Florida Democratic Race Echoes Top of Ticket: Progressive vs. Establishment

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Tim Canova, the Florida law professor seeking to unseat Representative Debbie Wasserman Schultz, in an interview at his campaign headquarters in Hollywood, Fla., in April.

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Wilfredo Lee/Associated Press

Two years after a little-known college professor pulled off a stunning upset by defeating the House majority leader, Eric Cantor, in a Republican primary contest, another obscure professor is hoping to replicate that feat in Florida, riding a wave of progressive fervor that seeks to upend the Democratic Party’s leadership.

Senator Bernie Sanders of Vermont, frustrated by how he has been treated by Democratic Party officials in his primary campaign against Hillary Clinton, bolstered that effort over the weekend when he endorsed Tim Canova, a law professor at Nova Southeastern University. Mr. Canova is hoping to unseat Representative Debbie Wasserman Schultz of Florida, the chairwoman of the Democratic National Committee, in a primary contest in August.

The support of Mr. Sanders led to an infusion of more than $250,000 into Mr. Canova’s campaign in less than two days, arming him for a more vigorous fight against the veteran congresswoman.

“She’s certainly out of touch with the grass-roots of the Democratic Party,” Mr. Canova, 56, said of Ms. Wasserman Schultz in an interview. “She has been a very out-of-touch political insider and she has not been representing her constituents well.”

The contest is in many ways a microcosm of the national Democratic race, in which an insurgent progressive candidate is taking on an establishment figure, mirroring the debate occurring within the party across the country.

Mr. Canova, who has never run for political office before, was once a legislative aide to former Senator Paul Tsongas, the Democrat from Massachusetts. He went on to practice law, fighting to strengthen he Glass-Steagall Act, before shifting to academia and settling in South Florida in 2012. He was active in the Occupy Wall Street movement and was tapped by Mr. Sanders to serve on an advisory committee on Federal Reserve changes after the financial crisis.

Sensing that Ms. Wasserman Schultz was vulnerable, Mr. Canova embarked on his campaign in January and has now raised more than $1 million. These days he often echoes Mr. Sanders as he rails against the influence of big money in politics and predatory lending practices while calling for more government action to improve the nation’s infrastructure. There is even a green banner on his campaign website that reads “JOIN THE REVOLUTION” — a favorite rallying cry of Mr. Sanders.

As Mr. Sanders has done to Mrs. Clinton, Mr. Canova expressed doubts about whether Ms. Wasserman Schultz is a true progressive. He criticized her for supporting the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade deal and opposing the use of medical marijuana, and accused her of allowing corporate money to have excess influence in the Democratic Party.

“This is a party that has gone way too corporate in recent years,” Mr. Canova said. “It’s turned its back on the working class.”

Mr. Canova is also unimpressed with the performance of Ms. Wasserman Schultz on the national stage. He accused her of struggling to keep the party together and showing favoritism to Mrs. Clinton, whose progressive credentials he also questions.

“She has been very divisive,” Mr. Canova said of his Ms. Wasserman Schultz, who has not faced a primary challenger since being elected to Congress in 2004. “If the Democrats are able to unify at the convention, apparently it will not be because of her. It will be in spite of her.”

A spokesman for Ms. Wasserman Schultz’s campaign, Ryan Banfill, pushed back against Mr. Canova and said that her constituents know that she is “a compassionate and effective voice who has always been there for them and provided strong, results-oriented, progressive leadership at home.” He also noted that in the Florida primary Mrs. Clinton outperformed Mr. Sanders in the 23rd Congressional District, which Ms. Wasserman Schultz represents, suggesting that Mr. Canova faces a steep uphill battle.

Mr. Canova acknowledged that Ms. Wasserman Schultz holds advantages over him in fund-raising and name recognition, but he has faith in the campaign playbook of Mr. Sanders. With a robust social media strategy, a flood of small donations and a growing team of volunteers, Mr. Canova thinks he can win in a district that is reliably Democratic.

And the recent history of the Republicans adds to his optimism.

“Look at what happened two years ago to Eric Cantor losing to a college professor,” Mr. Canova said. “When any long shot candidate goes up against an entrenched incumbent there are usually grass-roots movements that these challenges are riding.”

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