The Shalala conundrum: wooing Hispanic voters when you don’t speak the language

Donna Shalala has a conundrum.

In her bid to flip a Miami congressional seat once thought an easy pickup for Democrats, she’s struggling with Hispanic voters. But to woo a majority of the district, she must venture onto Spanish-language television and debate a former Spanish-language broadcast journalist who couldn’t be more at home in a studio.

For the second time in four days, Shalala and Republican Maria Elvira Salazar were beamed Tuesday into the living rooms of Florida’s 27th congressional district. With independent candidate Mayra Joli standing between them, they sparred for an hour from Univision 23’s Doral studios while making their case to serve as the successor to retiring U.S. Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen.

And once again, Shalala was on Salazar’s home turf, listening to her opponent’s interpreted comments through an earpiece and speaking to viewers through a translator. “I’m here for this debate in Spanish, although my Spanish is not very good,” she said.

Before either had even introduced themselves, Salazar put Shalala on the defensive, immediately ripping into the former University of Miami president during her opening comments over the Democrat’s announced appearance Wednesday with House minority leader Nancy Pelosi and California Congresswoman Barbara Lee — who reportedly said when Fidel Castro died that “we need to stop and pause and mourn his loss.”

“It seems to me that Mrs. Shalala should reconsider and cancel that press conference,” said Salazar, who is a Republican Cuban-American. “That is an offense and a lack of sensitivity to prisoners, to those shot, to the exiles who live here in the city of Miami.”

Shalala, who had not yet uttered a word, said she didn’t know what Salazar was talking about — even though the press conference was scheduled at her own campaign headquarters. Shalala’s campaign said later that the candidate was thrown off by a muddled translation in her earpiece.

“I definitely don’t know anything about that press conference,” said Shalala. “But I absolutely oppose the Cuban government.

It was a rough start for a campaign that says it does not yet have a date set for an English-language debate as the two campaigns fight over dates. The night also ended strangely, with Joli accusing Salazar of being funded by the Illuminati and Shalala by the Clintons. When Shalala was given a chance to respond, she’d barely begun when the moderator cut her off due to a required final commercial break.

During the hour in between, Salazar repeatedly said it’s ”unacceptable” that Lee, whom she described as the best friend the Castro regime could have had in the U.S. Congress, is coming to Miami. She said Lee’s visit is an offense not only for Cubans, but for all those who’ve escaped from their countries because of authoritarian regimes, such as Nicaraguans and Venezuelans.

In retort, Shalala evoked Salazar’s support of President Donald Trump and Trump’s support of Russian president Vladimir Putin, saying she’d never share the stage with someone who offers platitudes to dictators. She also resurrected an attack Salazar’s opponents lobbed during the primary over an interview Salazar conducted with Fidel Castro in the 1990s, saying she’s “never going to call Fidel Castro ‘Comandante’ out of respect.”

The candidates gathered Tuesday as new polls and fundraising numbers continued to reflect a tight contest.

According to the latest federal disclosures, Salazar is keeping pace with the well-connected Shalala in fundraising, though Hillary Clinton is coming to raise money for Shalala later this month. Salazar raised over $520,000 from Aug. 9 to the end of September with over $382,000 to spend. Shalala raised over $796,000 over the same period with over $438,000 to spend, though she also has $295,000 in debt.

Before Salazar entered the race, national Republicans considered Ros-Lehtinen’s seat unwinnable. Her fundraising results reflect a change in that mood, as does the entry into the race Tuesday by the Congressional Leadership Fund, a super PAC aligned with House Speaker Paul Ryan. The PAC dropped six figures to run a Spanish-language ad on TV and digital platforms attempting to cast Shalala as out of touch with working-class voters by noting that she lived in a University of Miami president’s mansion more than a decade ago while the school’s contracted janitorial staff went on a hunger strike because their wages amounted to about $7 an hour.

Salazar levied a similar attack on Shalala during a Telemundo 51 debate that aired Saturday.

Along with that debate, Telemundo conducted and released a Mason-Dixon poll showing Salazar up two points on Shalala in a district that Hillary Clinton won by 20 points in 2016 — further raising alarm for Democrats. The poll piled onto growing evidence — including polls conducted last month by the two campaigns — that Shalala was in for a tight race and perhaps an upset in a district thought not long ago to be all but resigned by national Republicans to flip blue.

Shalala’s campaign on Tuesday pushed back, dropping an internal poll showing her up 4 points on Salazar, findings consistent with the poll she released last month. A few hours later, Salazar released her own internal poll showing her up 9 — exactly where her campaign had her in September.

Among the few consistent points in the two polls: Shalala is struggling with Hispanic voters in a majority-Hispanic district, primarily due to Salazar’s massive lead among Cuban-Americans.

In a tacit acknowledgment of her challenges, Shalala’s campaign last week aired two Spanish-language attack ads blasting Salazar for her support of Trump, who according to Shalala’s polling is disliked by a majority of the likely voters in the district. During breaks in the debate Tuesday, her campaign ran an ad repeatedly echoing an old Salazar tweet crying “Bravo Trump!”

The ad ran immediately after a Salazar commercial explaining that the tweet was a response to Trump’s meeting with the wife of Leopoldo Lopez, a political prisoner in Venezuela. But Shalala’s campaign says the quote was from a since-deleted tweet that Salazar sent in response to the immigration plans that Trump laid out during his unofficial 2017 State of the Union speech.

“And what do you say about this other opportunity in which you also said ‘Bravo Trump,’ the one that you recently erased?” Shalala’s campaign tweeted from her account.

Regardless, Salazar’s campaign says the negative ads from Shalala are a sign that she knows she’s trailing. Rob Schmidt, a pollster with McLaughlin & Associates, said his polling shows that Salazar’s unique profile — and Shalala’s own high negatives — are shaping the race in a way none of the national pundits would have expected. He expects Shalala to do well with undecided independent voters, but not in a way that will make Democrats happy in November.

“The national and state Democrats just looked at the 2016 presidential performance and automatically assumed this race would be an easy pickup,” Schmidt said. “In a lot of instances, especially down here, the cultural dynamics often override these polarizing dynamics.”

McClatchy DC correspondent Alex Daugherty contributed to this report.