Wasserman Schultz puts DNC meltdown behind, defeats Canova

U.S. Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz arrives at her primary watch party in Sunrise as supporters greet her on Tuesday night.
U.S. Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz arrives at her primary watch party in Sunrise as supporters greet her on Tuesday night. ctrainor@miamiherald.com

U.S. Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz staved off her first primary challenge in 24 years, defeating first-time candidate Tim Canova on Tuesday to position herself to hang on to her South Florida seat despite a crush of national opposition to her candidacy.

Wasserman Schultz harnessed the backing of the biggest names in Democratic politics to help her win — President Barack Obama praised her while in Miami, and Vice President Joe Biden and Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton campaigned for her in the district. Despite the fact that Canova raised millions of dollars and had an army of progressive volunteers, Wasserman Schultz convinced voters in her district to focus on her advocacy for local causes and her decades-long liberal views, and to ignore the Democratic scandal that cost her the post of national party chair.

“This is a community with an incredibly progressive heart that has lifted me up and helped me to be able to shout from the rooftops the idea that you can in America use government as a catalyst to improve people's lives,” she told her supporters at Scuotto’s Pizza & Pasta in Sunrise on Tuesday night.

Wasserman Schultz made no mention of Canova and instead bashed Republicans for trying to repeal the Affordable Care Act. She also urged the crowd to support Clinton.

“We commit right here and now Broward County will carry Hillary Clinton to the White House,” she said.

Wasserman Schultz choked up as she thanked her parents for teaching her the Jewish value of Tikkun Olam, the concept of repairing the world and making it a better place.

She led Canova by about 14 percentage points in a district that stretches from Weston to northern Miami-Dade County.

Bernie Sanders backed Canova and helped him raise money from donors nationwide, but never came to campaign for him in South Florida.

Canova hadn’t conceded shortly before 10 p.m. when he spoke to reporters at Kasa Champet, a Haitian restaurant in Pembroke Pines. Although he said he was in a “wait-and-see mode” it was clear that he was far behind.

“Life knocks us on our ass a lot of times,” he said. “Everyone gets knocked on their butt a lot of times. The test of character is getting back up on our feet and this movement has been knocked off its feet time and time again.”

But even when it became clear later that he had lost, Canova didn’t go quietly into the night, refusing to concede.

“I will concede Debbie Wasserman Schultz is a corporate stooge,” he said.

As for working with Wasserman Schultz in the future? “She's never asked for my help, she’s never given me the time of day,” he said. “She’s never given the time of day to her constituents as far as I'm concerned.”

Canova, a first-time candidate and Nova Southeastern University law professor from Hollywood, ran to the left of Wasserman Schultz. He criticized her for taking money from corporate donors, Big Sugar and payday lenders and portrayed her as part of the Washington establishment.

Canova voters were angry about how Wasserman Schultz ran the Democratic National Committee. She resigned her chair position in July after WikiLeaks published thousands of emails showing that the DNC favored Clinton over Sanders.

“I’m not necessarily against Debbie — it was a little bit of a protest vote about how she behaved,” said Luann Hoffman, a Hollywood voter who cast a ballot for Canova. “I am a Hillary supporter but I don’t think Bernie was treated fairly. I’ve always voted for Debbie. … I felt like she needed to know people are paying attention to this behavior.”

But on Tuesday night, Wasserman Schultz said that voters chose her based on her record in the district, and called the email situation “extraneous political noise” and influence from people who lived outside of the community.

Wasserman Schultz said local voters recognized that “the decision about who is going to represent this district was going to be made by the people who live here on the issues that focused around who was going to go to bat for them and improve their quality of life and nothing else.”

Ultimately, Canova couldn’t compete with Wasserman Schultz’s name recognition and relationships built up over two decades in public office. The last time the Weston Democrat faced a primary challenge was in 1992 when she first ran for the state Legislature.

Wasserman Schultz won her first seat in Congress in 2004 and easily beat Republican challengers since that time. In 2011, Obama tapped her as Democratic National Committee chair, and praised her during a trip to Miami in June.

“She had my back,” Obama said at a fundraiser for Democrats. “I want to make sure we have her back.”

Wasserman Schultz voters cited her support for Clinton and Obama, her long experience working in Washington, D.C., and her work with residents of her district. This past weekend Wasserman Schultz showed up at Century Village, a key voting bloc in Pembroke Pines, to celebrate a resident’s 101st birthday.

Frances Skupsky, a retired office manager in Pembroke Pines, said she appreciated Wasserman Schultz’s efforts to help seniors in Century Village. Canova simply doesn’t have the experience, she said.

“It would take [Canova] years to do in Congress what she's done,” she said. “Why start with a newbie when you have someone who's working? How in the world do you step into Debbie’s shoes knowing nobody and accomplish anything?”

Canova got a boost in fundraising and national press when Wasserman Schultz stepped down as DNC chair.

But a recent Sun Sentinel/Florida Atlantic University poll showed that the DNC email scandal barely hurt her back home. Throughout the campaign, Wasserman Schultz reminded voters that she had deeper roots in the district than Canova and that she had long supported liberal causes such as abortion rights and gay rights. Canova has lived in Hollywood for about four years.

Wasserman Schultz largely avoided Canova and only faced him in one debate about two weeks before election day. Wasserman Schultz held events in front of friendly audiences in her district, speaking about topics such as Zika, equal pay for women and hosting a concert for a Jewish event at Century Village in Pembroke Pines.

She reserved most of her fire for Republicans rather than for Canova.

“We must stop Donald Trump from getting anywhere near the White House,” she wrote in one 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."

The congressional battle mirrored the Democratic presidential nomination: Clinton campaigned for Wasserman Schultz in the district, while Sanders sent fundraising emails on Canova’s behalf. But the district overwhelmingly voted for Clinton in the March primary. Wasserman Schultz is now an honorary chairwoman of one arm of Clinton’s campaign.

Both candidates raised more than $3 million. A Democratic PAC, Patriot Majority, spent more than $600,000 on mailers and radio ads to support Wasserman Schultz.

Wasserman Schultz is expected to easily beat the winner of Tuesday night’s Republican primary, Joe Kaufman, in the left-leaning district on Nov. 8.