Sanders lifts unlikely primary bid

HOLLYWOOD, Fla. - Tim Canova was driving from a rally against money in politics to a protest against chemical giant Monsanto this month when his spokeswoman called to tell him that Sen. Bernie Sanders had just gone on CNN and endorsed Canova's long-shot primary challenge against Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz the chairwoman of the Democratic National Committee.

It was a big moment for a little-known law professor with a shaved head who, in another year, might not have created so much as a ripple for Wasserman Schultz, who is seeking her seventh House term and has won all her previous elections in landslides.

A few hours later, Sanders called Canova for the first time - and the next day signed a fund-raising email for him. Over the next 48 hours, Canova brought in about $300,000.

Canova, 56, finds himself in the right place at the right time. Wasserman Schultz, 49, has become increasingly unpopular within the liberal base of the party - and among Sanders' supporters in particular.

Though she claims to be neutral in the presidential nominating contest, many Sanders supporters believe that she has tipped the scales in favor of their candidate's rival, Hillary Clinton. They see the DNC chair, as they see Clinton, as beholden to wealthy donors and focused on winning elections at the expense of advancing progressive principles.

Since that's what Canova's campaign is all about, his bid has become a proxy battle for everything dividing Democrats this year.

Just as Sanders' challenge has brought unwelcome attention to Clinton's vulnerabilities, so, too, has Canova shined a spotlight on Wasserman Schultz's weaknesses as the head of the DNC. Even if she beats back this August primary challenge, which she is ultimately favored to do, the ferociousness of the criticism has exposed her unpopularity within the Democratic grass roots. It has also raised the volume on the question of whether she should continue in her party post.

Sanders has focused national attention on the matter by declaring his desire to replace her.

For Sanders' supporters, the list of Wasserman Schultz's offenses is long. There was a primary debate schedule, with several weekend events, that seemed designed for as few people to watch as possible. There is the view that she overreacted to a party data breach by the Sanders campaign, after which he was cut off from a crucial voter file just weeks before the Iowa caucuses. The file is the party's in-house database of information about likely voters, the lifeblood for any serious campaign.

In February, the DNC rolled back restrictions first proposed by presidential candidate Sen. Barack Obama in 2008, banning donations from federal lobbyists and political action committees. The final straw came two weeks ago when Wasserman Schultz faulted Sanders for his response to the chaos at the Nevada state convention.

President Obama has endorsed Wasserman Schultz, and Vice President Biden is coming down next month to headline a fund-raiser for her.

The Communications Workers of America and National Nurses United, two unions that back Sanders, have endorsed Canova.

All told, he has now raised nearly $1.5 million. Like Sanders, almost all of it has been small-dollar donations that were collected online. Most of it is from outside the state, but Canova says he won't travel outside Florida for fund-raisers.

Canova draws heavy inspiration from Rep. Dave Brat (R. Va.), who like him was a college professor at a relatively obscure school when he toppled House Majority Leader Eric Cantor in 2014.

"A lot of consultants tell you to spend money on consultants; that's not how [Brat] got elected," he said. "I'd like to think I'm following that blueprint."