Debbie Wasserman Schultz challenger Tim Canova raises $1 million

Democratic congressional candidate Tim Canova
Democratic congressional candidate Tim Canova AP

Tim Canova says he has raised $1 million in his Democratic primary battle against U.S. Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz, a sign that she faces her first election battle in more than two decades for the South Florida seat.

Canova’s campaign announced hitting that milestone on Friday.

His campaign said that he had raised $1,017,632.57 since starting about four months ago. The average contribution was $18.55, and 98 percent were from donors who gave less than $200, according to his campaign.

“We are proud that our campaign is powered by average people like teachers, nurses, small business owners, union members, students and seniors,” Canova said in a press release. “We truly are a grassroots movement that will restore a voice in our democracy to everyday people and demand accountability from our leaders.”

Wasserman Schultz remains ahead of Canova, a Nova Southeastern University law professor, in fundraising. She raised $1.8 million through March — her campaign won’t reveal how much she has raised since that time. Their next campaign reports are due to the Federal Election Commission July 15.

Canova’s surprisingly strong fundraising for a first-time candidate has forced Wasserman Schultz to campaign more in earnest than she has in past reelection cycles, when she easily swatted away long-shot Republican candidates in the liberal district that stretches from her Weston home into Miami-Dade.

Wasserman Schultz last faced a true election battle in 1992, when she ran in a Democratic primary for the state House and won. She easily won her first congressional race in 2004, facing only a Republican opponent. In 2011, President Barack Obama tapped her as Democratic National Committee chair.

Active Democrats in Broward say that despite her national position, she has remained visible in her district for years, showing up at Democratic club events and other gatherings. Her campaign says she has attended 18 or so club events in the past year.

But she appears to be working hard to put herself in front of voters as she faces a viable challenger. In the past few weeks, she has spoken at the Miramar Pembroke Pines chamber breakfast on Equal Pay Day, hosted a concert for a Jewish event at Century Village in Pembroke Pines and spent hours at Broward College on the day Democrats were electing delegates to the national convention.

She has brought in the big guns this time: Obama endorsed her and, in June, Vice President Joe Biden will headline a fundraiser for her hosted by developer Stephen Bittel in Coconut Grove.

Canova too has been making the rounds to similar events trying to increase his name recognition.

Wasserman Schultz has typically been attacked by Republicans who decry her as a liberal, but this time her opponent says she isn’t liberal enough. He attacks her for taking money from corporations and PACs and opposing Florida’s medical marijuana initiative, which was favored by 58 percent of voters, two points shy of passage in 2014.

“Debbie is going to be feeling the Bern,” Canova said at a rally in Miami in March before Florida’s presidential primary. “We are running with Bernie [Sanders] on Bernie’s agenda: cleaning up our politics, not seeking any corporate money, all grassroots small donations. We are not playing the corporate game at all.”

Hillary Clinton beat Sanders in a rout in the district and the state.

To longtime Democratic voters, Wasserman Schultz — they call her “Debbie” — is the young woman who was once U.S. Rep. Peter Deutsch’s gopher before she filled his seat and later catapulted to the national stage.

“She is so well known and has such a national presence that most people are very proud of her — everybody knows her,” said Elaine Schwartz, a former state representative and chairwoman of the Hills Democratic Club in Hollywood who plans to vote for her.

However, Schwartz said she has heard from a few Democrats in the neighborhood who are unhappy with Wasserman Schultz either because of her leadership at the DNC or Obama’s relationship with Israel.

There has been no public polling in the race, so it’s difficult to assess Canova’s chances, although he remains the underdog.

Wasserman Schultz has defended her record as a progressive in emails to donors.

“I’ve been an unapologetic, rock-ribbed progressive Democrat throughout my career,” she wrote on May 5. “Only lately, I have opponents and a Super PAC trying to twist the truth and cast doubt on my progressive credentials.”

That’s a reference to an attack by Allied Progress which isn’t actually a Super PAC — it is a project of a 501c3, New Venture Fund. Allied Progress has attacked Wasserman Schultz on TV and billboards for her support for Florida’s payday loan law, which has been criticized by hundreds of consumer and civil rights groups who say it traps the poor in debt. Allied Progress has spent $150,000 attacking Wasserman Schultz for her stance on payday loans.

Canova has attacked her for taking money from PACs. Wasserman Schultz has received about $250,000 from PACs — the bulk of that from business groups, according to the Center for Responsive Politics. Canova has received $1,000 from labor PACs.

District 23 is a safe Democratic seat so the main contest is the primary. On the Republican side, pro-Israel activist Joe Kaufman raised about $50,000 and lawyer Marty Feigenbaum raised about $5,000.