The Shalala effect: Everything’s changed in race to replace Ros-Lehtinen

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The race to replace Ileana Ros-Lehtinen in Congress just became the race to beat Donna Shalala.

By declaring her candidacy this week, Shalala, the former University of Miami president and Clinton-era Health and Human Services secretary, instantly became the unlikely frontrunner in the Democratic primary for Florida’s 27th congressional district. At age 77, she’s upended the battle to succeed the first-ever Hispanic woman elected to Congress, forcing a crowded field of Democratic hopefuls on their heels and jarring lethargic Republicans from their slumber.

“The political pundits have already started to call this race for Donna Shalala, even before she holds a press conference making her entry into the race official,” Democratic candidate and Miami Beach Commissioner Kristen Rosen Gonzalez said in a campaign statement Tuesday. “This race isn’t going to be a coronation.”

Shalala, who lives in Coral Gables, is by far the best-known candidate in the district, a coastal Miami-Dade swath that stretches south from Miami Beach. Her internal polling suggested in January that, without having declared yet, she was 14 points ahead of her closest primary competitor, State Sen. José Javier Rodríguez. Additionally, more than two-thirds of the 600 Democrats polled by Bendixen & Amandi International said they still support Bill and Hillary Clinton — a comforting thought to someone not long removed from acting as the president of the Clinton Foundation.

But the data also showed that one in two primary voters remains undecided ahead of the August primary, giving Shalala’s Democratic opponents every reason to believe they can out-message and out-work her — even as speculation abounds about who will be the first to drop out.

“Voters deserve a vigorous debate in these tough times, and I welcome Dr. Shalala to the primary,” Rodríguez said.

Republicans, meanwhile, emerged from their own quiet primary Tuesday to take aim at their new target. If donors haven’t been particularly interested in investing in a district where the demographics now heavily favor Democrats, maybe they’ll spend money to keep a Clinton confidante from getting into office. (One Republican’s campaign was already using that message Tuesday to try and raise money outside the state.)

“Donna Shalala represents everything Floridians dislike about the Clintons — elitist, disconnected, and delusional about the working class and their needs,” said Republican National Committee spokeswoman Taryn Fenske. “Floridians clearly didn’t want Crooked Hillary or her cronies representing us in D.C., and Donna should know the Clintons’ influence, and reign, is officially over.”

For Democrats, combating Shalala may require a little more nuance, since she’ll likely be supported by people who will be in a position to help or hurt whomever emerges from the primary. But Shalala’s opponents set out quickly Tuesday to contrast themselves.

David Richardson, a Miami Beach state representative campaigning for Ros-Lehtinen’s seat, released a campaign video Tuesday in which he criticized Shalala’s tenure as HHS secretary and her decision to take a high-paid job as a director of UnitedHealth Group after leaving the Clinton administration.

“When she left government service, she went through that revolving door that we often hear about and landed at one of the biggest insurance companies in the country,” Richardson said. “We can clearly see who she’s fighting for: big corporations, big money. People know who I’m fighting for.”

Shalala declined to comment for this story. She plans on speaking Wednesday as part of an official campaign roll-out.

Polling results released by one Democratic campaign that studied the effects of negative messaging on Shalala’s campaign shows that attacks can be effective in undermining the new front-runner. But Shalala’s campaign believes that, with the right messaging, she still has significant room to grow, with 40 percent of voters polled supporting Shalala after receiving flattering information about her.

Along with Richardson, Rodriguez and Rosen Gonzalez, Mary Barzee Flores, Matt Haggman, Michael Hepburn, and Ken Russell are running in the Democratic primary.

McClatchy Washington Bureau reporter Alex Daugherty contributed to this report.


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