A Shalala-Mucarsel-Powell primary is possible in Florida’s most competitive House seat

Then U.S. Rep. Donna Shalala visits Miami Beach City Hall for a town hall meeting on March 18, 2019. Shalala, who lost her seat in the 2020 election, is ahead in the polls for the Democrats who are considering running in the 2022 midterms. (Jose A. Iglesias/El Nuevo Herald/TNS)
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Alex Daugherty Miami Herald (TNS)

MIAMI — The upcoming redrawing of congressional districts and the undefined ambitions of two former incumbents has put the pursuit of Florida’s two most competitive U.S. House seats in a holding pattern as Democrats jostle behind the scenes to potentially take on Republican U.S. Reps. Maria Elvira Salazar and Carlos Gimenez.

Former U.S. Reps. Donna Shalala and Debbie Mucarsel-Powell haven’t decided on their 2022 plans, though Shalala is leaning toward a third straight run against Salazar next year. A Mucarsel-Powell rematch with Gimenez — or perhaps a primary clash with Shalala — could also be in the works.

“I’m evaluating what is the best way for me to make a positive impact for people living in the state of Florida and at this point I haven’t made a decision,” Mucarsel-Powell said.

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A recent poll paid for by an unnamed Democratic group tested the prospect of a four-way primary between Shalala, Mucarsel-Powell, Miami Beach commissioner David Richardson and first-time candidate Janelle Perez, who has officially announced a run.

The poll, conducted by text and phone from August 20-22 by Public Policy Polling, surveyed 593 likely Democratic primary voters in English and Spanish in Florida’s 27th Congressional District, which includes Miami Beach, most of Miami and coastal neighborhoods in South Miami-Dade. It showed Shalala with an initial eight percentage-point lead over Mucarsel-Powell, 28% to 20%, in a hypothetical primary, with Richardson and Perez polling in the single digits.

The poll then tested positive and negative messages for each candidate, and Shalala remained the favorite after the message testing, though Richardson came in second place after 31% of likely voters backed Shalala and 22% of likely voters backed Richardson. Mucarsel-Powell’s support fell to 16% while Perez continued to poll in the single digits. A total of 26% of likely voters remained undecided in the hypothetical match-up, which had a margin of error of 4.1%.

But Richardson, who lost to Shalala in the 2018 Democratic primary, told The Miami Herald on Friday he’s no longer considering a 2022 run. He had previously weighed a bid when Salazar voted against the Equality Act, a bill that would prohibit discrimination based on gender identity and sexual orientation by amending the Civil Rights Act.

“I was looking at it several months ago but I pretty much decided I wasn’t going to run because there’s so much uncertainty about redistricting,” said Richardson, a former state representative who worried that his Miami Beach voter base could end up in a neighboring district instead of Salazar’s. “One thing I’ve learned in this process is never say never but I can say I have no plans for running.”

With Richardson out, Mucarsel-Powell and Shalala are the two wild cards. Both candidates lost in 2020, with Shalala’s loss in particular a stinging defeat for Democrats in a district that President Joe Biden won by three percentage points in 2020.

Sources also told The Miami Herald that Shalala has told other prospective candidates it will take $5 million to mount a competitive 2022 run, a sum that would far surpass the $3.9 million she raised during the 2020 election and the $4.4 million she raised in 2018.

“The voters of Miami-Dade continue to appreciate Donna Shalala’s tireless service to our community and country,” said Shalala’s former deputy chief of staff Raul Martinez. “The daily calls encouraging Shalala to again be a voice in Washington is an unfortunate reminder that our community currently lacks sound, stable and rational leadership in Congress.”

Mucarsel-Powell said she was unaware of the polling but hasn’t decided on her 2022 plans.

Michael Hernandez, political analyst for Telemundo 51 and Democratic strategist who once worked for Shalala and Mucarsel-Powell, said he hopes that Shalala and Mucarsel-Powell do not run against each other in a Democratic primary.

“If the district looks largely like what it did in 2018 and 2020 I think it’s Shalala’s primary to lose,” Hernandez said of the state’s 27th district. “What I think would be disastrous is if Debbie Mucarsel-Powell and Shalala primaried each other. I think the best bet for Democrats to take back both of those seats would be to have a primary where it’s less combative and candidates can focus more on beating Republican incumbents.”

Recruiting viable candidates to run in the two districts is important for Democrats, who hold only an eight-seat majority in the U.S. House of Representatives. Before a bruising 2020 election that saw Miami Democrats suffer sweeping losses, Florida’s 26th and 27th districts were considered two of the best-performing swing districts in the entire country for Democrats.

While the election is more than a year away, Democrats, for now, have scant representation in either district. The only Democrat campaigning against Gimenez is Juan Parades, a first-time candidate running on a left-leaning platform of promoting Medicare-for-all.

Perez, who has never run for elected office, acknowledged that she starts the race at a different place than any former member of Congress.

“Something that happens three weeks into our launch is not going to discourage me,” Perez said on the poll results. “It doesn’t surprise me that a lot of people don’t know who I am, don’t know my message. I definitely plan on continuing to get myself out there.”

Perez also made comments during a recent virtual event that she “desperately needs to avoid a primary” and that she needs to “prove herself” to Shalala and Mucarsel-Powell. Those comments led to mocking from the National Republican Congressional Committee, who said that Perez is “not ready for the big leagues” and that “Democrats are rightfully terrified about their chances in South Florida.”

Any contested primary in Salazar’s seat, with a short bench of Democratic candidates who can mount a congressional run, is likely a boon for Gimenez. His seat is considered harder for a Democrat to flip than Salazar’s after Trump defeated Biden by more than five percentage points in Florida’s 26th Congressional District, which includes most of western Miami-Dade County and the Florida Keys.

“At this point in the cycle Mayor Gimenez is in a very good position,” Hernandez said. “That doesn’t mean he’ll be in the same position after the lines are redrawn but he’s in a good position right now.”

Hernandez said any prospective 2022 candidate should have their mind made up by Thanksgiving, even if they wait until early 2022 to officially announce. Otherwise, it’s too hard to catch up in fundraising as Gimenez and Salazar continue to raise money.

“You don’t have to announce it but you probably need to let all of your donors know and party leaders in Washington know that you are in and will have an official launch after the holidays,” Hernandez said.

Mucarsel-Powell, who lost to Gimenez in 2020 by three percentage points, said “the right candidate” can defeat him in 2022 but that he is well-known after serving as Miami-Dade mayor from 2011 to 2020.

Gimenez and Mucarsel-Powell’s districts are viable pickup opportunities for Democrats in a midterm election year where House Speaker Nancy Pelosi will attempt to defy recent history and keep her slim House majority.

“Those two seats could be the difference between Speaker Kevin McCarthy and Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy,” Hernandez said.

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