Dem strategy in Florida: Embrace Fidel Castro?

Want to run for office in Miami? Better learn one simple rule first, Politico’s Marc Caputo explains today — don’t have a Fidel Castro sympathizer come in for campaign events. It’s a lesson that Donna Shalala learned the hard way yesterday after Rep. Barbara Lee was announced as one of the speakers at a campaign event. Protesters swarmed the office even after Lee’s visit was canceled, calling the Democrats inside — including Nancy Pelosi — “commies” and “brujas.

The Miami Herald provides the translation, as does Caputo:

Donna Shalala’s morning began with a rendition of “Guantanamera” performed on Spanish-language radio, an opportunity, however awkward, for the Democratic candidate for Congress to connect with members of the Hispanic community she is fighting to represent in Washington.

But by Wednesday afternoon, Shalala found her campaign headquarters surrounded by a group of angry protesters, as she tried to explain to reporters why a California lawmaker who had praised Cuban dictator Fidel Castro after his death was scheduled to appear at a campaign event with her. …

Following Castro’s death in 2016, Lee told a reporter for the San Jose Mercury News that “we need to stop and pause and mourn his loss” and that she was “very sad for the Cuban people.”

“He led a revolution in Cuba that led social improvements for his people,” Lee said then, adding that during her eight meetings with Castro over the years, she found him to be a “smart man” and a “historian” who “wanted normal relations with the United States, but not at the expense of the accomplishments of the revolution.”

Going the full socialist may work out well in the deep-blue precincts of New York City. Inviting someone who acts as Fidel Castro’s apologist doesn’t work quite as well in the middle of the ex-patriate Cuban-American community, especially in Miami. Cuban-American voters in Florida are less hostile to normalized relations with Havana than they used to be, but that’s far different than embracing Fidel and the deprivations of his communist revolution that drove their families to flee their homeland.

Caputo wonders whether Shalala knows her constituents well enough to win what should be a walkover:

In a district filled with Castro-hating Cuban-Americans and Venezuelan exiles, Shalala’s campaign committed an egregious gaffe — and set off a round of Democratic finger-pointing — by posting an announcement that she would hold a campaign event Wednesday with House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi and her fellow Californian, Rep. Barbara Lee.

In 2016, Lee had said Castro’s death should be mourned.

Lee’s visit was ultimately canceled, but not before Shalala was savaged in a debate by her Republican opponent. Shalala and Pelosi were also protested by Republicans, some of whom pounded on the door outside and shouted “go back to Cuba!” “commie!” and “witches!”

The timing was especially poor for Shalala, occurring in the final weeks of a race in which the Democrat has struggled to lock down an open, Democratic-leaning House seat that was once assumed to be hers for the taking.

Just how badly is Shalala performing? When Ileana Ros-Lehtinen announced her retirement after this term, the D+5 27th congressional district was considered one of the easier pickups for Democrats this term. Shalala has national name recognition from her eight years in Bill Clinton’s Cabinet as Secretary of Health and Human Services. Hillary Clinton beat Donald Trump in this district by 20 points two years ago.

Aaaaaaand … Shalala’s trailing by two points in the latest Mason-Dixon poll, taken before this gaffe:

Shalala, a Democrat running in a district that President Donald Trump lost by nearly 20 percentage points in 2016, is trailing Republican TV journalist Maria Elvira Salazar by 2 percentage points in a Mason Dixon-Telemundo 51 poll. The independent poll’s margin of error was 4 percentage points and included a pro-Trump non-party candidate who could siphon votes from Salazar.

Salazar’s unique background as a journalist in a party dominated by President Donald Trump and her appeal with older, Spanish-speaking voters has enabled the GOP to remain competitive. Shalala, one of the most experienced first-time congressional candidates, won a competitive Democratic primary by less than 5 percentage points and has faced criticism from liberal Democrats and Republicans alike for her tenure leading the University of Miami, when campus janitors went on a hunger strike over low wages and the school acquired Cedars Medical Center. …

“In our view, the Mason-Dixon poll is an outlier,” Shalala spokesperson Mike Hernandez said. “It does not match our internal polls both in terms of what the electorate will be or voter intention.”

That poll was published almost two weeks ago. It’s the only poll listed in RCP’s aggregation, so it’s tough to tell whether it’s an outlier or not. Mason-Dixon has a pretty good reputation, but even the best pollsters can miss the mark sometimes. If it was accurate at that time, however, it portends disaster on its own, let alone after stirring up anti-Castro sentiment in the district.

Democrats may miss an easy lay-up in Florida’s 27th, and maybe do some damage up-ballot as well. Rick Scott has a narrow lead in the latest poll against Bill Nelson for the Senate seat, while Ron DeSantis trails by only one point against Andrew Gillum for governor. Bringing Barbara Lee to south Florida as a campaign surrogate might just anger enough voters to make the difference in all three races. All of which prompts this question: what was Nancy Pelosi thinking?