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.
“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.”
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