How Shontel Brown Beat Nina Turner
Former Ohio state Sen. Nina Turner (D) has been blaming an influx of big money for her defeat in a special congressional primary on Aug. 3.
In a call with members of the progressive group Our Revolution on Monday, Turner hinted that there were things the campaign “could have done differently,” but she saved most of her anger for the “full force and weight of corporatists” that sought to tank her and elect Cuyahoga County Councilwoman Shontel Brown, who won the race.
“At one point in this campaign I was being outspent on TV five to one ― even though this movement showed up for me,” Turner said.
But Turner’s analysis ― and the self-pity that it has enabled her left-wing supporters to embrace ― is over-simplistic.
Turner’s campaign mismanaged its budget, spending too much on consultants, and other non-essential expenses, while neglecting to set aside enough cash to stay on the TV airwaves once it began advertising.
The campaign also came up short strategically, failing to preempt, and later, adequately respond to the inevitable attacks on Turner’s history of conflict with key figures in the Democratic Party.
“It was a poorly run campaign that wants to blame other shit for its loss,” said a Democratic consultant who has worked on recent, winning progressive campaigns and requested anonymity for professional reasons.
It’s true that Brown would almost certainly not have stood a chance against Turner without outside help.
Turner raised $6 million to Brown’s $2.6 million. But while Turner got just $900,000 in support from super PACs or other external groups, Brown benefited from $2.7 million in outside spending.
The pro-Israel super PAC Democratic Majority for Israel (DMFI) spent about $2.1 million alone attacking Turner and bolstering Brown. DMFI raised the vast majority of its money in five- and six-figure checks from super-rich individuals, including New England Patriots Owner Robert Kraft, a major donor to Donald Trump’s inauguration in 2016.
The centrist think tank Third Way, a “dark money” political nonprofit that accepts some corporate donations, spent more than $500,000 on digital ads attacking Turner.
But while the outside money was a prerequisite for Brown’s success, given Turner’s name recognition, polling lead and fundraising edge, it was far from a guarantee of it.
The Turner campaign’s financial and strategic missteps were a major factor in the final outcome.
We have entered a new era in which the corporate interests have sunk to lows not yet seen ― so candidates have to be prepared very early on to go on the offensive.
the Turner campaign
The Turner campaign denied charges of mismanagement to HuffPost. The biggest thing they believe that they could have done differently is underscore Brown’s ethical issues on TV sooner.
“Educating voters about Brown’s record earlier ― which proved very effective at the end of the campaign ― could have begun earlier,” the campaign said in a statement. “If there is a lesson for progressive campaigns from this race, it is that we have entered a new era in which the corporate interests have sunk to lows not yet seen ― so candidates have to be prepared very early on to go on the offensive.”
Other lessons that progressives might glean from Turner’s loss include that while campaigns routinely make financial and managerial mistakes, progressive candidates, fighting against the grain, have less room for error. In light of establishment forces’ ability to drop millions of dollars on TV ads at key moments, it is that much more important for progressive campaigns to properly assess the electorate, stay a step ahead of the opposition, properly time the execution of plans, and adhere to standard best practices for campaign management.
And finally, voters in heavily Democratic districts have an appetite for progressive policies like “Medicare for All” and the Green New Deal, but are warier of critics of Democratic Party leaders like Joe Biden, particularly after four years of Donald Trump.
“Democratic voters like Democrats,” said Sean McElwee, a co-founder of the progressive think tank Data for Progress. “Joe Biden is governing in a fairly progressive way. We need to hold the line on progressive policies and explain how progressivism is a way to be a better Democrat.”
Shortchanging Paid Media And Field
Turner has pointed to getting outspent on television as a reason for her defeat, but outside money is not principally to blame for that deficit. After dominating broadcast television entirely on her own in May, Turner lacked the funds to stay on the air in June, going completely dark on broadcast television for the first two weeks of the month.
That misstep would set the stage for Turner to squander the 35-point lead in the polls that she had built up over Brown as of the end of May, according to an internal poll that mirrored the Brown campaign’s internal numbers.
“You never go up, unless you’re going to stay up,” said Mike Mikus, a veteran Democratic campaign strategist. “Once you go dark, the impact of the ads you aired starts to diminish.”
