Wasserman Schultz goes down to wire against primary challenger

Greg Nash

Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz, the embattled former chairwoman of the Democratic National Committee (DNC), will seek to survive a serious primary challenge from a liberal rival on Tuesday. 

The primary will cap a tough summer for the Florida Democrat, who decided to resign from the DNC on the eve of the Democratic National Convention, after leaked emails showed that staffers at her organization appeared to be plotting ways to undermine the presidential campaign of Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.). 

Wasserman Schultz took a public beating from the left during the presidential primaries, and was booed at a breakfast meeting of her own state delegation at the Democratic convention.

{mosads}Yet she is considered the favorite to win Tuesday’s primary over law professor Tim Canova, who has sought to take advantage of her national difficulties. 

Wasserman Schultz has deep relationships in her district that go back to 1992, when she first won election to the state legislature. When she was elected to the House in 2004, she became Florida’s first Jewish congresswoman.

Party strategists said loyalty to Wasserman Schultz in the predominantly Jewish district will be tough for Canova to shake.

“It’d be one thing if she wasn’t doing those things and she’d sort of lost touch. But she remains heavily engaged in the district,” said Florida-based Democratic strategist Steve Schale. “She has the kind of relationships with people that only come with being in office for that long.”

Moreover, the district doesn’t appear to be an especially fertile place for an anti-establishment challenger. Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton overwhelmingly won the primary there against Sanders, 68 percent to 31 percent.

Canova has argued that Wasserman Schultz’s troubles from her tenure as DNC chairwoman are getting tiresome for people in the district she’s represented since 2005.

“It’s this stupid drama that follows her around everywhere, and people just want representation at this point,” Canova told The Hill.

Even before the DNC hack, Wasserman Schultz was viewed as a symbol of establishment opposition to Sanders’s candidacy during the Democratic primaries.

The leaked emails served to bolster Sanders supporters’ suspicions that Wasserman Schultz sought to undermine Sanders and help Clinton.

Canova, a political newcomer, has presented his underdog campaign in the mold of Sanders, complete with an impressive fundraising haul of more than $3.5 million, with an average donation of $22, since his bid launched in January.

Despite endorsing Canova and boosting his profile earlier this summer, however, Sanders has been conspicuously absent in the race’s final days.

As recently as last month, Sanders indicated that he might campaign for Canova. But he hasn’t shown up in Florida on behalf of the political upstart, and a Sanders spokesman did not respond to a request for comment.

Canova acknowledged that he hasn’t heard from Sanders’s campaign recently.

He told the left-leaning “The Young Turks” web series on Tuesday that “it is a bit disappointing” that Sanders hasn’t stumped for him.

“We are hoping that the Sanders campaign does still come through, that Bernie comes through, and makes an appearance for us, or at the very least helps us raise some more money during such a critical period down the home stretch,” Canova said

But in an interview with The Hill a few days later, Canova tried to downplay any influence a Sanders appearance would have on helping energize voters to go to the polls.

“At this point, maybe it’ll be a distraction,” Canova said. “We’re going to win this, no matter who comes to town.”

Wasserman Schultz, meanwhile, has recruited a number of high-profile Democrats to campaign with her in the Miami-area district, including Clinton, Vice President Biden, former Rep. Gabby Giffords (Ariz.) and House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (Calif.).

A spokesman for Wasserman Schultz declined to make the congresswoman available for an interview.

Recent polls have shown Wasserman Schultz well ahead of Canova. A South Florida Sun Sentinel/Florida Atlantic University poll released last week found Wasserman Schultz with a 10-point lead and higher favorability ratings among Democratic voters than Canova. An internal poll released by Canova’s campaign late last month showed him behind by 8 points.

Multiple Florida politics watchers agreed that Canova didn’t capitalize on the controversy surrounding Wasserman Schultz’s resignation from the DNC as aggressively as he could have during the sole primary debate this month.

During the debate, Wasserman Schultz condemned an email that showed DNC staffers discussing whether to go after Sanders’s religion, saying she never would have approved it. 

Canova highlighted another email in the hack that showed Wasserman Schultz complaining to MSNBC about negative coverage, suggesting she wasn’t entirely in support of free speech. But later in the debate, Canova said he agreed with Wasserman Schultz that the emails weren’t an issue most important to voters.

“This was a prime opportunity to jump on the negative attention going to Wasserman Schultz after she resigned as party chair. But Canova hasn’t been effective in translating that into voter anger,” said Sean Foreman, a political science professor at Barry University.

Canova has also cast a spotlight on apparent shifts in policy positions by Wasserman Schultz on issues such as President Obama’s Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) trade deal and hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, both of which he opposes.

Wasserman Schultz voted for legislation last year to expedite the approval process for the TPP but has said she’s still evaluating the contents of the actual trade deal.

On fracking, Wasserman Schultz said during the debate that she’d be open to it if there were “significant regulations.” Her campaign later released a statement emphasizing that she opposes it. 

A victory by the incumbent on Tuesday might still not be the end for Wasserman Schultz and the Democratic establishment, as the district and national party primaries have exposed internal divisions among liberals.

“I think the party’s trying to figure out who they are,” said Kathryn DePalo, a political science professor at Florida International University who lives in the district. “Even if Wasserman Schultz wins, they’re changing. She’s got a whole chunk of voters who dislike her. And I don’t think it’s just her — I think it’s the whole establishment.”

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