TALLAHASSEE — Two Miami-area congressional races are likely to be some of the nation’s most expensive and competitive midterm contests. But Democrats so far are missing one thing: candidates.
Then-Democratic Reps. Donna Shalala and Debbie Mucarsel-Powell lost the seats in surprise upsets in 2020. Democrats now see both races as winnable — Hillary Clinton won both districts in 2016 by double digits, and the seats tend to sway between Republican and Democratic control. But some Florida Democrats are blaming the poor recruitment drive on the party, which they say isn’t doing enough to recruit and assist strong candidates — a sign of larger problems in the nation’s biggest swing state.
At the same time, Shalala is watching how the state’s redistricting process plays out before deciding whether to run again. The former Clinton administration cabinet official would be the initial favorite in the primary if she enters the race but could leave Democrats scrambling well into the 2022 election cycle if she delays her decision much longer.
The unsettled field has left Florida Democrats anxious that two potential opportunities are slipping away from them, especially after Republicans and former President Donald Trump galvanized Miami’s Cuban exile community during the 2020 elections.
“Without question it is definitely frustrating,” said Ben Pollara, a Miami-based Democratic consultant. “These are going to be ultra-competitive seats that you will need to raise a lot of money for. I’ve been telling people to get in as soon as you can.”
“I do think there is to some degree just a hangover after the f—ing shellacking we [Democrats] took here in 2020, and all the drama that came after the election,” he added.
The growing unease underscores the weak position Democrats are in in Florida as the national party attempts to protect its slim margin in the House. Florida Democrats have struggled this year to recruit A-list candidates for statewide offices like attorney general and even governor, a sign that Democrats see their chances of toppling Republicans dimming.
Democrats’ nervousness also comes as several of Florida’s House races remain in flux ahead of the state’s redistricting, which the GOP-led state Legislature will tackle next year. Republicans hold a 16-10 advantage in the congressional delegation, and some Democratic lawmakers have already decided that Republicans are likely to squeeze them out of some seats. Rep. Charlie Crist (D-Fla.), for example, declared he’s running for governor instead of seeking reelection to his St. Petersburg seat.
Democrats in Florida also continue to see their once strong voter registration advantage disappear in Florida, including in the Democratic stronghold of Miami-Dade County. Republicans have registered more voters than Democrats in the country for four consecutive months ending in May, the most recent month for which figures are available.
“National leaders, entities and organizations have not signaled that Florida is a priority,” said Ray Paultre, executive director of The Alliance, a collection of Florida progressive donors. “In fact they have signaled the opposite.”
He said a core group of party leaders and donors are pushing for investments in other states.
The Miami-based swing seats are the only two in Florida on the DCCC’s 2022 targets list, and the group says it has started sending press releases focused on GOP Reps. Carlos Giménez and María Salazar. It will soon start running digital ads focused on the districts, and have hired a Miami-based organizing director focused on “organizing, registering voters, and conducting outreach to the region’s diverse Hispanic electorate.”
“Democrats are working hard to win South Florida. In addition to early organizing investments on the ground in Miami-Dade, we are making sure voters know that when it comes to issues important to Miamians, whether it’s climate, infrastructure, or LGBTQ rights, Carlos Gimenez and Maria Elvira Salazar are failing our communities at every turn,” said DCCC spokesperson Abel Iraola.
In the meantime, Gimenez and Salazar, first-term members who beat Mucarsel-Powell and Shalala, continue to stockpile cash to defend the seats they won during the 2020 election cycle that saw Republicans once again dominate Florida.
Democrats contend that they have a strong chance of winning back Salazar’s seat, which includes tony Miami Beach. The lines will be redrawn, but the previous two presidential elections show how it raced away from Democrats: President Joe Biden won Salazar’s current district by roughly 3 points in 2020, just four years after Hillary Clinton carried it by almost 20 points.
Shalala told POLITICO she’s considering seeking a rematch with Salazar and will likely have a decision firmed up in October. The 80-year-old has a reputation as a prolific fundraiser, and she’s well-known in the district as the former president of the University of Miami.
“Plenty of money will be available for these races on the Democratic side, but our big and small donors will not be focused until fall,” she said. “I am not concerned about the chatter.”
Mucasel-Powell, who did not rule out running against Gimenez again, is also urging patience. She says she has seen some signs that national Democrats are laying the groundwork now, even if there are no party-backed candidates yet.
“I have been seeing them start to get organized, especially because we know they have to win at least one of those seats to keep the House,” she said. “They want to make sure they do not make the mistakes they have in the past.”
Redistricting is a complicating factor helping freeze the field in those seats. The state Legislature is set to begin the process of redrawing the lines later this year and will receive the specific data from the U.S. Census Bureau to begin the map drawing process next month.
“I can tell you that, especially in the 27th, if the lines remain roughly the same, and that’s a huge assumption, then the money will be there,” said Raul Martinez, who served as Shalala’s deputy chief of staff. “Outside groups, [independent expenditure groups] will all be there if you have a good candidate.”
“There is time,” he added.