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MIAMI (CBSMiami/CNN) — Democrats shouldn’t be sweating a House race in South Florida in a district Hillary Clinton won by 20 points in 2016.

But the contest to replace retiring Republican Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, the first Latina and first Cuban American ever elected to Congress, has turned into a closer-than-expected fight between a former member of Bill Clinton’s cabinet and a Cuban-American television journalist.

It’s one of several party vs. culture battles playing out on the 2018 midterm map, with high stakes: Republicans’ hopes of keeping a House majority could swing on whether some of their strongest candidates — generally non-white and politically moderate — can overcoming the backlash against President Donald Trump and defy the national political momentum.

Ros-Lehtinen kept Florida’s 27th District in Republican hands since she was elected in 1989. But her retirement from a district Hillary Clinton won by 20 percentage points in 2016 left operatives in both parties believing the seat might be the easiest Democratic pick-up on this year’s midterm map.

Then the primaries happened.

Democrats nominated Donna Shalala, the 77-year-old former president of the Clinton Foundation, health and human services secretary under Clinton and long-time University of Miami president. Her single-digit primary victory raised major problems: In a majority Hispanic district, Shalala does not speak Spanish. She is also one of the most experienced House candidates in history in a year that the energy in Democratic politics is around its fresh faces — including Andrew Gillum, the party’s candidate for the Florida governor’s office.

Republicans, meanwhile, chose Maria Elvira Salazar, a 56-year-old veteran broadcast journalist who spent three decades reporting on politics and wars in Latin America for Spanish-language Telemundo, Univision and CNN Español. She is making her first run for public office, so she doesn’t carry political baggage into the race.

The race is a prime example of one of the quirks of the 2018 midterms: Trump was swept into the Oval Office by white voters abandoning Democrats in droves. But if Republicans narrowly cling to a House majority in November, it could be because of a set of often-young, non-white candidates defying the odds in the toughest, most Democratic-leaning districts on the battleground map.

Among them: Texas Rep. Will Hurd, Florida Rep. Carlos Curbelo, Young Kim in California, and Salazar, who recent public polls have shown close to or ahead of Shalala.

“When you have certain races where there are Republican Latinos who are running against non-Latinos in those districts that are majority Latino, that can be a tough sell” for Democrats, Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti said Sunday on CNN. “Latinos have pride to see a Spanish surname or to have somebody who they know comes the same background, and they’re willing to cross over sometimes.”

Even as they privately concede Shalala is a poor candidate for the moment, Democrats believe she is still positioned to win handily. Hillary Clinton visited Miami on Tuesday to raise money for Shalala, adding to her fundraising advantage. And a New York Times Upshot-Siena poll last week showed Shalala with a 7 percentage point lead.

Republicans, though, are investing heavily in the race. The National Republican Congressional Committee in recent days redirected $1.5 million from a House contest it had given up on to Miami to bolster Salazar.

“My district is made up of ticket-splitters,” the retiring Ros-Lehtinen said.

Ros-Lehtinen called Shalala a long-time friend who has been “an essential part of Miami’s evolution as a world-class city.” But she’s backing Salazar, calling her “the perfect candidate for this district.”

“She pops on the screen, people like her, she’s got personality, and she knows the issues and she’s grown up here,” Ros-Lehtinen said of Salazar. “I think she connects with people. Whether it’s the culture, the language, the values, the party, I don’t know what.”

‘An untapped constituency’

Salazar doesn’t attack Shalala’s lack of Spanish-speaking skills — instead casting the Ohio native of Lebanese descent as an outsider.

“I don’t think it has anything to do with the language. It has to do with being part of the community,” Salazar said.

“I have points of reference. I have been on the other side. I have covered the war in El Salvador. I have covered the war in Nicaragua. I have been everywhere. I’ve been in every single Latin American country. I know it well,” Salazar said.

She called the South Florida district the “ultimate melting pot” — and complained that Republicans had ignored potentially winnable voters there, many of whom are Latino but not Cuban, for too long.

She also faulted Trump with alienating some potential Republican voters.

“We share the same values of the Republicans. Small government, low taxes, law abiding, self-reliance, God-fearing, family oriented. That’s what Hispanics are,” Salazar said. “This is why I don’t get how come the Republican Party has not approached us more forcefully, because we’re an untapped constituency. We have the same values.”

