Swimming Against the Wave

 David Catanese

KENDALL, FLA. – MARIA Salazar is finishing a campaign event at a suburban Miami senior center, where the only reason she needs to use English is to speak to this reporter.

But as an elderly woman approaches Salazar to compliment her for staying strong amid attack ads – "muy fuerte!" – the former Emmy-winning Telemundo correspondent transitions back to Spanish to convey her appreciation.

"My chip changes," she says as she toggles between the two languages. "The language is very important. But what I always say, 'This is not a Hispanic seat. This is a Miami seat.'"

The 56-year-old Salazar is the Republican nominee in Florida's 27th Congressional District, which Hillary Clinton carried by 20 points in 2016. When incumbent GOP Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen announced her retirement in 2017, even many Republicans thought the open seat encompassing a large part of Miami and Miami Beach would inevitably flip to the Democrats.

But just three weeks from Election Day, the bilingual Salazar is slightly ahead of Democratic candidate Donna Shalala, according to the latest poll.

"You need to be part of this fiber ... and my opponent is not," Salazar says of her longtime roots in the community as a popular television journalist. "She was president of university. That does not make you part of the fiber."

As Republican House candidates across the country struggle against national currents favoring the Democrats, Salazar – along with neighboring GOP Rep. Carlos Curbelo – are attempting to swim against the anticipated "blue wave" in a pair of Hispanic-dominated southern Florida districts where their centrist positions on issues likes the environment and immigration have given them a shot at survival.

"These extremes, that doesn't take you anywhere. Let's step into the center and move forward. We're all Americans. The new ones, the older ones," Salazar says.

Their opponents argue a Democratic House majority is the only remedy to make any progress on the issues these Republicans claim to be championing.

"It's just a waste of time anymore to elect moderate Republicans because they cannot get anything done," the 77-year-old Shalala says. "Electing her – doesn't make any difference what her positions are – because her party doesn't believe in any of those positions and they won't do anything."

Curbelo is a soft-speaking, 38-year-old, second-term Republican representing the 26th Congressional District, which includes the Everglades and the Florida Keys and where the voting population is 62 percent Hispanic.

He says he's sober-minded about his chances given that the voters most willing to swing abruptly are white.

"These districts are unique. I don't think waves – either red or blue are that common here. It's just a different kind of voter," the congressman says over lunch at a Cuban restaurant with his wife and campaign aide. "I think the voters that swing most violently – we can call it that – are white suburban voters. And we don't have that many."

What the district does have is Democratic-inclined voters, as evidenced by Clinton's 16-point win over Donald Trump two years ago.

But Curbelo has carved out a centrist profile that is tailored to the political consciousness of his district, allowing him to capture a 12-point victory in 2016 even as Trump lagged far behind.

Curbelo signed on to the Dream Act to protect young immigrants from deportation and he's spearheaded revenue-neutral legislation to cut carbon emissions by replacing auto and aviation fuel taxes with carbon use pricing that would generate an estimated trillion dollars over 10 years.

His opponent, Democrat Debbie Mucarsel-Powell, filmed an entire advertisement underwater to charge that Republicans have done nothing to protect the water and reef in the coastal district. But the spot never mentions Curbelo, preferring to lump him in with the national party "that still denies that climate change exists."

Another Democratic commercial hits Curbelo for supporting the GOP tax law, a line of attack that's been used throughout the country.

It explains why Curbelo has branded Mucarsel-Powell "a generic Democrat ... running a talking point campaign," that he says is void of specific solutions and largely predicated on riding partisan turnout.

"I don't see how she's distinguishable from a candidate the DCCC would program," he says referring to the Democratic campaign committee that recruits House candidates.

A Democratic pollster released a survey at the beginning of the month showing Mucarsel-Powell ahead of Curbelo by 2 points, powered by leads with independents and voters under age 40. It could be that a lesser-known generic Democratic candidate is good enough to displace a Republican incumbent in many places this year.

But even that singular polling result makes it a margin-of-error race that is susceptible to swings until the end.

On the same day that Salazar was speaking Spanish to about 60 senior citizens and warning them of the Democratic Party's glorification of socialism – "We don't wanna be Venezuela!" she says – Shalala was welcoming an ascendant Democratic figure to her headquarters in Coral Gables: Rep. Adam Schiff of California.

Schiff was there to invoke the national stakes of this House race, explaining to a group of canvassers that with Republicans in control, "There is no restraint on this president. There is no pushback from the Congress of the United States. And that has our republic trembling."

Standing alongside him, Shalala chimed in that "this president is evil in his ideas," adding that "this election is not a midterm election. It's an election and it's judgement day."

Here it seemed Democrats were seeking to nationalize the contest at every turn, whereas Salazar said her fate was "insulated" from those broader trends due to her deep connections to the community.

She spoke of a path to legalization for residents living in the country illegally as long as they haven't committed a crime and said she would be best-equipped to convince those in her party to change their minds.

"I want to sit at the table. I'm not going to chicken out or be a coward and leave the party because Trump said this and this and that," she says. "I will convince them. You know why? Because I'm brown. I'm part of that minority. We are an untapped constituency that Republicans have not understood yet."

But Shalala, a former secretary of Health and Human Services and University of Miami president who does not speak Spanish, is clearly ruffled by the accusation she isn't of the community. She accuses Salazar of employing Trumpian tactics in trying to leverage her Hispanic heritage.

"Divide us by our country of origin, by the languages we speak, by our race, by our religion, by who we hold hands with, by our disability. That's a Trump strategy. Separate, divide the community up," she says. "She's a Trump Republican because of her first vote. Her first vote is to put in power in the House of Representatives people who don't want a moderate approach to immigration. They will disrespect her and the position of the people in Miami. She can't get anything done."

Yet if the November election produces a closely divided House, where neither party holds an advantage of more than a dozen seats, it's the centrist members who would hold most of the cards and determine what policies move forward.

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