June was a pivotal period in the campaign. Throughout the month, the Brown campaign would have outspent Turner on TV even without DMFI’s help, despite Turner’s fundraising advantage over Brown. (By June 7, the Turner campaign had raised $3 million ― a sum larger than Brown would raise for the duration of the race.)
In Brown’s first broadcast TV spot, she and her mother enthusiastically discussed her support for Biden. A second ad focused entirely on Brown’s work on the county council, featuring testimony from constituents thanking her.
Unanswered on the airwaves for two weeks and unmatched for the rest of the month, Brown dramatically improved her standing in the polls. In early July, the Brown campaign released an internal poll showing Brown within seven percentage points of Turner.
When you run a progressive campaign that’s grassroots-funded, the money comes in unevenly.
Jeff Weaver, senior consultant, Nina Turner campaign
DMFI only began blanketing the airwaves in the final week of June. And for at least some of DMFI’s big-dollar donors, seeing Brown advance in the polls on the strength of her own advertising encouraged them to contribute more to DMFI’s efforts.
“There were some people who at first said, ‘I don’t think she can do it,’ and came around and said, ‘Well, I think she can,’ or gave more as it was clear that the race was closing,” said Mark Mellman, president of DMFI.
Overall, the Turner campaign dedicated a smaller portion of its budget to paid communication ― in the form of TV, digital and radio ads, as well as direct mail ― than Democratic campaign experts normally recommend. While the standard operating practice is to spend at least 70% of one’s budget on paid communication, as of mid-July, Turner’s campaign had spent, at most, 53% of its budget on those expenses.
Jeff Weaver, Turner’s top consultant and the former manager of Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders’ 2016 presidential race, denied that the campaign had misspent the money it raised. He blamed the campaign’s budgetary challenges on the unpredictable nature of the small-dollar, online fundraising that progressive candidates rely on to finance their races.
“When you run a progressive campaign that’s grassroots-funded, the money comes in unevenly,” said Weaver, who compared it to a “hockey-stick” trend-line in which there is a sharp uptick at the end.
In its statement to HuffPost, the Turner campaign also emphasized that when Turner launched in December, the campaign had been budgeting for the possibility of a special election as early as May. In mid-March, Ohio Gov. Mike DeWine (R) announced that the special election would take place in August, presumably scrambling some of the Turner campaign’s plans.
The campaign strategist who has worked on successful progressive campaigns said that those responses do not hold water.
“They were consistently raising money and posting good numbers,” the strategist said. “I don’t buy that they were unsure of how much would come in.”
You can’t manage a campaign and manage people remotely. You gotta be on the ground.
Mike Mikus, Democratic strategist
Of course, there is a vocal minority within the progressive campaign world that considers paid media as overrated, and maintains that campaigns should spend more on field operations that can reach people in person or over the phone.
While Brown’s campaign benefited from the support of a handful of uniquely self-organized constituencies, such as the Orthodox Jewish community in the Cleveland suburbs, the Turner campaign did not invest in a field program capable of countering those advantages.
Weaver conceded that the campaign’s field efforts could have been better. “We could have had a more robust field program for sure,” he said.
Turner’s field program was not only under-resourced, though; it was disorganized. Its field director, Ernest Boston, who ran Sanders’ field program in South Carolina in 2020, quit in April after his wife fell ill. (In keeping with the campaign’s progressive principles, it kept Boston on payroll through May out of concern for his situation.)
By May, the Turner campaign had four full-time field organizers ― two in Cleveland and two in Akron. But the campaign never replaced Boston, leaving the young staffers without an experienced leader.
Noah Redlich, a politically active Harvard undergrad who organized an online fundraiser for Turner among his parents and their friends in Los Angeles, had been trying and failing to establish contact with the field team for months to see if he could volunteer. When he finally touched down on the final weekend, he was not impressed with what he saw, calling it a marked contrast from the kind of discipline he witnessed while working on Maine Rep. Jared Golden’s campaign in 2020.
For one thing, three different organizers called him to see if he could attend their canvass events, indicating that there was a lack of coordination within the team. He also noticed that field organizers neglected to do basic things like give volunteers their phone numbers in case they got lost or had questions.
“I got the sense that the field organizers didn’t know what they were doing,” Redlich said.
Still, Turner’s campaign rejected the characterization of the field effort as leaderless, noting that Boston continued to help over the course of a “transitional period.”