In explaining why Clinton overwhelmingly won the district in 2016, she said Trump has at times hurt the GOP with Latino voters.

“Some of Trump’s words have been extremely unsensitive when it comes to Hispanics,” Salazar said.

She broke with Trump over his aggressive approach to immigration, saying the issue “could really break the party and could break the country, and I’m very concerned.”

Electing Salazar, she said, would keep a Hispanic voice “at the table — at the Republican table” to discuss issues like immigration. She said she’d argue for a path to legal status — though not citizenship — for undocumented immigrations who have been in the United States and working for years.

“I believe that I could enlighten or I could inform that sector of the party that feels that maybe the 11 million undocumented immigrants could be deported,” she said. “That’s a fallacy. That’s not going to happen.”

Salazar broke with Trump on several other issues. She said he is “wrong” to mock the #MeToo movement. The former journalist also disputed Trump’s oft-repeated characterization of news media as the “enemy of the people,” calling media “very necessary”– though she said that “many of my friends in the media are not doing their job well at this hour. They are not being unbiased and impartial.”

One potential downside of hammering away at Trump facing Salazar: Immigration attorney Mayra Joli is running an independent, pro-Trump campaign, and could siphon away some Republican votes.

‘It’s her first vote’

In an interview, Shalala explained Clinton’s easy victory in the Miami-based 27th District as fueled by backlash to Trump and a demonstration of Ros-Lehtinen’s ability — proven over decades — to convince higher-than-usual shares of voters to split their tickets.

She cast the election as a national referendum on Trump and GOP congressional leadership.

Salazar, she said, has been “a very distinguished journalist and she seems like a very nice woman. But her first vote — her first vote — puts in power people who tear kids away from their families, who don’t want to do decent immigration reform, who weaken our environmental laws, who refuse to admit that climate change is here and we have just a short time to deal with it, who will not ban assault weapons. I mean, I can go down the list of issues.”

“It’s her first vote that puts in place leaders, no matter what her positions are. They have disrespected Miami for too long a period of time,” Shalala said. “We’ve had people that were somewhat moderate representing South Florida. All of them hit a brick wall with their ideas, and that’s disrespecting the people of Miami. … We should not reinforce that by sending someone up that’s going to vote for that leadership.”

Shalala also rejected the two primary reasons Democrats have worried about her campaign: Her language skills and that she’s not a fresh face.

She touted herself as an experienced coalition-builder who “can get things done.”

“I know how to question cabinet officers. I have the skill set to get things done,” she said.

She said the progressive left hasn’t offered any new ideas in this year’s campaign cycle — though she does agree with some that are at the forefront of Democratic politics, such as “Medicare for all” single-payer health insurance. She said she understands the symbolism — and her experience, she said, could sharpen those efforts.

“‘Medicare for all’ is not a bad idea. I ran the Medicare program,” Shalala said. “What I have said is we have to improve the Medicare program before we start giving it to all. It has no long term care. It has no home health care. It has no dental benefits. What you want is a comprehensive plan. In fact, Medicaid is more comprehensive than Medicare is.”

Shalala advocated for a public option that would allow Americans to buy into a program like Medicare.

“The other thing I want to point out, is there are a lot of people in this country that have very good health insurance from their employer. There are a lot of unions. They have negotiated that health insurance that have given up salaries for that health insurance,” she said. “So, don’t read this as left and right. Read it as the complexity to get to the goal we want, which is universal health care.”

Shalala said her inability to speak Spanish hasn’t been a problem, even though “from the outside, it sounds like it is.” She said she’s “always had a bilingual team around me.”

“From the inside, I’ve been able to communicate with people and have always had someone with me if I need detailed translation,” she said.

“I’m going to operate in Washington in English,” she said, “but I’m going to take the views of the Spanish speakers of Miami, of South Florida, as well as the views of the Creole speakers and those that speak Hebrew, those that speak Arabic, all the languages of Miami.”

“Latino voters want what everybody else wants. They want good education for their children. They want to make sure that they have good jobs,” she said. “I think we have to be careful about understanding people’s lives.”

(© Copyright 2018 CBS Broadcasting Inc. Cable News Network, Inc., a Time Warner Company, contributed to this report).

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