Wasserman Schultz's Opponent Sees Gain From DNC Uproar

Wasserman Schultz's Opponent Sees Gain From DNC Uproar
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Debbie Wasserman Schultz’s resignation from the Democratic National Committee last week may have created a new opening for an intra-party challenger just a month before she faces the first competitive primary election in her congressional career.

Wasserman Schultz must fend off well-funded law professor Tim Canova, an ardent Bernie Sanders supporter who has raised millions of dollars for his campaign on the back of an endorsement from Sanders and frustration over the Florida congresswoman’s tenure at the DNC. Hundreds of thousands of dollars poured into Canova’s campaign in the days following Wasserman Schultz’s resignation from the DNC chairmanship, and he argues he’s laid the groundwork for a competitive challenge to the six-term legislator.

But supporters of the incumbent, along with unaffiliated Florida strategists, argue her chaotic and unceremonious departure from the DNC won’t tip the scales against her in next month’s primary.

“What’s happening at the national level … has little to no impact on her race. That district is so in tune with Debbie Wassermann Schultz, she’s loved in her community,” said Christian Ulvert, a Florida-based Democratic strategist who supports the lawmaker but is not affiliated with her campaign. “It’s politics, it’s campaign season, so it’s not surprising Tim Canova is trying to add fuel to the fire, but in my opinion, when you look at her district, there’s no fire. He’s trying to make something of nothing.”

Ulvert and several other Florida insiders assert that Wasserman Schultz has strong ties to the community she’s represented in the House since 2005 – and in the state legislature since 1993 – and that her constituents view her congressional work and national political work separately.

Canova, on the other hand, argues the two are directly related. In an interview with RealClearPolitics, he said he started thinking about a run for office last summer after she approved fast-tracking the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade deal -- which has yet to come up for a vote in Congress -- and said he sees a pattern of her supporting corporate interests over her constituents. Canova said the more than $2 million he’s raised is an indictment of her leadership nationally, but is also directly related to her support back home.  

“She’s got one of the worst voting records of anyone in Congress,” the challenger said. “She has the highest absentee rate of any member of the Florida delegation except Marco Rubio, and last year she introduced all of five bills and not one of them got a hearing or a vote in committee. Does that sound like somebody that’s working hard for her constituents?"

Canova was little known in the district – and completely unknown nationally – when he launched his primary bid last year, but quickly garnered significant attention thanks to the Sanders endorsement several months ago. While his critics argue that he’s nationalizing a local race, Canova says he’s also put in the legwork in the district, including through a direct-mail campaign, having volunteers knock on doors and running local television and radio advertisements.

It’s not just about her leadership at the DNC, he insists. Along with his opponent’s support for the trade agreement, Canova cited her opposition to new rules to rein in payday lenders – something she has since switched positions on – as well as her opposition to medical marijuana and support for privatized prisons as issues they disagree on. He criticized her as not doing enough to create jobs or infrastructure investments in South Florida. 

“There’s no doubt our campaign is resonating,” he said. “We’re getting our message out there. Meanwhile, what is she doing with her name? She’s got great name recognition and all she’s managed to do is sully her name in the last few weeks."

A poll of likely primary voters released Sunday by the Canova campaign showed him down by eight percentage points with 16 percent undecided nearly four weeks out from Election Day. The poll showed Wasserman Schultz with a 52 percent favorability rating and 35 percent unfavorable, while it showed Canova with 32 percent favorable and 8 percent unfavorable, though 60 percent of voters had no opinion or had never heard of him.

While Canova knocked his opponent for “chasing the spotlight” and spending significant time outside the district, Wasserman Schultz’s campaign pointed to dozens of district events she has participated in this year as evidence that she’s taking the election seriously.  Ryan Banfill, a spokesman for the congresswoman, pointed to nearly two dozen events since May, including vigils after the Orlando nightclub shooting, a women’s health event with Planned Parenthood, seminars on fraud safety for senior citizens and an immigration naturalization ceremony as examples of her activity back home.

“As a rule, the Congresswoman takes every race seriously. This race is no different,” Banfill said in an email. “Congresswoman Wasserman Schultz is an integral part of Florida’s 23rd District. Through her years of service, she has built a deep well of trust and good will with the voters. The voters know her like she’s part of their families. They trust her to be their voice in Washington.”

Even some of Canova’s supporters agree that she indeed has a deep well of support in the area. Michael Calderin, a Broward County resident who sits on the board of the Democratic Progressive Caucus of Florida and backs Canova in the primary, said Wasserman Schultz has strong support and is a “reliable Democratic vote” in Congress. Still, he said he thinks Canova has a shot next month.

“They have a groundswell of support like I haven’t seen for a congressional race in South Florida before,” Calderin said, pointing to the campaign’s four offices and grassroots outreach efforts. “They are working harder then I’ve seen in a long time."

Yet some of Wasserman Schultz’s supporters disagree with the notion that her opponent has a strong ground game. Cynthia Busch, the chair of the Broward County Democratic Party personally supports Wasserman Schultz, though the party itself is neutral in the primary. She said the day before she left for the Democratic Convention in Philadelphia, she got a visit at home from a Canova volunteer – who was from Iowa, not Florida.

“I don’t see that as an effective campaign when he’s not galvanizing community people to come out and campaign for him in any effective way,” she said.

Allison Tant, the chair of the Florida Democratic Party, told RCP she doesn’t “think there’s any way” Wasserman Schultz loses the primary. She said the congresswoman told her there had been people approaching her in Philadelphia in the days after her DNC resignation pledging to help her re-election campaign.

“There's nobody who works harder than Debbie Wasserman Schultz,” Tant said.

The race is likely to get significant attention in the coming month, as the presidential races settle into a post-convention pattern and the Aug. 30 primary date approaches. Sanders hinted last week that he might campaign for Canova in Florida and Vice President Joe Biden is hosting a fundraiser for Wasserman Schultz on Friday.

Yet even the massive support Canova has seen from Sanders supporters and those frustrated by Wasserman Schultz’s role at the DNC may not be enough to bring him across the finish line four weeks from now. Clinton defeated Sanders in the district with more than two-thirds of the vote in March. Busch, the Broward County party chair, pointed out that she was a Sanders delegate at last week’s convention, but backs Wasserman Schultz.

“There are definitely people supporting Senator Sanders who are also supporting Debbie Wasserman Schultz for re-election in the district,” Busch said. “There is some misunderstanding about that. Debbie has a lot friends from across the political spectrum."

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James Arkin is a congressional reporter for RealClearPolitics. He can be reached at jarkin@realclearpolitics.com. Follow him on Twitter @JamesArkin.

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