Florida Representative Donna E. Shalala, the Democratic first-term member of Congress and former Secretary of Health and Human Services in the Clinton administration, lost her campaign for re-election on Tuesday.
Shalala’s loss to Maria Elvira Salazar – a Republican and former television journalist who compared Democratic policy proposals to leftist oppression in countries like Cuba while campaigning in the Miami district – was a remarkable upset for House Democrats. While Democrats retained control of Parliament, they have so far failed to live up to expectations that they would gain an even stronger majority there.
Political forecasters such as The Cook Political Report had predicted that it was “likely” that Shalala would win. She lost 48.6% to 51.3%.
In the last weeks of the campaign, Shalala, 79, and Salazar, 58, exchanged attack ads demonstrating the significance of the elections for health care.
“Salazar supports Trump, who wants to repeal the Affordable Care Act and remove coverage for pre-existing health problems,” warned an advertisement from Shalala.
Salazar pointed to Shalala’s failure to disclose stock transactions in violation of federal law. She also accused the representative, who was appointed to the federal commission overseeing the distribution of coronavirus relief to small businesses, that she was not doing enough for her constituents during the pandemic.
Shalala came to Congress in 2018 to help Democrats reclaim the House of Representatives on promises to defend the Affordable Care Act and popular consumer protections for people with pre-existing conditions.
But 2020 will be a completely different election year. A political rematch after Shalala defeated Salazar two years ago, this election seemed to revolve around issues beyond healthcare coverage and affordability.
According to initial reports, Shalala was not the only victim of a strong showing by Republicans in the Miami-Dade area of South Florida. Another first-term Democratic congressman representing part of Miami-Dade County, Rep. Debbie Mucarsel-Powell, also lost. Former Vice President Joe Biden followed Hillary Clinton there in 2016 when she won the district by nearly 20 points.
Shalala first won the seat after it was vacated by Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, a retired Republican who owned it for 30 years, including when her district moved to Clinton in 2016.
At the time it was seen as a vulnerability that Shalala didn’t speak Spanish while trying to represent a heavily Latino district. Salazar, who worked for the Spanish-language news channel Univision, often campaigned in Spanish.
During her two years in Congress, Shalala served on the House Committee on Education and Labor and the Subcommittee on Health Issues, as well as the House Rules Committee – a mark of her favor with Democratic leaders.
After the Rules Committee held a hearing on a ‘Medicare for All’ proposal in 2019, Shalala referred to it as ‘the first step in exchanging ideas on how to move towards universal health coverage’. But she also voiced concern that Medicare is “not as good” as many private insurance plans and that some voters would rather keep their plans.
“Why should we spend money when people have good private health insurance?” she told C-SPAN. “We have to cover those who don’t have coverage now.”
When President Bill Clinton named Shalala the nation’s top health and human resources officer in 1993, she was seen as a controversial choice, too liberal for some. As chancellor of the University of Wisconsin at Madison, she had encouraged the school to adopt a speech code designed to limit hate speech, a move that was later declared unconstitutional by federal court.
Shalala served as public health secretary until 2001 and became president of the University of Miami until 2015 and then head of the Clinton Foundation until 2017.