SOUTH MIAMI, Fla. – So many Democrats wanted to run when a veteran Republican congresswoman announced her retirement here last year that Democratic Party leaders joked they could not keep track of all the would-be contenders. Then, in March, a ninth candidate joined the field: a woman who refers to herself as “Hurricane Donna.”
Donna Shalala, the health and human services secretary under President Bill Clinton and a former president of the University of Miami, had unmatched fund-raising prowess and deep name recognition, and she was thought to be a shoo-in in a district whose voters, despite sending a Republican to Congress since 1989, have steadily trended more Democratic.
Yet Ms. Shalala survived the primary in August by just four percentage points, and her Republican rival is proving far more formidable than Democrats anticipated, leaving a seat they fully expected to flip in peril.
“It shouldn’t even be this close,” said Mike Abrams, a former chairman of the Miami-Dade County Democratic Party. “I know from my Republican friends that they’re kind of bullish. It has me nervous because it would be a devastating loss. This is just not something that had been contemplated.”
Ms. Shalala faces Maria Elvira Salazar, a former broadcast journalist with a telegenic personality whose internal polling has her leading the former cabinet secretary. Mr. Abrams still expects Ms. Shalala to win in a year favorable to Democrats. In Florida, the party has found additional reason for optimism in its nominee for governor, Mayor Andrew Gillum of Tallahassee, who has drawn giddy crowds at campaign events across the state. Last week in Miami, Ms. Shalala appeared on stage with Mr. Gillum twice in one day.
Still, Democrats have fretted for weeks that Ms. Shalala and party leaders in Washington overestimated her appeal and underestimated Ms. Salazar’s in a district where 57 percent of registered voters are Latino. Most of them are Cuban-American, as is Ms. Salazar, who is well-known from her years working for Telemundo, CNN En Español and a local station, MegaTV.
Ms. Salazar has made visits to senior centers a central part of her campaign. Ms. Shalala prefers to talk to voters at the dog park with her rescue dog, Sweetie.
Democrats worry that Ms. Shalala has failed to consolidate support from base voters wary over her ties to corporate boards and to the Clinton Foundation, which she led for two years while Hillary Clinton ran for president.
During her 14 years at the University of Miami, Ms. Shalala also tussled with unionizing janitors (whose union has since endorsed her), and sold protected pine rockland, over environmentalists’ protests, to a developer planning to build a Walmart. Former President Barack Obama did not include Ms. Shalala in a string of midterm endorsements he made on Monday, though party leaders hastened to say his backing could still come in the future.
On a recent hourlong canvass of a largely African-American neighborhood in South Miami, a city neighboring the university, at least five people warmly told Ms. Shalala they recognized her. “Ms. Donna!” the Rev. Larry White, 63, greeted her when she knocked on his door.
One man wore a U.M. T-shirt and asked about an upcoming football game. Outside another house, a boat in the driveway was decorated with “The U’s” colors, orange and green, and its mascot, Sebastian the Ibis. But the woman who answered the door spoke only Spanish, and Ms. Shalala could do little more than say hello.
Florida’s 27th Congressional District, a densely populated slice of coast that includes the affluent communities of Miami Beach, Key Biscayne and Coral Gables, has been represented since 1989 by Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, 66, a foreign-policy hawk, gay-rights proponent and genial personality known to her constituents simply as Ileana.
Over time and several rounds of redistricting, the demographics during the tenure of the Republican incumbent, who is a Cuban-American, shifted left. In the 2016 presidential race, Ms. Clinton won the district by a whopping 20 percentage points; in June, voters in an overlapping county commission district elected a non-Hispanic Democrat, a surprise victory seen as momentous for Miami-Dade’s notoriously ethnic politics.
Voters here tend to split their tickets, however: While Ms. Clinton trounced President Trump two years ago, Senator Marco Rubio, a Republican, nearly carried the district. Since then, Mr. Trump has solidified support among Cuban-American voters, who unlike many other Hispanics have historically tended to vote Republican, said Jim McLaughlin, Ms. Salazar’s pollster.
“The Cubans are falling in like they used to in the past,” Mr. McLaughlin said. “And now these non-Cuban Hispanics, they’re saying even we like people like Gov. Rick Scott and Maria Elvira Salazar.”
Ms. Salazar has tried to cast Ms. Shalala as an elitist outsider. Ms. Shalala, a 15-year Miami resident, calls the criticism a coded way to say she is not Hispanic, though Ms. Salazar denies that. Ms. Shalala’s campaign is making T-shirts that nickname her “La Shalala,” she said, pronouncing it sha-LA-la, instead of the way she normally says it, sha-LAY-la.
For the two women, there is another delicate undercurrent to their rivalry. Ms. Shalala is 77 and Ms. Salazar is 56, an age gap Ms. Salazar says she is not interested in focusing on. But Ms. Salazar’s top backers frequently refer to her “energy.” And when an apron-clad Ms. Salazar served Cuban coffee on Saturday to breakfast patrons at a popular restaurant, she urged Lidia Guallar, 81, to spread the word about her candidacy, “because if not, the socialists and la vieja,” the old lady, might win.
Asked a few minutes later about the exchange, which was overheard by a reporter, Ms. Salazar said Ms. Guallar had used the phrase first. “It’s true,” Ms. Salazar said of Ms. Shalala’s seniority. “But I don’t think people should be judged on that.”
“What is she going to attack me on – I’m old?” Ms. Shalala, who had a stroke in 2015, had said two days before Ms. Salazar’s quip, noting that her mother lived to be 103. “Bring it on.”
As Ms. Salazar has tried to portray herself as a centrist who might back a ban on assault weapons and citizenship for some undocumented immigrants, Ms. Shalala has tried to tie her to Mr. Trump. Ms. Salazar said she voted for Mr. Trump in 2016 “because I was afraid that Hillary was going to get indicted.” (A third candidate, Mayra Joli, who is running without party affiliation, is an unabashed Trump supporter.)
Ms. Shalala has accused Ms. Salazar of dodging questions on substantive issues. Ms. Shalala’s chief area of expertise is health care; last year, the district had the highest number of Affordable Care Act enrollees in the country – 96,300, according to the Kaiser Family Foundation. Ms. Salazar says she would not have voted to repeal Obamacare without an alternative in place.
Still, Ms. Shalala has vacillated over how much to go after Ms. Salazar for her inexperience. The Democrat has argued that the race should be about each candidate’s qualifications – yet she has also acknowledged that voters will likely elect the candidate they find more personable.
“You don’t vote on policy,” Ms. Shalala said. “You vote on how people feel about you.”