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Why some down-ballot Democrats struggled to hold their seats

While President-elect Joe Biden won a decisive victory in the 2020 election, down-ballot candidates from across the country struggled to hold the seats they won in 2018. Rep. Donna Shalala, a Florida Democrat who lost her race against Maria Elvira Salazar, joins Judy Woodruff to discuss why Republicans had success in gaining seats.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    While president-elect Joe Biden won a decisive victory in this year's presidential election, down-ballot Democrats across the country struggled to hold onto seats they narrowly won in 2018.

    Representative Donna Shalala, a Democrat from South Florida, was among those who lost. And she joins me now.

    Congresswoman Shalala, thanks so much for joining us.

    You were one of almost a dozen first-term Democrats who were defeated. What happened? And how much of it was Republicans targeting Latino voters?

  • Rep. Donna Shalala, D-Fla.:

    Well, first of all, my district is 70 percent Latino. So, yes, Republicans have — did target Latino voters, but not just for this election. They have been doing it for four years.

    And in an off-year election, I was able to get elected. This year, with the presidential, with Donald Trump running so strongly here in Florida, it did make a difference. They had a tremendous turnout. They had a ground game that was unbelievable. They turned out 85 percent of their voters down here.

    We turned out 75 percent. I lost by 2 percent. That made a difference, and then, of course, what everybody is talking about, the socialist attacks. But it was a combination of things.

    Miami is very complex, Miami politics. It's Nicaraguans and Venezuelans and Cubans. And they keep their ties to their countries. They're very different from other Latinos in other parts of the country.

    Down here, we say Hispanics, and the politics are complex, but Trump and his administration worked them for four years, and so overcoming that took a lot more than we had.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Is there a lesson then for Democrats? Because it wasn't only the targeting of the Latino vote. It was also the charge that Democrats were socialists, even communists.

    What happened when you — you had that thrown at you, and do you think there's a better way to respond to it?

  • Rep. Donna Shalala:

    Well, of course there's a better way to respond, because whatever we did, did not work as well.

    In my first election, I laughed it off because I had created so many jobs in the community, and I was clearly a capitalist. I'm a centrist. I fit right into this district.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    If that's the case, then what could Democrats be saying to respond to that?

  • Rep. Donna Shalala:

    Well, we can demonstrate over and over again that we're the party that's going to rebuild the economy, that we're the party that's going to create fair jobs.

    Listen, we passed a $15-an-hour resolution here in the state, and thousands of — millions of people voted for it.

    So, fair wages, rebuilding the economy, getting control of COVID, that's what Joe Biden will be doing in the next few months. And we will be able to demonstrate that we're the party of jobs, we're the party of good jobs, of fair jobs.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    And do you think that's an argument that will work? Coming up in 2022, there's already concern about how Democrats will do in the House of Representatives, defending seats that they now hold.

    What lesson should Democrats learn from this year?

  • Rep. Donna Shalala:

    That we have to have a ground game, that we have to go back to some old-fashioned politics, go door to door.

    We avoided going door to door because of COVID. We will be back out there building precinct by precinct, making sure we dominate social media, and that our messages are very clear. But we will have a record to run on, and we will be able — I believe we will be able to hold the House and regain some of the seats, including my district.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Do you think Democrats were too cautious in avoiding going door to door, meeting people directly, as President Trump and the Republicans did?

  • Donna Shalala:

    You know, I can't say that, because we followed the science. We were being careful for the people in our community.

    Do I wish we had had more of a ground game? Yes, there's no question about it. But the reason we lost had a lot to do with turnoff — turnout in our communities, huge turnouts by Republicans, energized to vote with Donald Trump, and down-ballot demonstrates that. It wasn't just message.

    It was very complex, and every district is different.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    And do you have a sense, finally, Congresswoman Shalala, of how hard it's going to be for Joe Biden to govern with this kind of enthusiasm out there for Donald Trump this year?

  • Donna Shalala:

    Sure, it's going to be difficulty, particularly if we don't regain some control over the Senate.

    The Senate has just stopped working, waiting for Donald Trump to put thumbs up before they will pass anything. So, yes, it will be difficult, but Joe Biden has a world-class economics team. We're going to bring the economy back.

    And, by the way, I'm one of these people that think people are wrong that there's going to be a large group of people that aren't going to take up the vaccine. Economics trumps, business trumps everything. And at the end of the day, people want their jobs back, and they're going to run and get that vaccine as fast as they can to get immunized, so that they can go back to work, and none of this nonsense that there are large groups of people that aren't going to do it.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Congresswoman Donna Shalala, joining us tonight on the "NewsHour," thank you very much.

  • Donna Shalala:

    You're welcome.

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