RICHMOND HEIGHTS, Fla. — If 2018 proves to be a “Year of the Woman,” it will be in part because of the voters of South Florida.
Four Democratic women are running for House seats in this part of the Sunshine State that the party wants to win if they are to take back the chamber majority (and perhaps a more sizable one).
The women running for three seats in the Miami-Dade area joined together here Saturday morning to rally supporters outside a church down the road from an early voting site. Sunday brought the end of early voting in the state, with record turnout.
The leader of the pack might be Donna Shalala, the former Health and Human Services secretary and University of Miami president who entered her race for the open seat in Florida’s 27th District with virtually unlimited name ID in a district that includes the university’s home of Coral Gables.
“I needed to reintroduce myself to the community as a candidate, so I needed to talk about policy issues and the future,” Shalala said Saturday. “What the community knows about me is that I’ve delivered thousands of jobs. I built a world-class university and a world-class health system, and that I’ve been in every community organization.”
But Shalala said in an interview that she realized she couldn’t run on her past record alone. The district overwhelming voted for Hillary Clinton in 2016, but it has been the longtime home of retiring GOP Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen.
“They knew I knew a lot about health care. I’ve got to talk about it in a way in which it affects their lives,” Shalala said.
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Of the three Democratic candidates present at Saturday’s event, Mary Barzee Flores faces the most difficult path to the House, through a sprawling 25th District that crosses the Florida Everglades and has a longtime Republican incumbent in Rep. Mario Diaz-Balart.
But if the race in the district that runs all the way to the Fort Myers media market breaks in favor of Barzee Flores, it could be an early warning sign in the Eastern time zone of a real blue wave.
“My district, Hillary lost, but just by a point-and-a-half, and the district is a +4 R district, but I can tell you we are in a statistical dead heat in the latest polling that we’re privy to, and we’re not going to need the tsunami that we’re hoping for to flip the seat,” Barzee Flores said.
Debbie Mucarsel-Powell, whose race against second-term Republican Rep. Carlos Curbelo is rated a Toss-up by Inside Elections with Nathan L. Gonzales, said the combination of voter enthusiasm for the Democratic gubernatorial nominee Andrew Gillum at the top of the ticket and her 26th District’s disdain for President Donald Trump is helping the cause.
“Gillum is bringing voters out that we haven’t seen before, but I am doing the same thing, and I think that all of [us] working together for the same common goals … it’s motivating a huge group,” she told Roll Call.
“I’m feeling that energy. I think that people are very motivated. This year, there’s something different,” she added. “There are people that are telling me, ‘I haven’t voted for a Democrat in my life, and I came to vote for you.’”
The fourth seat that falls in a similar category currently belongs to Republican Rep. Brian Mast, up the Atlantic Coast in a district that runs north from West Palm Beach. Inside Elections rates his race against Democrat Lauren Baer Likely Republican. Trump won it fairly easily in 2016.
Baer is a former State Department official in the Obama administration. Before Mast won the seat in 2016, Democrat Patrick Murphy held it for two terms before his ill-fated Senate bid.
“We’re making a really simple case, which is, if you want folks in office who are going to vote for your interests and not for special interests, who are actually going to follow through on the promises they make on the campaign trail, then this is the year to vote for them,” Baer said in a brief interview Saturday after she helped warm up a crowd of Democrats in West Palm Beach for the featured guests: Gillum, Sen. Bill Nelson and, yes, Jimmy Buffett.
“We know we have a great opportunity in Florida this year, which is to elect Democrats up and down the ticket from Andrew Gillum to Bill Nelson to our House race here in Florida’s 18th to other critical house races farther south in Florida, to all of the down-ballot state races,” Baer said.
Motivated to run
Baer, Barzee Flores, Mucarsel-Powell and Shalala come from backgrounds and life experiences (one of them was, in fact, a Cabinet secretary), but in separate interviews, they all said they were motivated by the aftermath of the Clinton loss and the Trump victory.
Barzee Flores, a former judge in Florida, switched races to the more difficult contest against Diaz-Balart back in the spring, after Shalala jumped into the open seat race next door.
She was motivated to run in the first place by the election of Trump.
“Not just that Hillary lost, but that this guy had won,” Barzee Flores said.
“There was no chance [Trump] was going to renominate me, and equally compelling, I knew that I had to do something,” Barzee Flores said. “I [knew] that that door had closed, but I knew that wasn’t the only door available.”
For Shalala, who is now 77 years old, a run for the House might seem like an unlikely next act, but she said back in February, she had something of an epiphany.
“I woke up, I turned on the television and I got pissed off at what was going on in Washington and I decided — I decided I’d be a strong candidate,” Shalala said. “I knew they were going to run negative ads against me, and that the primary was going to be complicated because they were to the left of me.”
But now, Shalala says she is on the way to victory, insisting that questions about her campaign being asleep and putting a district carried by Clinton in 2016 at risk are unfounded. Inside Elections rates her race against Republican Maria Elvira Salazar Leans Democratic.
Among the closing efforts has been a robocall recorded by none other than former MLB star-turned-broadcaster Alex Rodriguez.
“Donna Shalala is a great Miamian, who was president of the University of Miami for 14 years and led us to new heights,” A-Rod says on the call.