Democratic U.S. Representative Donna Shalala is looking to hold off Republican Maria Elvira Salazar in a closely fought congressional race, as Democratic House candidates across the country seek to rebuke the Donald Trump presidency.
No, that’s just not the broad strokes of the 2020 contest. It’s also the story of 2018 when Shalala and Salazar first faced off for the seat in Florida’s 27th Congressional District. Voters will once again be deciding on the same matchup and many of the same issues, though with the COVID-19 pandemic now drawing focus in this November’s contest.
Shalala served as Secretary of Health and Human Services under the Bill Clinton administration. Dr. Anthony Fauci worked under Shalala during that time.
With that experience in her back pocket, Shalala has been uniquely situated to criticize the Trump administration’s response to the virus. The freshman Congresswoman has touted her own efforts to push relief bills backed by Democrats to expand federal unemployment assistance and offer relief for small businesses.
She has also stumped for a new bill doing much of the same, though that effort has stalled.
The COVID-19 pandemic has also served as the main attack line from Salazar’s campaign.
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi selected Shalala to oversee a $500 billion corporate relief package approved under the CARES Act. That appointment led to an outcry from some, who worried Shalala’s stock interests could impact her decision-making with regard to the oversight program.
Shalala responded in April by noting she had already begun selling many of those interests shortly after joining Congress. But a report from the Miami Herald noted those sales were not publicly disclosed, which is a violation of the 2012 STOCK Act.
“I was doing the opposite of insider trading,” Shalala argued to Jim DeFede of CBS Miami. “I was getting rid of any conflict of interest in the process. But I absolutely missed those deadlines and I apologize for (it]) It was my mistake and I take full responsibility.”
Future reporting showed Shalala had also failed to disclose additional sales. While those sales were presumably done to remove any conflicts, and there’s no evidence Shalala’s investments played a role in her decision-making regarding COVID-19 relief, she did clearly violate the STOCK Act. That first round of failed disclosures forced Shalala to pay a $1,200 fine to the House Ethics Committee.
Salazar and Republican allies have pounced on the controversy. A Salazar ad appeared to overstep by asserting Shalala “broke the law to enrich herself off coronavirus.” That claim led to Shalala’s camp sending a cease-and-desist letter demanding the ad be taken down.
Assertions that those in a position of power — as House Democrats have been since 2018 — have abused their authority can sometimes play well for challengers looking to unseat an incumbent. But with Trump still holding the White House, Democratic voters will be similarly motivated to support their candidates of choice this cycle.
A recently unveiled Shalala internal survey had the incumbent ahead of Salazar 50%-43%. That 7-point margin mirrors Shalala’s 6-point win over Salazar in 2018.
A mid-September survey from the National Republican Congressional Committee (NRCC) told a different story, showing Salazar leading 46%-43%.
Salazar has been a strong fundraiser this cycle, though she has been playing catch-up to the money Shalala had banked after her 2018 win. Salazar didn’t officially file for the 2020 contest until August 2019.
As of Oct. 14, Shalala held close to $666,000, while Salazar retained more than $421,000. Salazar also had around $120,000 of debt outstanding.
Republican Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen held the CD 27 seat before stepping down in 2018. Ros-Lehtinen had represented parts of South Florida for three decades.
But 2016 also saw Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton winning the district in 2016 by nearly 20 points. Shalala’s recent internal poll also showed Democrat Joe Biden leading Trump by 13 points. That’s a 7-point dip from 2016, but still shows Democrats have a strong presence inside CD 27.
Salazar earned backing from national Republican groups in 2018, and is doing so again this cycle. But though outside money was prevalent in 2018, that hasn’t been the case in 2020. That could be a sign both sides see Shalala as a safe incumbent.
Election analysts appear to agree with that assessment, rating the CD 27 seat as “likely Democratic.”
The district covers parts of Miami-Dade County including Coral Gables and Miami Beach. Frank Polo Sr. has also qualified for the contest as a write-in candidate, though is not expected to mount a significant challenge for the seat.