In an election cycle in which the progressive wing of the Democratic Party is arguably louder and more powerful than ever, it's perhaps not a surprise that the party's top official has a primary challenger for the first time.
Nor is it surprising that Democratic National Committee Chairman Debbie Wasserman Schultz's primary -- and to a lesser extent the Florida congresswoman's main challenger, law professor Tim Canova -- has the potential to become a battleground for the establishment/grass-roots divide that's playing out at the presidential level.
Case in point: Increasingly defiant presidential candidate Bernie Sanders endorsed Canova in an interview with CNN on Sunday. Sanders, a senator from Vermont, said his views align more with the liberal law professor and added that if he were president, he probably wouldn't have Wasserman Schultz heading the Democratic National Committee. Sanders even sent a fundraising email for Canova ahead of Florida's Aug. 30 primary.
Sanders's endorsement of Wasserman Schultz's primary challenger has upped the tension between the two. Wasserman Schultz is technically neutral in the presidential primary, but she and Sanders's campaign have jousted back and forth for much of it, in part because Sanders suspects that the Democratic Party is in the bag of his rival, Hillary Clinton.
But just because Wasserman Schultz's primary has some symbolism and resonance at the presidential level doesn't mean she's at risk of losing her job in Congress, like former House majority leader Eric Cantor (R-Va.) did in a shocking 2014 primary. And first and foremost, that's because her Miami area district just doesn't seem to be made up of the kinds of voters who want to stick it to the Democratic establishment.
But plenty of Democratic voters in the nation have indicated that they do want that, and that alone makes this increasingly high-profile primary worth watching. So let's game out Wasserman Schultz's primary challenge and what it could mean for the Democratic Party.
Who is the challenger?
Let's start with the introductions. Canova is a former New York City lawyer who once worked as a legislative aide to the late senator Paul Tsongas (D-Mass.) and has ties to the Occupy Wall Street movement. He now teaches finance law at Florida's Nova Southeastern University. He officially began his campaign in January, arguing that Wasserman Schultz is a party insider beholden to special interests.
Little-known fact: The other primary challenger in this race is Doug Hughes, 62, a Florida mailman who pleaded guilty in November to charges related to flying his gyrocopter onto the U.S. Capitol grounds in April 2015 to protest the campaign finance system. He was sentenced last month to 120 days in jail and is not expected to be a threat in this primary.
Back to Canova. Does he have any traction?
Support for Canova's campaign has been noticeable -- at the national level, at least. He has endorsements from various factions of the party's progressive wing, including the Progressive Democrats of America. He raised more than $500,000 in the first three months of 2016 -- a princely sum for a primary challenger -- but he has a long way to go to catch up to Wasserman Schultz's $1.76 million.
To be competitive, Canova needs to capitalize on Sanders's endorsement. We should expect to see a big fundraising boost the next time these candidates have to report in July how much they raised this spring. But, as we'll explain, money from outside the district doesn't automatically translate to votes inside the district.
What is he basing his campaign on?
In a sentence: Wasserman Schultz has forsaken the progressive wing of the party and her own constituents. Canova is trying to capitalize on what political observers in Florida say is a growing concern that the party's leadership is dated and out of touch.
Sure enough, look what Canova said in an interview with the Hill: "People here on the ground — I hear left and right, you name it — are just dissatisfied that she's not responsive, she takes people for granted. And it's becoming evident in the way she votes on an awful lot of issues."
He's fundamentally to the left of Wasserman Schultz on free trade (he opposes it), drug policy (he wants to legalize marijuana) and national security (wants to get out of regime change politics).
He also knocks Wasserman Schultz for raising and taking money from super PACs and special interests. "She is the quintessential corporate machine politician," he told Glenn Greenwald in January.
Canova argues that he has the grass-roots support, and he does have a number of small-dollar contributions in the $25 to $100 range. But just 4 percent of them come from Florida, according to a Fix analysis of his latest campaign finance report.
What are his chances?
Now we get to the meat of this story. Canova is running what could probably be considered a decent progressive campaign, and he got a big boost with Sanders's endorsement.
But here's the rub: It might simply be the wrong district. Florida's 23rd congressional district is solidly Democratic, but it's not a hotbed of Sanders supporters. It's a minority-majority district that is more than a third Hispanic. It has more older women and men, who tend to vote in higher numbers and be fans of Clinton. Take how the district voted in the state's presidential primary in March:
Those numbers are consistent with the state's primary results overall, if a little friendlier for Clinton; Clinton won the state overall, 65 percent to 33 percent. And in 2008, the area also voted for Clinton over President Obama.
Is there a wildcard to consider?
Yup, and it's this: How much will drama at the presidential level filter down to Wasserman Schultz's race? While we can more easily grasp her controversy at the national level, we just don't know the extent of Florida Democrats' disaffection with her.
Take Saturday, when Florida Democrats gathered in Orlando to finalize their delegates for the national convention and a by-now familiar spat broke out when some Sanders (and Clinton) delegates were left off the final list. It raises the question of whether we'll see a Nevada-like breakdown in party unity in Wasserman Schultz's home state. Such a situation is unlikely but possible given the dynamics of this election cycle and unrest in Florida with party leaders, say political observers. Look no further than the Senate candidacy of liberal Rep. Alan Grayson (Fla.) for evidence.
Wasserman Schultz's Aug. 30 primary may help answer questions about the extent of the liberal/establishment divide in Florida -- or it might not. We'll let Canova, speaking to the Hill, have one of the last words: "There's a perception … that she's bullet-proof here at home because she wins by big majorities. But she's never been challenged in a primary."
That's a fair point. But the district's demographics suggest that his challenge to one of the party's most powerful people will need a lot of help from the national political winds blowing from the left.