September 20, 2018

Polls suggest a tough race for Donna Shalala for Miami congressional seat

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@lesleyclark @alextdaugherty

Democrats exulted when U.S. Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen announced last year she was retiring. Because the Republican congresswoman’s district leans Democratic, one prominent Washington election watcher immediately labeled the race “lean Democratic.”

No longer.

On the heels of two internal polls Wednesday that showed Democratic nominee Donna Shalala either losing or nearly tied with GOP opponent Maria Elvira Salazar, the Washington non-partisan election handicapper, the Cook Political Report, moved the needle back to the middle to “toss-up.”

David Wasserman, who tracks House races for Cook and last week suggested that some Democrats were worried that Shalala had not pulled away, called it a “stunning turn” for a race that should be a “slam dunk” for Democrats.

“Democrats believe the race is tied and that Trump’s rampant unpopularity in the district will ultimately tilt the scales to Shalala,” Wasserman wrote. “But Democrats are now on the verge of frittering away what was once considered their easiest pickup of the cycle.”

He cited a bad candidate match up, noting that Shalala, 77, would be the second-oldest House freshman in history and is seeking to represent an overwhelmingly Hispanic district, despite not speaking Spanish.

Her Republican opponent, Maria Elvira Salazar, 56, is a well-known former Spanish language television reporter who has “been savvy in attracting free media.”

The downgrade follows two recent polls that suggested Shalala would have a tougher time than expected flipping the seat.

The two internal campaign polls, conducted by Salazar and by Shalala’s own campaign, show a narrow race to replace Ros-Lehtinen, who is vacating a Democrat-friendly district that Hillary Clinton won in 2016 by 19 points.

In the poll conducted for Salazar’s campaign by McLaughlin & Associates, Salazar leads Shalala by 51 percent to 42 percent, with 7 percent undecided. The poll also found Shalala’s negatives were twice those of the former television journalist, “yet her favorables are 14 points lower.” A memo accompanying the poll says that “while Salazar is ahead, she must not take anything for granted and will need significant resources to continuing running a very strong campaign.”

In her own poll conducted by Bendixen & Amandi International, Shalala, the former Clinton-era Health and Human Services Secretary tops Salazar, but only by narrow margin: 46 percent to 42 percent. No-party candidate Mayra Joli, the self-described master of selfies, polled at 8 percent, with 4 percent undecided.

A spokesman for Shalala’s campaign said the Republican poll was a “push” poll that used negative statements about Shalala to pose questions.

“Given that, it’s no surprise the result,” said Mike Hernandez. “This will be a competitive race, no doubt. But this study is not an accurate snapshot of where the contest stands today.”

He said the Democratic poll is a more accurate representation.

“Any Democrat could have beaten Donald Trump in this district in 2016,” he said. “But Secretary Shalala isn’t running against Donald Trump. She is running against a Donald Trump supporter who has been on television for over 20 years.”

Democrats have eagerly eyed the open congressional seat, believing it’s one they could pick up as they attempt to harness discontent with President Donald Trump and turn it into a blue wave that results in Democratic control of the House.

But Salazar was in Washington last week meeting with Republican lawmakers to tout her candidacy and raise money.

They came away impressed: Minnesota Rep. Tom Emmer, a leader of the House Republicans’ political arm, said Salazar was the best possible candidate for the majority Latino district where Donald Trump lost by more than 19 percentage points in 2016.

Read more here.

September 19, 2018

Miami’s pro-Trump ‘master of selfies’ could upend a competitive congressional race

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At a recent Ron DeSantis campaign event at Miami’s Versailles restaurant, a congressional candidate was on hand waving a “Make America Great Again” hat, shouting at conservative Republicans who had come to get a glimpse of the GOP gubernatorial nominee to vote for her.

But the MAGA-clad candidate for congressional District 27 wasn’t the Republican nominee, Maria Elvira Salazar. It was no-party candidate Mayra Joli.

Joli, Miami’s self-described master of selfies, has been campaigning for nearly a year for retiring Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen’s seat. She bypassed the GOP primary for a shot in the general election against Salazar and Democrat Donna Shalala, and doesn’t have much money in her campaign account. Independent campaigns for congressional seats are usually long-shot propositions.

