Politics

“We Didn’t Have a Ground Game”

A Democratic congresswoman on why she lost her seat.

Donna Shalala at a hearing.
Rep. Donna Shalala on Capitol Hill on Dec. 17, 2019. Andrew Harnik/Getty Images

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Congresswoman Donna Shalala has had a lot of different jobs. For the past couple of years, Shalala has represented Florida in Congress. Before that, she ran the Clinton Foundation, led three different universities, and spent eight years as the secretary of health and human services under Bill Clinton—the longest tenure on record, as far as I can tell. Shalala lost her seat this year. She’s one of 11 House Democrats who will be replaced by their Republican challengers come January, leaving Speaker Nancy Pelosi with a dwindling majority heading into a Joe Biden presidency.

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Shalala’s seat had been reliably Republican for years before she won it, but plenty of people assumed she was safe in 2020. Shalala herself felt a little differently. “I felt vulnerable, very vulnerable, because it was a presidential year, and Trump was going to do very well in my district,” she said. “There was going to be a huge Republican turnout. They turned out 85 percent of their voters, and Democrats turned out only 75 percent of their voters. And that made the difference.” On Tuesday’s episode of What Next, I spoke with Shalala about her loss and what Democrats can learn from it. Our conversation has been edited and condensed for clarity.

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Mary Harris: Your seat was supposed to be relatively safe. 

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Donna Shalala: Yeah, I know, but I didn’t trust the polls because I could feel that there was going to be a real challenge in my district. I saw the attack ads, but I also heard from people as I walk through Little Havana, for example. I was called communist once in the primary, but now it became a consistent theme.

What do you make of the fact that we’re a few weeks out from the election and we seem to have this split ticket situation where Joe Biden won, but down ballot, a number of representatives and people, even at the state level, did not gain ground when that was the argument for Joe Biden to be top of the ticket a few months back.

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I think that if we had run against a reasonable Republican, we would have gotten beaten. Donald Trump so turned off people that were Republicans that they voted for Joe Biden. But they then straight-party voted after that. And the turnout by Republicans cut both ways. It helped Joe Biden with suburban women, for example, and others that were just turned off by Trump, but it didn’t help the down ballot.

Republicans registered a huge number of voters, probably a quarter of a million voters. In the last 60 days, they registered 5,000 in my district alone. Even though people had poured millions into Florida, we just never got the kind of sophisticated ground game that they put together. So we learned a lot of the process. We simply have a lot of work to do.

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I’m curious how you saw your time in the Clinton administration when you were running for office the first time around. Did you see that experience as an asset, or did you feel the weight of folks reassessing Bill Clinton’s time in office while you were running?

I didn’t get attacked on my role in the Clinton administration. I argued that I knew more about the policies and about implementation and that I would hit the ground running because of my vast experience. So no one came up and attacked me on welfare reform, for example.

But you did have this primary experience where you were attacked from the left and then once you were running, you were attacked from the right. You just must have felt squeezed.

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I didn’t like it much, and it didn’t make any sense. On the one hand, the left attacked me for being a corporate Democrat, and on the other hand, the right attacked me for being a socialist. I mean, you can’t have both. It was funnier than anything else.

Let’s talk a little bit about how the election went this time around. Did it feel like you were rehashing the race from two years ago, because you were running against the same opponent this time this Republican woman, Maria Elvira Salazar?

No, it was a completely different set of issues because the president had mismanaged COVID. Our economy, when I ran before, was in much better shape. It was a disaster now, because I represent a tourist area. I represent the cruise lines, the hotels on Miami Beach, the restaurants. It was a completely different race in terms of issues.

What did that mean when you went out and spoke to people? Did you feel like those issues were resonating with the voters?

I felt like the governor and the president’s mismanagement of COVID was biting. But I also felt the pressure on the economy because once people ran out of their unemployment and their savings, they just wanted the economy open at any cost.

So you sensed a kind of desperation in your constituents. People needed money.

The other thing that happened was in the previous race, my opponent was opposed to Obamacare and thought it should be abolished. In this race, she saw the light and said she wouldn’t abolish Obamacare unless there was a real alternative, because I have the largest enrollment of Obamacare in the country in any congressional district. So she switched her position on that, though she still supported the court case to destroy Obamacare. Protected preexisting conditions, getting our arms around COVID- 19, getting the economy open again—these were the great issues of the campaign. And then add a layer on that about socialism.

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You’ve mentioned that the Republicans just had a really strong ground game. You said they registered 5,000 people in there last month. Could you compare the ground game the Democrats had in Florida versus the Republicans? 

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We didn’t have a ground game.

Nothing? 

Because of COVID, we did not have a ground game. We did put packets on people’s doors, but we did not go out and knock on doors and talk to people. We did try to pull voters. We called them. We texted them. We followed up when they didn’t vote, but we had nowhere near the ground game that the Republicans had.

You’ve said in the past that you enjoy fighting, politically. I just wonder if you wish you’d fought harder in some particular way and what that would have looked like in your district.

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I think we could have gone harder against the socialism argument. After all, we passed major bills to oppose the Maduro regime in the House,  but that didn’t have the effect of a president that was coming into the district over and over again. We all would have had to have a very hard message on socialism and communism. It was a kind of McCarthyist attack.

