Donna Shalala won the Democratic nomination for the 27th U.S. congressional district in South Florida Tuesday, setting up a key showdown that will determine the fate of a long-held Republican seat.
Shalala, a former secretary of the Department of Health and Human Services and president of the University of Miami, edged past a crowded field with 32 percent of the vote.
She will now try to turn the seat Democratic after more than two decades with it under the control of Republican Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, who is retiring.
“It’s just the beginning,” Shalala said after accepting her victory at her watch party at Little Havana’s Ball and Chain in front of about 100 supporters. “I still have to run hard because so much is at stake. The future of South Florida is at stake.”
Shalala will run against GOP nominee Maria Elvira Salazar in the general election in November. The district includes Miami Beach, Kendall, Key Biscayne and parts of Miami.
Although Ros-Lehtinen has held her seat as a Republican since 1989, it is now a key target for Democrats as they try to take control of the U.S. House of Representatives. Hillary Clinton won the district against President Donald Trump by nearly 20 points in the 2016 presidential election.
Shalala, who served as Health and Human Services secretary for all of the eight years of President Bill Clinton’s tenure in the 1990s, was the frontrunner throughout the race, although she faced a strong challenge from state Rep. David Richardson. He finished with 27.5 percent of the vote.
Miami Beach Commissioner Kristen Rosen Gonzalez finished in third followed by former Knight Foundation Program Director Matt Haggman and former University of Miami Academic Advisor Michael Hepburn.
Richardson, who identified himself as the progressive candidate in the race, attacked Shalala from the left for much of the campaign. He has been an outspoken advocate for the impeachment of Trump and supported Medicare for all.
Shalala, by contrast, has not expressed full support for universal, government-provided healthcare or for the beginning of impeachment proceedings once she is elected.
Supporters at her watch party, including Carmen Remmen, appreciated her hesitancy on the controversial topic involving the president.
“I believe in due process,” she said. “You have to let due process make the decision.”
Others said her experiences both inside and outside government made her the best Democratic candidate and would help her defeat Salazar on Election Day Nov. 6.
“She is the one most capable of affecting change,” Danny Vazquez said. “I feel like she just has that flare, that she won’t be pushed around.”
Supporters of Richardson said they voted for him because they did not think Shalala was progressive enough. But several of them said they will now vote for her to finally turn the district blue. Richardson added that he offered to meet with her to discuss how he can support her through November.
After her victory speech, Shalala said moving forward she’ll emphasize that she has done a lot more for the district than Salazar, a Cuban-American former journalist for Telemundo and CNN español.
Shalala, who helped create the Children’s Health Insurance Program, touted her roles as a cabinet member and community leader while a president of the University of Miami.
“My only question for my opponent is, ‘Have you created jobs? Have you protected our children?’ she said. “I’m going to ask some very hard questions.”