But Joli’s outspoken pro-Trump message on Spanish-language radio and at other candidates’ campaign events could undercut the effort by Republicans to keep Ros-Lehtinen’s seat. The race is already a difficult one for the GOP — Hillary Clinton defeated Donald Trump in the district by more than 19 percentage points in 2016. Republicans are relying on a coalition of conservatives and moderate voters who supported Ros-Lehtinen to stay in their camp come November, and they’re hopeful that Salazar is the right candidate to make the race competitive.

“Basically, the Republicans, the Diaz-Balarts and the Ros-Lehtinens, they are more anti-Trump than even some Democrats and many in the Cuban-American community think they have sold their souls to Washington,” Joli said. “I’m running as an NPA [No Party Affliation] because I understand the only way to help the president is to be with him for America First.”

Nelson Diaz, the head of the Miami-Dade Republican Party, blasted Joli’s candidacy as disingenuous, noting that she donated $500 to Clinton’s 2016 presidential bid and that Republicans who vote for her are essentially giving their vote to Shalala.

“If somebody was looking to derail the GOP nominee in this election you would do exactly what she’s doing; Say you’re a Trump supporter, wiggle your away to the front of the room,” Diaz said. “If she cares so much about this president, why would she do something that’s going to damage or hurt the president?”

Diaz said he thinks Joli’s campaign is a “scam,” though he acknowledged he has no evidence that she’s in the race as a ringer candidate to deliberately sabotage the chances of the GOP nominee.

“I think Maria Elvira will win by a good margin because the Dems have nominated someone who is such a bad candidate for this seat, but she [Joli] could make a difference,” Diaz said. “Of course, we are going to combat it. I’ve been on the radio this week telling people that this woman’s a fraud.”

Read more here.

September 12, 2018

The perks of retirement: House to vote on a bill named after Ileana Ros-Lehtinen

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As Miami Republican Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen finishes out her final months in the House of Representatives, the tributes are rolling in. 

And one of those tributes includes a bill named after the first Latina in Congress. 

The House of Representatives is expected to vote on the Ileana Ros-Lehtinen United States-Israel Security Assistance Authorization Act on Wednesday evening, a bill that authorizes defense and security spending assistance for Israel, long a top priority for the retiring congresswoman who has a large Jewish population in her district. The House is passing an amended version of the bill sponsored by Florida Republican Sen. Marco Rubio, a one-time Ros-Lehtinen intern. 

The bill authorizes $3.3 billion in assistance to Israel over the next 10 years and is a product of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, where Ros-Lehtinen has served for decades since entering Congress in 1989. The tribute comes weeks after Congress named the annual defense spending bill after late Arizona Sen. John McCain, which became law two weeks before his death.

Read her remarks to be delivered the House floor later today:

"Thank you, Mr. Chairman – this is truly such an unexpected and humbling honor – thanks to you, Ranking Member Engel, and both your teams, for your leadership in bringing this bill to the Floor. Thank you to all the Members and supporters of Israel – we’ve been through a lot together and the U.S.-Israel relationship is stronger because of every single one of your efforts. And a special thank you to my dear friend and colleague, Ted Deutch, the great Ranking Member of our Subcommittee, with whom I’ve had the honor of working so closely on these issues over the past six years."

"As so many of you know, it has been an absolute joy for me to be a part of this distinguished body. To advocate for my constituents, to serve on the House Committee on Foreign Affairs, to promote American ideals like democracy and human rights, and to help strengthen relationships with our allies abroad.No relationship may be more important than the one we have with the democratic Jewish State of Israel. Israel is an indispensable strategic partner – not just for its protection of U.S. interests – but because of our shared beliefs and values. Values that, after centuries of suffering, have allowed the Jewish people to beat all the odds and develop a country that has become a thriving, global leader. And it only gets more impressive when you consider the neighborhood, one that’s never been more dangerous, and more threatening to Israel, than it is today. For all these reasons, I am so proud to have authored and advocated for the bill before us now."

