Wasserman Schultz faces million-dollar primary challenger

Greg Nash

Tim Canova wants you to know he didn’t just come out of nowhere to challenge the chairwoman of the Democratic National Committee (DNC) for her House job.

The law professor says it has been years in the making, sparked by multiple phone calls to Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz that weren’t returned.

{mosads}But what makes this David and Goliath story noteworthy, more than the fact that Canova is the Florida congresswoman’s first primary challenger, is that he says he has raised more than $1 million since kicking off his campaign in January.

That total comes despite him being relatively unknown compared to the woman he is challenging.

“His name ID is higher among D.C. reporters than actual voters,” said Ashley Walker, a Florida Democratic strategist who worked on Barack Obama’s presidential campaigns. “My sense is he’s kind of come out of nowhere, not somebody who’s been involved in the community or party or this area.”

But while Canova has not been involved locally, he was an aide to the late Sen. Paul Tsongas (D-Mass.) and says he has volunteered on numerous political campaigns. He also has a history of taking positions on issues that differ from Wasserman Schultz’s.

“I’m not somebody who somehow jumped on the bandwagon recently,” he said in an interview with The Hill. “The stuff I’ve been campaigning on I’ve been writing about and preaching about for decades.”

Now a professor at Nova Southeastern University’s law school in Fort Lauderdale, he has taught international trade law for 20 years and been a vocal opponent of President Obama’s signature trade deal, the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), which has enraged liberals.

This is one of his biggest policy differences with Wasserman Schultz, who was one of 28 House Democrats to support legislation giving Obama fast-track trade authority for the TPP.

That issue propelled him to run against the lawmaker he voted for two years ago.

Canova was lobbying the Florida congressional delegation with Citizens Trade Campaign, a coalition of groups founded in 1992 to fight the North American Free Trade Agreement, to oppose the TPP.

He said the group was unable to get a response from Wasserman Schultz’s office. Her campaign pushed back on his account. “Tim Canova is misleading you,” campaign spokesman Ryan Banfill said Tuesday. “Canova was a member of a group that met late last year with the congresswoman’s office to discuss TPP.”

Canova, 56, said his experience with the trade coalition was enough to push him into politics.

“I never thought I was going to run for political office, so it really came out of a sense of frustration,” he said.

Canova’s bid has gained fuel from the popularity of presidential hopeful Bernie Sanders and the charges that Wasserman Schultz and the DNC are working unfairly to help Hillary Clinton become the party’s presidential nominee. Several progressive groups have called for Wasserman Schultz to resign her DNC post.

Last fall, a public battle erupted when then-DNC Vice Chairwoman Tulsi Gabbard criticized the number of scheduled debates and said Wasserman Schultz revoked her invitation to the first bout. Wasserman Schultz said Gabbard chose not to attend.

Then in February, Gabbard, a House lawmaker from Hawaii, resigned her DNC post to endorse Sanders.

Sanders has not let up from attacks that the party’s primary system is rigged, and Canova said he’s been enjoying support from other disenfranchised Democrats who feel neglected by the party’s establishment.

“Because Wasserman Schultz has been perceived as an obstacle to the Sanders campaign, that has attracted some more attention and support for our campaign,” Canova said.

He says his fundraising haul consists of more than 53,000 donations from 25,000 individuals, averaging less than $20, the majority made online.

For those who know him best, Canova’s plunge into electoral politics was not completely unexpected. His former colleagues and friends describe him as “extremely well-informed and active” and a “true progressive” who frequently discusses politics and policy.

“He’s very passionate and has wanted to be more than sitting on the sidelines,” said Paul Nathanson, who taught at the University of New Mexico School of Law with Canova and has known him for almost 20 years.

“Tim is extremely well-prepared on the policy part, not known as a flash in the pan, and has been working on them for decades,” said James Galbraith, professor at the University of Texas at Austin, who’s also known him for 20 years.

But his closest allies acknowledge the tough odds he faces.

“I’m pleased he took the leap,” Nathanson said. “I’m not sure what shot he has at all, but he seems to have good traction. She’s a powerful incumbent.”

Indeed, even with this influx of cash, Canova still has his work cut out for him, strategists say.

Wasserman Schultz, 49, the state’s first Jewish congresswoman, remains popular in her predominantly Jewish district, which voted for Clinton over Sanders by a more than 2-to-1 margin in the state’s March presidential primary. 

She has raised nearly $1.8 million since the beginning of last year, according to Federal Election Commission filings. In the first fundraising quarter of 2016, she raised about $631,000 and has about $836,000 on hand.

She also has the White House behind her. Obama endorsed her in March and defended her progressive chops, and Vice President Biden will headline a fundraiser for her next month.

So far, Wasserman Schultz has barely engaged with Canova. She has knocked him for receiving the majority of his donations from out of state.

“While her opponent has received 90 percent of his money from outside of Florida, the congresswoman appreciates the outpouring of support she has received across the district,” Banfill said. “These are the people who will decide this race, not out-of-state forces.”

In an MSNBC interview last week, Wasserman Schultz dodged questions about whether she’ll debate Canova. Banfill said discussions over debates are “premature” until candidates qualify for the ballot, which is in late June. But some strategists say she shouldn’t cave to his request.

“It would be a huge sign of weakness to now bow down,” said Kathryn DePalo, a political science professor at Florida International University. “She’s really great at retail politics, and in some ways, she hasn’t forgotten her district.”

Wasserman Schultz will have to simultaneously run for reelection while heading the party’s efforts for the fall elections, but her spokesman pointed to past experiences to show she can easily do both.

“She has been managing both important jobs effectively for the past five years, which included reelecting President Barack Obama and being reelected twice during that time,” Banfill said. “She is a lawmaker and true representative of her district year-round … not just at election time.”

Canova’s nascent campaign hasn’t always been a smooth ride. He was initially prevented from accessing the state Democratic Party’s voter data file — the information is only supposed to be available to incumbents — but he won an exception after the issue hit the news.

Canova claims that while his fundraising and staffing grows, some local and national elected officials are staying behind the scenes and tacitly supporting him.

“When you go against the head of the DNC, it can be a lonely endeavor at times,” Canova said. “As far as putting together a campaign … people are coming out of the woodwork to help me; they’re just not being public about it.”

But Canova says he is optimistic about the three months before the state’s primary.

Political observers say his fundraising and free media give him a boost against a tough incumbent. But the congressional primary is Aug. 30, and with no presidential vote that day, turnout is likely to consist mostly of party regulars and older voters.

This trend ultimately helps Wasserman Schultz, they say.

“He’s getting a lot of attention nationally, and even in Florida in all the papers. Hardly a day goes by that it’s not talked about,” Susan MacManus, a political science professor at University of South Florida, said. “But I don’t think there’s been any solid or compelling evidence to suggest she’s in trouble.

“This is one of those years where anything can happen, but I just always come back to the nature of turnout,” she said.

Tags Barack Obama Bernie Sanders Hillary Clinton Tulsi Gabbard

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