle, according to OpenSecrets.