"This bill authorizes security assistance for Israel, at a minimum, at $3.3 billion dollars, the level agreed to in the Memorandum of Understanding, for the next ten years. With this bill, we both have the comfort of knowing that our support for Israel will be ironclad, but it also provides us with the flexibility to modify that support should the threats to Israel increase, and additional support is needed. From drones and emerging threats, to cybersecurity and space, to development cooperation in other countries, the bill also includes a host of other provisions to expand our collaboration in other areas. The U.S.-Israel partnership has never been stronger than it is today and it is my sincere honor to have played a very small part in thatI encourage all my colleagues to support this bill and I thank the Chairman for the time."

September 10, 2018

Maria Elvira Salazar will vote for "any type of tower, any type of guards" at U.S.-Mexico border

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Republican Maria Elvira Salazar wants to reform the nation's immigration system, but will vote to spend money on Donald Trump's border priorities if elected to Congress. 

Salazar, running to replace retiring Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen in a Miami-based seat that Trump lost by more than 19 percentage points in 2016, did not directly endorse Trump's border wall in a Sunday night interview with MSNBC host Kasie Hunt, but she did endorse specific parts of a border security plan that most Democrats do not support. 

"I would definitely vote in order to secure the border," Salazar said when asked about the wall. 

"Does that mean the wall that the president wants, the big, beautiful wall?" Hunt responded. 

"That means any type of tower, any type of technology, any type of guards for border security that will secure the border because we do not want (imprisoned Mexican drug lord) El Chapo or his friends smuggling drugs," Salazar said. "Listen, the undocumented people do not want to be undocumented. That's why we need to reform our immigration system and we need to give visas to those that are coming to pick up Jalapeno peppers in Southern California or to clean toilets in Orlando or in Manhattan. They need some type of legality so they can stay here, they can pay taxes, they can contribute to the economy and continue working as they are right now without a criminal record." 

Salazar blamed Barack Obama for prioritizing Obamacare over an immigration overhaul while in office and Bill Clinton for passing immigration laws that laid the framework for Trump's family separation policy. 

"This is not a matter of Democrats or Republicans, when it comes to immigration everybody's at fault," Salazar said. 

Hunt also asked Salazar, a broadcast journalist for decades until January, about Trump's comments declaring the press as the enemy of the people. Salazar disagreed with his remarks.

"We have the best press in the world," Salazar said. "The press, the press we need always." 

Salazar faces Democrat Donna Shalala and pro-Trump independent Mayra Joli in the general election. 

Watch the interview here.

September 04, 2018

A Miami Cuban American has never lost a House seat to a non-Cuban. It could happen in November

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Miami-Dade Democrats, hoping to ride a blue wave in November, have set their sights on winning all five of Miami-Dade County’s congressional seats. It’s a tall order that, if successful, would end the longtime dominance of Cuban-American Republican lawmakers who have exercised outsized power over the nation’s relationship with Latin America.

If a blue wave were to actually hit Miami, the county would be represented in Washington by five women from an unusually diverse background: one African American, one non-Hispanic white, one Jewish, one Ecuadorean American and one Lebanese American. The only Cuban-American Republican left from Miami would be U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio.

But unseating incumbent Reps. Mario Diaz-Balart and Carlos Curbelo, and flipping the seat held by Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, who is retiring, will require convincing tens of thousands of independent voters — and even some Democrats who have voted against their party in congressional races — that the unique perspective brought by the sons and daughters of Cuban exiles is no longer a prerequisite for holding elected office in Congress, where members have influence over the nation’s foreign-policy course.

“The South Florida tradition in Congress established by Ileana, that tradition is going to continue,” said former Republican Rep. Lincoln Diaz-Balart, a Cuban-American lawmaker who served in Congress from 1993 to 2011. “When you see these national things about waves and all these predictions, South Florida’s different and we’re going to remain different.”

Since Ros-Lehtinen first won her seat in 1989, no non-Cuban has ousted a Cuban-American Republican from a Miami-Dade congressional seat, even in years like 2006 and 2008, when Democrats made sweeping gains across the country in the latter part of George W. Bush’s administration.

Democrats will need to win in Cuban-American strongholds in all three GOP-held districts, including Little Havana and Westchester in Ros-Lehtinen’s district, parts of Kendall in Curbelo’s district and Hialeah in Diaz-Balart’s district.

