Bernie Is Building an Army of Primary Challengers

Debbie Wasserman Schultz’s opponent is his prototype.

Debbie Wasserman Shultz and Hillary Clinton.

Hillary Clinton and Debbie Wasserman Schultz.

Photo illustration by Sofya Levina. Images by Joe Skipper/Reuters

Tim Canova is not Dave Brat.

Sure, Canova, who’s waging a primary challenge against Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz in Florida’s 23rd congressional district, is an underdog from the academic world taking on an entrenched opponent who raises obscene sums of cash for her party, just as Brat was in his 2014 challenge against then–House Majority Leader Eric Cantor. And yes, in both cases, it’s that very fundraising ability that made Wasserman Schultz and Cantor powerful within their own party structures but also targets for their party bases, who have viewed them as subservient to their respective donor classes.

The difference is that Canova, unlike Brat, is a fundraising powerhouse himself—and that was even true before Sen. Bernie Sanders, in an aggro move for someone trying to become leader of the Democratic Party, endorsed Canova’s bid to topple the current chair of the Democratic National Committee. Whereas Brat’s challenge to Cantor slipped under the radar, Canova’s bid against Wasserman Schultz is now assured to be one of the most closely watched primary contests of the cycle. If there is to be a concrete Sanders legacy, it will be measured by the ability of those whom we’ll uncleverly dub “Bernie Democrats” to mimic his campaign model against members of the Democratic establishment—but win. No pressure, Tim.

And Canova is a Bernie Democrat right out of central casting. When news first broke over the weekend that Sanders was endorsing him, it may have seemed like a spite play against Wasserman Schultz, who Sanders has attacked over a litany of perceived botched calls this cycle. But Canova is more than just the random name Sanders found while Googling to see if there was a vehicle through which to troll Wasserman Schultz. The two have a professional history: Canova advised Sanders on Federal Reserve reform as part of a 2011 panel organized by the senator. Canova, a law professor at Florida’s Nova Southeastern University, positions criticism of monetary policy higher than your average politician, and he lines up similarly well with Sanders on trade, campaign finance, and Wall Street regulation.

And like Sanders, Canova already has collected significant sums in his bid against a cash magnet. He raised more than $550,000 during the first quarter of the year, and by early May, his campaign announced it had surpassed the $1 million mark. This is a significant amount of money for a House challenger: Brat only raised about $200,000 for his 2014 primary bid against Cantor, who infamously spent nearly that much at steakhouses alone. Since Sanders’ weekend endorsement—i.e., over the course of the past day—the Canova campaign has pulled in another $290,000, with $225,000 coming directly from an endorsement email distributed by the Sanders campaign. And that’s from a message that only urged a $2.70 donation split between the Sanders and Canova campaigns. There’s a lot more to be collected by the August 30 primary.

Florida’s 23rd District contest is just one of many that Sanders, and his much-in-demand email list, will be turning their attention toward. “In the days ahead,” the campaign’s fundraising pitch for Canova read, “we’re going to add a dozen or more additional candidates to that list.” The fundraising model of broad-based small donations Sanders has mastered, and the credibility he’s built up among his supporters, can be weaponized to turn a House primary into a contest overnight. All Bernie has to do is point.

Regardless of wherever else Sanders chooses to endorse this cycle, a Canova upset in Florida would be the marquee win, proving instantly that the Sanders model can do something more than sink large sums of money into ultimately doomed causes. The question will then become this: Could a congressional-level Bernie movement really change the Democratic Party in a way that the Tea Party—for better or worse—changed the Republicans, shifting the party further toward its ideological pole and creating constant fear among incumbents?

Among the arguments for why Wasserman Schultz may deserve to be primaried, the claim that she is somehow responsible for costing Sanders the Democratic nomination is the least persuasive. Though it’s not incorrect to say that she, like most leaders in the Democratic Party, would prefer Clinton be the nominee instead of Sanders, and that the party’s original debate schedule was skewed to protect Clinton, the main reason Sanders will end up losing the nomination is that more voters prefer Hillary Clinton. This is what makes Sanders’ arguments about how the process is “rigged” against him so dangerous if he keeps saying that, and using it as a justification to make a mess at the convention, once voting concludes in June.

Instead, it’s Wasserman Schultz’s brand of politics that makes her so worthy of a challenge from the base. Any sitting officeholder who chairs such as vast fundraising apparatus as the Democratic National Committee is going to be the receptacle for impure donations. But dear God, if she hasn’t performed some unseemly donor maintenance. She, along with much of the Florida delegation, has co-sponsored a bill to block proposed Consumer Financial Protection Bureau rules reining in payday lenders, an awful industry that has donated her tens of thousands of dollars. She voted last year for another measure to block CFPB enforcement of regulatory guidance that would crack down on auto dealers discriminating by race. The auto dealers’ lobby is no joke. About the only issue on which she is willing to go against her donors’ wishes is medical marijuana, the legalization of which she is weirdly opposed to.

It’s hard to determine what sort of chance Canova has, since Wasserman Schultz has never before faced a Democratic primary challenger. But it’s probably not going to be easy. Wasserman Schultz’s reliably blue district has a high percentage of Hispanic and older voters who don’t express the sort of hostility toward the Democratic establishment you might find on a college campus. Sanders’ support will bring Canova all the money he needs. Still, he’s working on a terrain that went 68 to 31 percent in Clinton’s favor in the March presidential primary.

But if Canova, with all the exposure that Sanders provides him, can turn enough heads and pull off the upset, the panic felt among sitting Democratic lawmakers will reach Brat-defeats-Cantor levels. Though it would come after the end of the Sanders presidential campaign, it would mark the real beginning of the campaign to change the Democratic Party.

Read more Slate coverage of the 2016 Democratic primary.