MAPLE HEIGHTS, Ohio ― Shontel Brown, a Cuyahoga County councilwoman, defeated Nina Turner in the special primary election for Ohio’s 11th Congressional District, all but ensuring that she will represent the Cleveland-area seat in Congress.
Brown’s victory is a major win for leaders of the moderate Democratic establishment, who backed her, and a stinging defeat for a progressive movement that counted Turner, a former Ohio state senator-turned-Bernie Sanders lieutenant, as one of its most beloved stars.
Turner conceded the race on Tuesday night before all the results came in, but she was trailing Brown by a large enough margin that she and her team believed she did not have a path to victory.
“Tonight, my friends, we have looked across the promised land, but for this campaign, on this night, we will not cross the river,” Turner said to supporters at an election night party at a bowling alley just outside Cleveland. “Tonight our justice journey continues, and I am proud to continue that journey with each and every one of you.”
Turner’s loss is the latest in a string of primary defeats for progressive candidates this year, following two election cycles in which left-wing challengers ousted five House incumbents.
“It is a victory for the more traditional side of the Democratic Party, which in Ohio is probably where most of the Democrats in the state are,” said Kevin Spiker, a political scientist at Ohio University.
The race’s outcome also affirms President Joe Biden’s status as a sacrosanct figure among a critical mass of Democratic voters. Brown promised cooperation with Biden, while Turner had a history of clashing with Biden and other top Democrats.
Days before the election, Sean McElwee, co-founder of Data for Progress, a polling firm that consulted for a group backing Turner, said that if Turner lost, “It would suggest that a certain theory of left politics is incorrect and that a certain hyper anti-Democratic politics is not good.”
“Biden is viewed more positively among Democrats than [Donald] Trump is viewed among Republicans,” he added.
Ohio’s 11th is a majority-Black and heavily Democratic seat that includes parts of Cleveland and Akron and their surrounding towns.
The seat opened up when Biden appointed Marcia Fudge to serve as secretary of Housing and Urban Development. While Brown is due to face a Republican in November, the partisan balance in the district makes her the prohibitive favorite.
Brown, 46, is more ideologically moderate than Turner, 53. She has declined to embrace left-wing priorities like “Medicare for All” and the Green New Deal, and has not ruled out accepting corporate PAC contributions. Brown focused instead on the broad goals of reviving the region’s economy and combating gun violence.
But perhaps more important than Brown’s policy positions was her promise to adopt a less confrontational style than Turner, particularly vis-a-vis Democratic Party leadership.
She vowed to be a “partner” in Congress for the Biden-Harris administration, including Fudge, and “not be a thorn in their side.”
The contrast with Turner, a frequent antagonist of the Democratic establishment, was clear.
Clearly much of the establishment Democratic Party not located in Ohio viewed this race as an important one for them to get involved in.
David Cohen, political scientist, University of Akron
Turner had legislated as a mainstream Democrat during her early career as a Cleveland city councilwoman and state senator, shepherding an education reform deal opposed by the city’s teacher unions and teaming up with then-Ohio Gov. John Kasich, a Republican, to address police killings.
But Turner’s decision to endorse Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders’ presidential bid in 2015 marked the beginning of an independent and sometimes controversial period in Turner’s career that would haunt her bid for Congress.
On the one hand, Turner developed national name recognition and stardom as a Sanders surrogate during the 2016 and 2020 presidential cycles.
At the same time, she took to combat with the Democratic Party with the zeal of a convert, going further than Sanders in her wariness of party leadership. In the 2016 general election, Turner publicly considered an invitation to join Green Party presidential nominee Jill Stein’s ticket as a running mate. She has still not stated for whom she voted in that election.
In July 2020, Turner likened the choice between then-President Donald Trump and Biden to a choice between a “bowl of shit” and “half” of a bowl of shit.
In a February interview with HuffPost, Turner called the remarks a “colorful comment made by me speaking to people’s pain.”
Likening it to Vice President Kamala Harris’ reconciliation with Biden after suggesting he had opposed school integration during the first presidential debate, Turner added, “I would like to think people would judge me by my entire body of work and not just a colorful comment I made that they disagreed with.”
Until the final two months of the campaign, Turner appeared to be getting her wish. She locked up the most prominent progressive endorsements and mobilized the Sanders-aligned network of progressive voters to raise more than $1 million in her first six weeks in the race.
A massive cash advantage allowed Turner to air advertisements on broadcast television a month before Brown. She used those ads to shore up her mainstream Democratic credentials, touting her commitment to causes like gender pay equity and her work with Kasich.