Ros-Lehtinen is supporting Cuban-American journalist Maria Elvira Salazar — who handily won her GOP primary Tuesday — as the way to continue the legacy that began 29 years ago.

“Lincoln [Diaz-Balart] and I have had the pleasure of working together as a united team for many years and I’ve missed him in Congress,” Ros-Lehtinen said at Salazar’s victory party on Tuesday night. “And now I hope that Chucky [Curbelo] and Mario [Diaz-Balart] miss me in Congress, but they won’t miss me for very long because Maria Elvira Salazar is going to take over.”

Read more here.

August 25, 2018

GOP candidate Salazar says attacks of her interview with Fidel Castro aren’t sticking

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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.

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.

Read more here.

August 17, 2018

A tale of two primaries: The race to replace Ros-Lehtinen enters the final stretch

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The Republican and Democratic primaries to replace Miami icon Ileana Ros-Lehtinen both have front-runners.

That’s where the similarities end.

Democrats are arguing over policy issues that could accelerate the party’s leftward shift and are trying to attack former University of Miami President Donna Shalala. Discussions about abolishing U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement and implementing Medicare for all are ideas that just recently came to the national party’s attention.

Republicans are arguing that the leading candidate, TV journalist Maria Elvira Salazar, was flirtatious with former Cuban dictator Fidel Castro in an television interview 23 years ago, lobbing well-worn accusations of being soft on Cuba that have been a staple of Miami campaigns for decades.

“You would think that in Miami that we’re running campaigns on foreign policy,” said Republican political consultant Jesse Manzano-Plaza, who is not involved in the GOP race. “This is an example on the federal level, but even on the policy it seems like it’s about the perception that someone may have been friendly to Fidel Castro in an interview years ago.”

When Ros-Lehtinen, the GOP’s leading social moderate in Congress and a noted critic of President Donald Trump, announced her retirement nearly a year and a half ago, the seat instantly became the Democrats’ to lose. Hillary Clinton defeated Donald Trump by more than 19 percentage points in the district that encompasses Miami Beach, most of Miami, Kendall and parts of coastal South Dade.

Republicans and Democrats have gone 0 for 23 in situations like Ros-Lehtinen’s since 1994, when an incumbent representative doesn’t run for reelection in a district carried two years earlier by a president from the opposite party.

Read more here.

August 06, 2018

New Matt Haggman poll shows Donna Shalala losing ground



Donna Shalala could have a serious fight on her hands.

New polling from Matt Haggman's campaign shows that Shalala's lead in the Democratic primary to replace retiring Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen is shrinking with three weeks until the Aug. 28 election. 

The poll, conducted from Aug. 2 to 5 by RABA Research on behalf of the Haggman campaign, shows Shalala with a 10 percentage point lead over Haggman among likely primary voters and state Rep. David Richardson virtually tied with Haggman. A fourth candidate, Miami Beach commissioner Kristen Rosen Gonzalez, also captures double digit support in Haggman's poll while 27 percent of voters are not sure who they will vote for. 

The 10 percentage point lead for Shalala over Haggman is less than half of a 27 percentage point lead Shalala had when her campaign conducted a poll in June. 

The RABA poll, conducted in English and Spanish via automated and live phone surveys, gives Shalala 26 percent support while Haggman has 16, Richardson 15 and Rosen Gonzalez 11. Michael Hepburn received four percent. The poll's margin of error is 4.7 percent. 

"To see where we’re at with just over three weeks left until the primary compared to where we were a few months ago, this is a testament to the strong campaign that has been built," Haggman campaign manager Michael Edwards said in a statement. "As a first time candidate, Matt did not come in with the name recognition Donna Shalala did. When you look at the poll, 59% of likely voters could change their mind and over a quarter of the electorate is still undecided. We will continue to knock on every door and meet voters across the district, drive Matt’s progressive message forward, and take this race all the way to victory in November." 

Haggman and Richardson are trying to present themselves as liberal alternatives to Shalala, the former president of the University of Miami and the former Secretary of Health and Human Services under President Bill Clinton. Haggman, the former director of the Knight Foundation, and Richardson both support a "Medicare for all" healthcare system and want to abolish Immigration and Customs Enforcement, two positions that Shalala does not support. Haggman was one of the first candidates running for congress nationwide to call for abolishing ICE and released television ads on the issue. 

