Why you should care
OZY’s exclusive election forecast shows Maria Elvira Salazar running strong in a district Hillary Clinton won by 20.
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Located in the heart of Miami and encompassing Little Havana, Florida’s 27th congressional district is 65 percent Latino and should be an easy pickup for Democrats, considering the national winds at their backs. It overwhelmingly backed Hillary Clinton in the 2016 presidential race, 59–39, over Donald Trump, whose presidency hasn’t exactly assuaged the election fears of independent voters.
The picture looked so bleak for the GOP that two-decade incumbent Ileana Ros-Lehtinen chose to retire — one of 26 Republican members of Congress to do so this election cycle without running for another office, the second-most in modern political history. The first? The Barack Obama–led wave election of 2008. Republicans appeared to need their own once-in-a-generation political talent to stand a chance at retaining this south Florida seat.
Surprisingly enough, they may have found one. Cue Maria Elvira Salazar, 56, the Telemundo and Univision newscaster whose made-for-television gaze is familiar to Miami voters. “The swing voters in that district are non-Cuban Hispanics who know her well. They’ve watched her from their living rooms for 30 years reporting on what’s happening in the Americas. These voters value personal relationships over party affiliation,” says Rep. Carlos Curbelo, a Miami Republican who knows a thing or two about staying alive in a purple district.
Salazar, a five-time Emmy winner, was recruited by the National Republican Congressional Committee to enter the race in March, won the party nomination in August and was endorsed by Florida Sen. Marco Rubio on Wednesday. And she is a major reason why the 27th district is in play, seeing a 21.1 percent rise in win probability this week, according to OZY’s exclusive election prediction model with Republican data and technology firm 0ptimus, which now gives her a 45.4 percent chance of victory in November. The model “already had the race much more competitive” than others, says Alex Alduncin, a data scientist for 0ptimus.
Our figures were more bullish on Salazar, given her relatively high fundraising numbers compared to most noncompetitive campaigns, while Democrat Donna Shalala loaned herself $500,000 to keep up. The OZY/0ptimus model rewards small-dollar donations and also lends extra weight toward female candidates in what is shaping up to be a strong year for women, particularly those of color. To move this race into what Alduncin calls “a pure toss-up” took two internal polls released this week — one by the Salazar campaign, which had her up 9 percentage points. That forced Shalala, a Lebanese-American former Health and Human Services secretary for Bill Clinton, to respond by releasing her own internals that had her up 4 points. Still a lead, but not the kind of advantage Democrats were hoping for.
This is a generational change within the [Republican] party of lots of women stepping up and running. Not at the same rate as the Democrats, but any improvement is welcome.
Rey Anthony Lastre, South Florida political commentator
The results show that candidates still matter, no matter what national riptides are at work. Longtime representative Ros-Lehtinen was the first Cuban-American and first Hispanic woman elected to Congress, and her moderate stances helped her eke out victory after victory. Salazar has a similar appeal. She effortlessly switches between Spanish and English, and on her primary election-night victory, she entered to blaring salsa music and the thick aroma of a “giant” pot of arroz con pollo, according to a WLRN-TV report. Her campaign is predicated on her support for LGBT rights, equal pay and women’s rights while also talking tough on “the regimes in Cuba, Nicaragua, Venezuela,” says Rey Anthony Lastre, a south Florida political commentator and member of Miami-Dade County’s Millennial Task Force.
The district may be uniquely suited for a candidate like Salazar. The average voter here is a middle-aged, Hispanic, independent woman around 55 years old, Lastre says. “There is this culture in Miami that engenders a more friendly environment for women within the Republican Party,” Lastre adds, pointing to a handful of other GOP women running for nearby state legislative seats. “This is a generational change within the party of lots of women stepping up and running. Not at the same rate as the Democrats, but any improvement is welcome,” Lastre says.
The strategy could pan out far past Florida. Republicans have put their hopes behind minority women in other key congressional races nationwide, such as Hispanic Lea Márquez Peterson in Arizona’s 2nd Congressional District, the border-touching district being vacated by Martha McSally, and Korean-American Young Kim in California’s 39th, the Los Angeles–area district that saw its own 31 percentage point increase in GOP chances in this week’s OZY/0ptimus model. All three are among 24 House races we consider toss-ups, with less than six weeks to go until Election Day.