“She reminded people that she had a deep well of political experience that went beyond being an organizer and a chair for the Bernie Sanders campaign,” said David Cohen, a professor of political science at the University of Akron.
The legislative experience that Turner amplified in her TV spots also helped her win key endorsements from outside the progressive firmament, including Cleveland Mayor Frank Jackson, state Senate Democratic Leader Kenny Yuko and former Ohio Democratic Party Chairman David Pepper. The editorial board of the Plain Dealer, Cleveland’s flagship newspaper, not only endorsed Turner, but dismissed Brown as “pleasant but undistinguished.”
Polling conducted by both campaigns at the end of May showed Turner ahead by more than 30 percentage points.
That would end up being Turner’s high-water mark before a few key developments broke Brown’s way.
First, Turner’s campaign dramatically ratcheted down their TV advertising in June, going almost entirely dark in the first two weeks of the month.
Brown staked a major chunk of her modest campaign chest on ad buys that introduced her to voters virtually uncontested on the airwaves.
In her first broadcast TV spot, she and her mother discuss her work in county government and her support for Biden. “Shontel’s a Democrat’s Democrat ― proudly voted for Joe Biden,” Brown’s mother says while holding up a photo of Brown and Biden.
Next, Turner made the biggest mistake of her campaign. Speaking on a panel with rapper “Killer” Mike Render, Turner appeared to express agreement when Render said it was “incredibly stupid” for House Majority Whip Jim Clyburn (D-S.C.) to have endorsed Biden without demanding more in exchange.
Clyburn, the highest-ranking Black member of Congress, endorsed Brown days later, claiming the “Killer Mike” incident had inspired his decision. Brown soon featured Clyburn’s endorsement in one of her TV ads. In the spot, Clyburn dubbed her the rightful heir to the “legacy” built by Fudge and her predecessors, former Reps. Lou Stokes and Stephanie Tubbs Jones.
Another spot featured the endorsement of Fudge’s elderly mother, effectively giving Brown, a Fudge protégé, the HUD secretary’s blessing by proxy.
The most important factor of all, however, was an influx of outside support from the pro-Israel super PAC Democratic Majority for Israel. At the end of June, the group initiated a $1.9-million TV, digital and field effort attacking Turner and bolstering Brown.
She doesn’t support the Democratic Party.
Erskine Bevel, Shaker Heights voter
Critically, DMFI’s ads informed voters that Turner had declined to support Hillary Clinton in the 2016 presidential election. They also highlighted Turner’s “bowl of shit” comments, emblazoning the image of Turner as a disloyal Democrat in the public’s psyche.
A subsequent digital barrage of more than $500,000 from Third Way, a corporate-backed Democratic group, reinforced the message.
“Clearly much of the establishment Democratic Party not located in Ohio viewed this race as an important one for them to get involved in,” Cohen said. “When that happened, Shontel Brown’s campaign fortunes turned around.”
Of course, Turner had given them ample material with which to work. “I don’t think there’s any question that the ‘bowl’ comments hurt Nina Turner,” Cohen said.
No one went further than Turner’s campaign, which blasted Brown for voting to approve a multimillion-dollar contract for a construction contractor with ties to her partner.
A Turner ad in the final days of the race misleadingly claimed that Brown is already under investigation and that Brown “could face criminal charges and, if convicted, jail time.”
In the end, plenty of mainstream Democratic voters stood by Turner, recalling her record of public service in Cleveland.
“The main thing is that she’s for the people,” said Margaret Taylor, a retired cashier voting in Cleveland’s Lee-Harvard neighborhood, where Turner also lives. “She’s a beautiful person.”
The attacks on Turner are a “bunch of junk,” Taylor said.
But other voters that Turner needed to win abandoned her, indicating that the advertising campaign had resonated.
“I’m not a Nina Turner fan, with all the things she’s said and done about the Democratic Party, and things she’s said about Biden,” said Erskine Bevel, a nonprofit executive voting in the Cleveland suburb of Shaker Heights. “She doesn’t support the Democratic Party.”
“Bowl of crap?!” he added. “Come on!”
For other voters, Turner’s more forceful speaking style drove them into Brown’s arms.
“Nina is portraying herself as an angry Black woman. And that’s how everybody sees Black women ― as angry,” sad Monique Jenkins, who is Black.
Jenkins, a resident of Lee-Harvard who knew Turner for much longer than Brown, had grown disillusioned with Turner’s left-wing turn in recent years.
“She’s gone with the wind,” Jenkins said. “She’s not a Democrat any more. She’s not Republican. She’s whichever way the wind blows.”
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