Richardson and Haggman also have enough financial muscle to continue television advertisements through the primary, though Shalala has shown she can out raise the field and would have the resources to mount a substantial attack against either if she chooses to do so. 

Though Haggman's polling shows a tightening race, Shalala remains the favorite to win the nomination for a seat that Democrats expect to flip in November, as Ros-Lehtinen's Miami-based seat had the largest margin of victory for Hillary Clinton over Donald Trump among all congressional districts held by Republicans in 2016. 

"The question is, where's Donna?" Richardson consultant Eric Johnson said.  


July 27, 2018

Miami lawmakers plan to publicly rebuke Daniel Ortega for violence in Nicaragua

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Daniel Ortega’s biggest foes in Washington are trying to draw more attention to Nicaragua’s ongoing human-rights crisis, though they acknowledge that military action by President Donald Trump against the leftist leader is unlikely.

U.S. Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen and Sen. Marco Rubio of Miami are leading efforts in the House and Senate to publicly rebuke violent attacks by masked gunmen linked to Ortega’s government who have killed 97 people since July 11. This week, the House of Representatives unanimously passed a resolution written by Ros-Lehtinen that condemns the violence and calls on the use of sanctions for individuals that are connected to the killings. Rubio has proposed a similar resolution in the Senate.

The retiring Miami congresswoman said the successful resolution was the first step in a four-part plan to rebuke Ortega.

Additionally, she’s angling for the Senate to pass her bill that limits U.S. loans to Ortega’s government until the longtime president carries out democratic reforms; more sanctions for individuals who can be connected to violent acts against anti-Ortega protestors, and overturning the Trump administration’s decision to end a temporary immigration program that allowed 2,500 Nicaraguans to live and work in the U.S. without the fear of deportation.

“I would not want to compare atrocities, but Nicaragua is a smaller country than Venezuela, smaller population, and they had almost 400 people killed and the international community shrugs,” Ros-Lehtinen said. “If we’re going to say that it’s terrible in Nicaragua, why are we going to deport Nicaraguan Americans to Nicaragua when we are saying that it’s in political chaos?”

The Trump administration decided to end Nicaragua’s Temporary Protected Status in November 2017, a designation that was made in 1998 after Hurricane Mitch killed nearly 4,000 people and uprooted land mines around the country. Nicaraguans who have been living in the U.S. with TPS since 1998 now have until January 2019 to seek another form of legal residency or else return to Nicaragua.

“By next year, they will all be deported,” Ros-Lehtinen said. “These are law-abiding people, they are legal, they have permits to work, they’re being educated, they’ve got driver’s licenses and now we’re going to deport them to the violent hell that is Nicaragua? That’s just not right.”

Ros-Lehtinen’s letter to Trump urging him to change Nicaragua’s TPS designation was signed by four of Miami-Dade County’s five House members, including Republicans Carlos Curbelo and Mario Diaz-Balart. Miami-Dade is home to about one-third of all Nicaraguan Americans.

Rubio said there is already work being done to sanction individuals and entities in Nicaragua that are responsible for the violence. Ortega’s recent decision not to move up elections that were scheduled for 2021, as requested by the nation’s business community and Catholic clergy, moved him past the point of no return in Rubio’s eyes.

“There is a direct national security interest for the United States in seeing a return to democracy and stability in Nicaragua,” Rubio said in a statement. “The message from the U.S. to the Ortega regime was very clear: Call for early elections and allow legitimate elections. That did not happen. As Nicaragua follows Venezuela’s dangerous path, the U.S. should be prepared to take further action with our regional allies to address the threat of Ortega’s regime.”

Read more here.

July 23, 2018

Café con politics podcast: When the attacks focus on candidates’ spouses



On the latest episode of Café con Politics, the Miami Herald’s political team breaks down attacks on the spouses of two congressional candidates, Rep. Carlos Curbelo’s carbon tax, state Rep. David Richardson’s trip to Cuba and an update on the White House’s child separation policy.

The Herald’s D.C. reporter Alex Daugherty joined the podcast to discuss all these issues and more. Give it a listen.

Listen here.