DNC scandal, serious opponent make for hard race for Wasserman Schultz

Debbie Wasserman Schultz at a Hillary Clinton campaign appearance at Florida International University on July 23.
Debbie Wasserman Schultz at a Hillary Clinton campaign appearance at Florida International University on July 23. Miami Herald

For the first time in her 24 years in politics, U.S. Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz is running scared.

Even before her tenure as leader of the Democratic National Committee unraveled dramatically at the beginning of last week’s Democratic convention in Philadelphia, Wasserman Schultz knew that for the first time in her political career, she was facing a serious primary challenger. Tim Canova, a Nova Southeastern University law professor and campaign novice, has become something of a regular on national television and an expert fundraiser.

In response, Wasserman Schultz kicked her campaign into high gear: She sought help from President Barack Obama and Vice President Joe Biden. She raised millions of dollars. She showed up at Democratic clubs to ensure face time with super voters. She held roundtables on gun violence, media events on Zika prevention and forums with Venezuelan Americans.

Now, with less than a month to go before the Aug. 30 primary, the Weston Democrat also has to contend with the fallout of the WikiLeaks DNC scandal. She was forced to step down as DNC chair July 24 after thousands of leaked emails showed the committee favored Hillary Clinton over Bernie Sanders.

The past two weeks have seen Wasserman Schultz uncharacteristically shunning the limelight and keeping a low profile in her district. (Her spokesman, Ryan Banfill, said she took a few days off with her family after the convention and was expected to return to the district Wednesday.)

▪ After her disastrous Florida delegation breakfast in Philadelphia on July 25 where she was booed, she stayed largely out of the spotlight and only appeared in friendly venues, such as a “thank you” gathering and an event organized by a Jewish group.

▪ Her campaign spokesman had no public events to announce Monday — four weeks from Election Day — and said that Wasserman Schultz wouldn’t appear at the Miramar Pembroke Pines Regional Chamber of Commerce candidate forum on Tuesday night, which Canova attended. That’s the type of organization she has spoken to in the past. The only campaign events her campaign revealed were private: a fundraiser with Biden on Aug. 5 and a meeting with the Miami Herald editorial board. The first announcement about an upcoming public event in her district came from her congressional office on Wednesday afternoon, when it announced that she will hold a town hall on Thursday evening at the Faith Center in Sunrise related to police-community relations along with other public officials and community leaders.

▪ A frequent tweeter, she went silent on Twitter after her DNC downfall. As of Wednesday morning, she hadn’t tweeted from @DWStweets or @RepDWStweets for a week and a half.

▪ She did not attend a forum hosted by immigrant/labor groups Wednesday night in Pembroke Pines. “The immigrant/labor forum is being driven by Canova supporters and is not a neutral event,” Banfill said. “The Congresswoman is not attending.” Canova’s campaign disputes that the forum was driven by his supporters.

Some Canova supporters in the crowd at the Pembroke Pines campus of Florida Technical College wore campaign T-shirts and held signs that read #DNCleaks. Canova and independent Lyle Milstein, who sported an American flag polo shirt, answered mostly loaded questions from moderator and filmmaker Billy Corben, who openly mocked Wasserman Schultz on multiple occasions.

“I wish more candidates were here,” Canova said. “My opponent has never had a challenge.”

Republican candidates Joe Kaufman and Marty Figenbaum did not attend.

Despite the setbacks, Wasserman Schultz remains a strong contender in her district. As a longtime incumbent, she has high name recognition and close relationships with super voters and donors willing to go to bat for her in the next month, and plenty of money in the coffers to rip Canova on TV.

Wasserman Schultz hasn’t faced a primary challenge since 1992, when she won her first race for the state House. She won her first congressional seat in 2004. Since it is a liberal-leaning district, the Democrat who wins the Aug. 30 primary is virtually guaranteed to win the Nov. 8 general election.

Wasserman Schultz and Canova have had polar opposite approaches to their campaigns. While Canova lists events on his campaign website and provides the media with updates on his fundraising and staff hires, Wasserman Schultz’s campaign has operated more in secret — her campaign calls it being “strategic.”

She has been mum about her fundraising until her campaign actually files official finance reports, and won’t comment on internal polls. She raised $3.1 million through June while Canova’s campaign says he raised $2.8 million through July.

Asked why her campaign isn’t divulging much information, Banfill said: “You think we will tell our opponents [our strategy] in the newspaper?”

It’s not unusual for an incumbent to play her campaign closer to the vest while a newcomer shares more information: He needs the attention while she wants to have control over any opportunities he may have to attack her.

But by avoiding any joint appearances, Wasserman Schultz creates the impression that she fears Canova. And that’s contrary to her persona as a politician known for not backing away from a fight.

However, political observers say don’t count her out.

Jim Kane, a longtime Broward-based pollster, says that while Canova’s fundraising makes him competitive, the demographics of the primary voters benefit Wasserman Schultz.

“This is an older demographic,” he said. “Democratic primary voters are more knowledgeable, less influenced by ads. I just don’t see her losing. It could be close — a 10-point difference.”

Some Democratic activists say that Canova — who first moved to Hollywood four years ago — hasn’t put in the years in the trenches. Meanwhile, Wasserman Schultz has fought for gay rights, abortion rights and equal pay for women for decades. He has focused his legal career on calling for Wall Street reform and was named by Sanders to a committee on the Federal Reserve.

In a campaign mailer, Wasserman Schultz makes no mention of Canova, instead focusing her fire on Republicans.

“We must stop Donald Trump from getting anywhere near the White House,” she wrote in a recent mailer. “I am a proud, lifelong Democrat with the courage and conviction to stand up to — and stop — radical Republican attacks on women’s health care, the environment and working families.”

Canova has attacked her for opposing the state’s 2014 medical marijuana amendment, backing Big Sugar, voting to fast track the Trans Pacific Partnership and taking money from big banks.

Interest in his campaign has only escalated in the past couple of weeks.

“People want me to be the main course now,” he said. “It's grueling — I won’t deny it.”

Ryann Greenberg, a Pembroke Pines Democrat who has canvassed for Canova, said she won’t support Wasserman Schultz because of her stance on a privately-funded prison in western Broward. Wasserman Schultz supported the proposal in 2011, but it was never built. Greenberg also agrees with Canova’s stance about getting rid of corporate money in politics.

“I see it every day: People who get corporate money donated and then are beholden to them,” she said.

Canova isn’t well known in the district. His campaign released a summary of an internal poll Sunday that showed that while he lags only eight points behind Wasserman Schultz, 60 percent of the respondents don’t know him. But on Wednesday, the Patriot Majority PAC — which is supporting Wasserman Schultz — released a summary of a poll showing that she has a commanding lead over Canova: 59-26 percent, with 15 percent undecided.

Sanders has helped Canova rake in more money, but the question is whether that will translate to votes, since Clinton beat Sanders by a landslide in the district. Canova says his own polling shows that Sanders has a high favorability rating in the district now.

Banfill says that Wasserman Schultz is ready to defend her record back home.

“Debbie Wasserman Schultz has always played it straight with people in this district, she has always been their voice in Washington for nearly a quarter-century, and will continue to do that,” he said. “That’s the campaign we are going to have here the next 28 days. We are going to show her stellar record versus his non-existent record.”

Miami Herald staff writer Alex Daugherty contributed to this story.