Debbie Wasserman Schultz overcame the controversy over her role as chair of the Democratic Party to turn aside a rare primary challenge in her South Florida congressional district.
Wasserman Schultz won her first challenged primary race in decades with 57% of the votes, beating well-funded Sanders-backed contender Tim Canova who received 42% of the votes in the state’s 23rd district.
It was a moment of validation for the incumbent Jewish congresswoman after a bruising year in which she became the target of progressive Democrats who portrayed Wasserman Schultz as the embodiment of what they claimed was a biased party establishment. The six-term congresswoman was eventually forced out of her leadership position as chair of the Democratic National Committee following the leak of party emails that seemed to have confirmed claims that the party favored Hillary Clinton over Bernie Sanders in the primary race.
Speaking to supporters in Sunrise, Florida, Tuesday night, Wasserman Schultz fought back tears as she thanked her parents for instilling in her the value of tikkun olam, repairing the world, which she sees as her guiding principle in public life. Wasserman Schultz made no mention of her rival Canova and focused, instead, on the need to ensure a Democratic win in the November elections.
“We commit right here and now Broward County will carry Hillary Clinton to the White House,” she said, according to the Miami Herald.
The southern Florida primary race, in a district with one of the largest Jewish populations in the country, shaped out to be a proxy battle between the pro-Clinton Democratic establishment represented by Wasserman Schultz and the Bernie Sanders progressive wing of the party which was represented by Canova. Sanders endorsed Canova in May at the height of his battle against Clinton and his support led to a influx of campaign contributions, putting the otherwise long shot candidate, who is a law professor at Nova Southeastern University in Fort Lauderdale, in a competitive position. Both candidates raised approximately $3 million each for the primary race.
Hours after media outlets called the race for Wasserman Schultz, Canova still refused to concede, waiting until the final count was in, despite her fairly wide lead.
While on the national stage Sanders was able to mobilize masses and mount a challenge to the Democratic establishment, he failed in delivering his famous excitement and energy to the Florida primary campaign. Sanders sent out emails soliciting donations for Canova, but did not campaign for him personally in the district. The Sanders campaign advisers dispatched to help out Canova, spent only little time with the candidate before giving up.
For Wasserman Schultz, the outcome of Tuesday’s race showed her strong standing within her local constituency and was a sign that she did not lose touch with her base despite holding a demanding position in the Democratic Party’s leadership. It could also prove that national political storms, such as the one Wasserman Schultz was embroiled in, have little impact on voters in congressional races.
Wassermann Schultz will face Republican Joe Kaufman, who is also Jewish, in the November elections, but given the strong Democratic tilt of the district and her incumbency, Wasserman Schultz is not expected to encounter difficulties in winning another term.
Meanwhile, even as Wasserman Schultz celebrated her victory, another Jewish Floridian politicians suffered a devastating defeat.
Rep. Alan Grayson, who was seeking the Democratic Party’s nomination as its candidate for the Senate, lost to fellow congressman Patrick Murphy 59% to 17%. Murphy will face incumbent Marco Rubio in the general elections. Rubio, who initially gave up reelection in order to run for president, later re-joined the race and won the Republican primary handily.
Grayson ran an underdog race which could likely be his last political hurrah.
The liberal Jewish congressman, who started off his career as the darling of progressive Democrats and as a fresh voice in the Democratic Party, ended the race shunned by the Democratic leadership and by donors who sided with his rival Murphy.
President Obama, Vice President Biden and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid all endorsed Grayson’s rival. New York Senator Chuck Schumer publicly called on Grayson to drop out of the race. Grayson prided himself throughout the race in running the only Senate campaign in the nation based primarily on small donors whose average contribution was $200.
It was Grayson’s marital and financial scandals that cost him support of his own party. The fiery politician, an early endorser of Sanders who was widely credited for being an effective lawmaker, came under scrutiny for managing an offshore hedge fund allegedly in breach of House ethics rules. In July, Politico reported that Grayson’s second wife, Lolita Grayson, repeatedly filed complaints to the police against her husband for alleged domestic violence. Grayson strongly denied the allegations.
Grayson recently married his third wife, Dena Minning, who ran for the congressional seat he had left in order to run for the Senate. She too lost her primary bid Tuesday night, to state Sen. Darren Soto, who will square off against Republican Wane Liebnitzky in a bid to become Florida’s first congressman of Puerto Rican descent
Nathan Guttman staff writer, is the Forward’s Washington bureau chief. He joined the staff in 2006 after serving for five years as Washington correspondent for the Israeli dailies Ha’aretz and The Jerusalem Post. In Israel, he was the features editor for Ha’aretz and chief editor of Channel 1 TV evening news. He was born in Canada and grew up in Israel. He is a graduate of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. Contact Nathan at firstname.lastname@example.org, or follow him on Twitter @nathanguttman