Politics

Wasserman Schultz, other South Florida Democrats face scant primary opposition in 2018

U.S. Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz, D-Weston, does not face a Democratic primary in 2018 after a multi-million dollar challenge from law professor Tim Canova in 2016.
U.S. Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz, D-Weston, does not face a Democratic primary in 2018 after a multi-million dollar challenge from law professor Tim Canova in 2016. Getty Images

Two years ago, South Florida was home to the last vestiges of Bernie Sanders' presidential campaign.

Donors from around the country poured millions into Tim Canova's primary challenge against Democratic U.S. Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz, upset with her leadership of the Democratic National Committee and supposed favoritism toward Hillary Clinton over Sanders.

And Randal Hill, a former University of Miami wide receiver, waged a serious primary challenge against Rep. Frederica Wilson, arguing that the longtime elected official didn't do enough in Washington for her constituents.

But in 2018, none of the five Democrats who represent South Florida in Congress face serious primary challengers. Wasserman Schultz didn't get a primary challenger after Canova decided to run as an independent. Wilson faces a candidate who lives in California and won 246 votes after running for an open congressional seat on the West Coast last year. Reps. Ted Deutch and Alcee Hastings face little-known Democratic challengers, while Rep. Lois Frankel is already assured another term in Congress after no one filed to run against her.

The appetite to challenge South Florida Democrats from within the party is nonexistent in this election cycle, even though some Miami-Dade and Broward Democrats in Congress took votes or stances over the past 18 months that have angered some on the left, such as Wasserman Schultz's and Deutch's support for moving the U.S. Embassy in Israel to Jerusalem and Hastings' recent vote in favor of a bill that eases regulations on big banks.

"Democrats are focusing their attention on how we can get good people in office who can fight against the bad policies coming out of D.C. and coming out of local governments," said state Rep. Shevrin Jones, whose district encompasses portions of Wasserman Schultz's and Wilson's congressional districts. "What you have is individuals who ... aren't fighting each other but focusing our attention on the people who are there."

There are competitive Democratic primaries for open seats, such as retiring Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen's seat and the Florida governor's race.

All five incumbent congressional Democrats are heavily favored to win reelection, and Wasserman Schultz and Wilson managed to notch double-digit primary wins last cycle despite the presence of challengers who spent money on advertising and tried to poke holes in their records. Running a Sanders-style campaign is an uphill climb in South Florida, where Clinton's margin of victory in Miami-Dade and Broward outpaced her performance in other parts of the state.

"There are a number of other Democratic candidates turning independent around the country for the same reasons I did," Canova said in an email. "They are stifled in closed Democratic primaries and there’s an enormous wave of voters of all ages going independent, a result of decades of failure and corruption by the two main parties."

Canova has raised $209,000 this cycle and only has about $10,000 left to spend after raising $3.8 million last cycle.

Wasserman Schultz's campaign said her work in Washington is what makes her popular back home.

“The people who know Congresswoman Wasserman Schultz the most are the people who like her the best," Wasserman Schultz campaign spokesperson Kevin Gerson said in a statement. "When you combine the time she spends in her community with the results she gets in Washington as a senior member of the Appropriations Committee, her constituents want her to keep fighting for them.”

Ricardo De La Fuente, the son of perennial candidate Rocky De La Fuente, is running against Wilson because "there is a lot of Latinos in the district and no one was challenging the incumbent." He's still living in California, but said he's looking to move to Morningside in Miami soon to campaign against Wilson — one of Congress' most liberal members, who had a public feud with President Donald Trump and White House chief of staff John Kelly last year — as a young and moderate voice. De La Fuente also considered running against Wasserman Schultz but decided to run against Wilson because she was unopposed.

Wilson, who worked as an elementary school principal in her North Dade district before entering elected office in 1992, laughed when told her primary challenger lives in California.

"I've never heard of him, Wilson said. "I just know I can't see him coming to District 24 to campaign."

De La Fuente's bid from California is legal under the Constitution, which says a congressional candidate must be a resident of the state where they are running at the time of the general election. He must establish Florida residency by November, if he were to win the August primary.

The only Democratic member of Congress to lose a primary in recent years in Florida was Jacksonville Rep. Corrine Brown in 2016, though she was under federal indictment at the time. Former Rep. Alan Grayson is challenging Democratic Rep. Darren Soto for his old Orlando-area seat this year, though no Democrats of note have stepped up to back Grayson's primary challenge. And former Jacksonville mayor Alvin Brown is trying to unseat Rep. Al Lawson in a North Florida seat after Lawson defeated Brown two years ago.

Sen. Bill Nelson's long-shot Democratic primary challenger dropped out before the filing deadline.

"There was a time that I don't believe the party was listening to anyone but now they do give a damn," Jones said. "The message has clearly been how we as a party need to ensure that ... we support our incumbents and put ego aside."

Alex Daugherty: 202-383-6049, @alextdaugherty
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