Democrat Civil War Comes for Wasserman Schultz

Former DNC chair favored in Tuesday primary, but Sanders-backed challenger within striking distance

by Jim Stinson | Updated 30 Aug 2016 at 4:52 PM

A tough year for Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz, the former chairwoman of the Democratic National Committee, could see the end of her political career Tuesday. Wasserman Schultz faces a hard-charging challenge from her left flank in the Democratic primary for her South Florida congressional seat, and though she’s favored in recent polls, low-turnout primaries are notorious for shock outcomes.

The fact Wasserman Schultz is endangered at all is a potent reminder of this election cycle’s divisiveness for Democrats and the Florida congresswoman’s long fall from grace.

Weak primary turnout can often lead to the defeat of an incumbent, even a perceived safe incumbent.

Party insurgents had Wasserman Schultz in their crosshairs for most of the year. Discontent with the then-DNC chair had been simmering after a series of debate-related decisions led supporters of Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders to complain the DNC was manipulating the Democratic primary contest in favor of Hillary Clinton.

In July, issues boiled over just before the convention, when hackers got into DNC computers and leaked thousands of emails. Many of the emails showed DNC staffers openly criticizing Sanders.

Wasserman Schultz was forced to step down as DNC chair. The embarrassment fueled the rise of her until-then nascent primary challenger Tim Canova.

Supporters of Bernie Sanders opened their wallets to fund Canova, a law professor at Nova Southeastern University. Canova was hoping Wasserman Schultz's woes would get worse.

And he worked hard to make it happen. Canova brought in at least $3.3 million, raised in part by irate Sanders supporters. And he had support in the district from more than two-thirds of Democrats under 35 years of age. Canova then unleashed TV ads that the South Florida Sun-Sentinel called "scorching" — ripping Wasserman Schultz on issues ranging from attendance to money from special interests, such as the much-vilified Florida sugar industry.

Even Sanders endorsed the challenger, and suggested he would campaign for Canova in the district.

Since Sanders self-imposed exile following the convention however, Canova has struggled to surpass Wasserman Schultz.

In a recent poll done by the Sun-Sentinel and Florida Atlantic University, Wasserman Schultz was up 10 points, 50 percent to Canova's 40. And that is despite Canova's huge lead among young voters: The poll found 69 percent of voters ages 18 to 34 favored Canova.

Wasserman Schultz also kept pace with Canova financially: She raised $3.4 million.

Certainly it hurt Canova that Sanders didn't show up in the district, leading the media to ask why. A high-profile appearance by Sanders could have only helped in the closing days.

And as for Wasserman Schultz, the Democrat Party Establishment didn't leave her abandoned after her resignation from the Democratic National Committee. She has been endorsed by heavy hitters in Democrat circles including: President Obama, Hillary Clinton, and former Rep. Gabrielle Giffords (D-Ariz.).

For those and other reasons, Florida political observers believe Canova's anti-Establishment, anti-Debbie campaign hasn't gained enough juice in Florida's 23rd Congressional District, which stretches from the sands of Miami Beach northward into Broward County, south of Fort Lauderdale.

Low Turnout is the Incumbent's Grim Reaper
But low-turnout primaries are never certain.

Polling a primary, particularly one like Wasserman Schultz's, is notoriously difficult. Certainly Wasserman Schultz, with several years as a national Democratic figure, would command high name recognition among less informed Democratic voters — but those same voters would be the least likely to show up Tuesday.

In addition, the district was partially redrawn by the courts just this year, meaning thousands of new Democratic voters have none of the longstanding connections with the incumbent she enjoys in areas she has represented in Congress since 2005.

Weak primary turnout can often lead to the defeat of an incumbent, even a perceived safe incumbent — Republican Joe Miller defeated U.S. Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska) in the 2010 Republican primary. (Murkowski later won the general election as a write-in candidate.)

Max Steele, communications director for the Florida Democratic Party, said about 7,000 Democrats have already cast early ballots in the district but that the recent redistricting makes it difficult to know just what the final turnout will be.

Still, there are signs Democratic primary turnout will be large by most standards. Steele said that in 2012, as many as 10,700 Broward County Democrats showed up to vote early in the late-summer primary. This year, the number tops 33,000. Broward County, which contains Hollywood and Fort Lauderdale, has large parts in Wasserman Schultz's district.

Wasserman Schultz is likely behind the Get Out the Vote (GOTV) push. Cynthia Busch, Broward County Democratic chairwoman, said the congresswoman is running an aggressive GOTV effort.

Larger turnout is seen as helping Wasserman Schultz, who was first elected to Congress in 2004, and served in the Florida House and Florida Senate before that.

The district itself may have never been a good fit for Canova's run. The Hill noted that Hillary Clinton won 68 percent of the vote there in the earlier Democratic primary for president — Sanders received just a 31 percent share.

The Clintons, Busch said, have a long history courting South Florida. Again, the advantage goes to Wasserman Schultz.

And the district seems comfortable with Wasserman Schultz herself, who for years has been blasted by Republicans as being too liberal. Thus, Canova accusing Wasserman Schultz of not being progressive enough likely didn't strike a chord with Democratic voters.

But Canova coming within 10 points in the only public poll is an indication Wasserman Schultz won't be safe until the race is called.

The winner of the Democratic primary is likely to win the Nov. 8 election. The Cook Political Report lists Florida's 23rd Congressional District as solidly Democratic.

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