I wonder if you think the Democratic Party could have done more to fight against this socialism bugaboo.

When they were pounding the entire Democratic Party, whether it was the “Squad” or Nancy Pelosi, it was hard to get a bite on it. We could keep saying, of course, we’re not socialists. And I kept saying I’ve created more jobs to this community than anyone running for office. Of course, I’m not a socialist. I think we needed some validators. I wish I had gotten Madeleine Albright down here, who’s beloved in the Cuban community and has spent her career fighting fascism and socialism and communism, and used her as a validator. We pounded them on COVID, and they pounded us that socialism.

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After the election, there was this rehashing of what the outcome meant, and some people said what you’re saying, which is socialism really dragged everyone down along with things like “defund the police.” And one criticism that was raised by Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez was the Democrats didn’t have a good enough ground game, which you’ve said, but then also online that it wasn’t—

Oh, we had a very sophisticated ground game online. Most of us are pretty sophisticated in the online efforts. But we couldn’t overcome Donald Trump repeatedly coming down to Miami-Dade and working the Cuban, Venezuelan, and Nicaraguan communities. I don’t know what happened in the rest of the country, and I can’t generalize about that. But I can say that the fact that for four years they worked on those communities, and they added a lot more voters, that that made a difference.

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Now that Donald Trump seems to have lost office, do you feel like that’s going to make the Democrats jobs easier?

A little, but not much, because he’s still going to be around. We still have to build our registration and our ground game, but more than anything else, we have to deliver for the people in our communities. Joe Biden is going to need a two-year strategy or we’re going to lose the House of Representatives.

In your district, so much of the conversation was about the Latino vote and why it didn’t break more for Biden, and you’ve said Joe Biden is going to need a big Latin American strategy moving forward. What do you feel like that looks like?

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The joke about Miami is the great thing about Miami is it’s so close to the United States. The Hispanics in Miami follow the politics of their countries. And you have to understand that we just haven’t had a Latin American policy in a long time. Working to make lives better in Latin America is very important. We had a lot more democracy until Donald Trump came to office, and we’ve just got a lot of work to do on a real Latin American policy. That will help us, but we also have to work on immigration policy, which got pushed down because of COVID.

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I wonder what a big Latin American strategy means for a candidate like you, because you took so much fire from your opponent for not speaking Spanish and, you know, just lots of she’s not one of us kind of messaging.

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That’s absolutely a racist statement. I know that didn’t work. It didn’t have anything to do with that.

I’m just trying to characterize what she said in her messaging to you, about you.

But it was all about socialism. At the end of the day, she didn’t know anything about the policies, it was all about socialism—every time she’d pivot to accusing me of being a socialist. I’m not sure it was as much her as that overwhelming registration. Look, I only lost by 2 percent, so it wasn’t like she ran over me.

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I think of you as someone who’s OK being an incrementalist. You’ve talked about how while in the Clinton administration the big health care reform wasn’t passed, you were really proud of passing CHIP, the Children’s Health Insurance Program. 

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Yeah, 7 million kids.

Yeah, exactly. And I wonder if you think in this moment where there’s so much tension in Washington and so much energy with people thinking about, How do we do big things? I just wonder if you think there’s a lesson in what you’ve done in the past for folks who are now in Washington?

We have to do big things now, because the future of the country is at stake. We’ve got to do something big on the environment. We must do a big infrastructure bill to save the economy. What we’ve done so far that they’ve called stimulus simply has kept people alive. But now we have to turn and really stimulate the economy. There are times when you do incremental steps to improve things, and there are times when you take giant steps. Now is the time to take a giant step. We’ve got to close the disparities gap in health care. So we’ve got to expand the Affordable Care Act and make it more affordable. We’ve got to have a big environmental bill, because everything’s at stake there and we must stimulate the economy. And for God’s sakes, we’ve got to do something about immigration. We cannot be taking kids away from their parents, and then losing them.

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So there are times—Lyndon Johnson, for example, Franklin Roosevelt—when you take giant steps, and there are times when you compromise and you just get the heads of people in a better situation. At the end of the Clinton administration, they were less poor people than there had ever been in the United States and kids were healthier than they had ever been because we immunized every kid and because we had the children’s health insurance plan. That’s not a bad legacy. So you may call it incrementalism, but boy, where we in good shape at the end of that administration.

What advice would you give to the next person, the next Democrat, to run for the seat you’ve been in?

First of all, they’re going to redistrict, so it’s going to be a different district, probably a little more Democratic. But my personal advice to them is: If you don’t like being attacked, don’t run. You’ve got to have backbone in this business.

You don’t sound like you’re done to me.

I’m never done. I’m never done, are you kidding me? I’ve never done. First of all, in Congress was the most fun I’ve had in years. I love policy work.

I feel like you’re the one person who’s said that. 

Yeah, maybe, but I loved it, I really enjoyed it. I enjoyed my colleagues on both sides of the aisle. Half my bills were bipartisan. I just had a ball. Look, I had none of the big responsibilities that I’ve had in the last 30 years, leading institutions. I could focus on policy and on my district and on helping people. I could really relate to the people in my community and do everything I could to help them. So was just a lot of fun.

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