“We elevated a local operative upon completion of that period, mindful that most community-hosted campaign events were still held virtually, and though increasing, confidence in direct face to face door knocking was still minimal and impacted our volunteer recruitment efforts,” the campaign said in a statement. “In reflection, hiring a new field Director promptly upon Boston’s departure … would have been ideal.”
In addition, the campaign held a July 31 get-out-the-vote rally with Sanders that drew 900 people, including many out-of-state supporters.
But it’s unclear whether the campaign adequately took advantage of the opportunity to mobilize volunteers for door knocking.
The campaign noted that the event concluded with a march to the early voting site in Cleveland and had a “multifaceted set of strategic purposes” that included driving up early voter turnout and attracting media coverage. But the campaign did not provide an estimate of the number of volunteers recruited through the massive event.
“Anyone who attended the event would have seen that staff and volunteers after the event launched canvasses from the parking lot on the side of the venue,” the campaign said. “Those volunteers were also signed up for subsequent canvassing in the days leading up to the election.”
The lack of direction on the field team was symptomatic of broader organizational issues.
Although vaccines became available to staff in April, many senior staff members and consultants, including Liz Shirey, Turner’s campaign manager, a Columbus, Ohio, resident, did not move to campaign headquarters in Cleveland until the final weeks of the race.
“That’s insane,” Mikus said. “You can’t manage a campaign and manage people remotely. You gotta be on the ground.”
In fairness, Shirey had health conditions that required her to get medical clearance before being vaccinated, delaying the timing of her vaccination.
There were other issues with her leadership though. Shirey, who had not worked on a campaign in years and has never run one, was an unfailingly kind leader, but quickly became overwhelmed by her responsibilities, according to multiple people familiar with the campaign’s workings. It was often unclear when employees were expected to clock in and what their instructions were for the day or week.
Brown’s campaign fired its campaign manager in May and hired Brian Peters, a Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee operative with experience running a major House campaign. But Turner chose not to get rid of Shirey.
As a result, Weaver, who was in the Washington area until the final weekend of the campaign, ended up having greater authority than Shirey over campaign strategy and major decisions, according to several people close to the campaign.
Weaver, the only Turner campaign aide who spoke to HuffPost by phone on the record, denied that this was the case.
“I was not the campaign manager despite what some people may think,” Weaver said. “I interacted very little with the staff.”
Where The Money Went
A comprehensive picture of the Turner campaign’s spending decisions in the final three weeks of the race is not yet available to the public. The campaigns that competed on Aug. 3 are only required to submit their final, post-election financial reports to the Federal Election Commission on Oct. 15.
But neither Weaver nor the Turner campaign disputed to HuffPost that the campaign had spent far less than 70% of its budget on paid media. There is no evidence suggesting that the campaign made a 180-degree change in the final weeks.
The question then becomes where the money went, if it did not go into paid media, or field.
One answer is to consultants. The campaign spent more than $267,000 on consultants ― 7% of the campaign budget as of mid-July, according to HuffPost’s analysis of FEC data. The figure does not include any vendors ― such as pollsters, ad buyers and direct mail producers ― who billed the campaign for specific services.
The total spend is “VERY high if that doesn’t include vendors for TV/mail/digital,” said one mainstream Democratic campaign strategist who requested anonymity for professional reasons.
The campaign paid four consultants to serve as political directors: Akron Councilwoman Tara Samples; John Farina, an LGBTQ activist and arts leader in Cleveland; Rev. Kyle Earley, Turner’s pastor; and Newburgh Heights Mayor Trevor Elkins.
Elkins, who earned $38,900 from the Turner campaign as of mid-July, faces potentially serious criminal penalties for using over $134,000 in campaign funds for personal expenses. Elkins said he did not know that what he did was illegal and that he always paid the money back to his campaign account, but the state’s ethics commission voted to refer his case for criminal prosecution in April.
The campaign also employed four people to handle media and communications, three of whom were paid as consultants: Kara Turrentine, deputy campaign manager and communications director; Jennifer Farmer, who has handled public relations for politically active Black celebrities like “Killer Mike” Render; and Angelo Greco, a Turner confidante from the 2020 Sanders campaign.
There was a division of labor on the communications team. Turrentine handled national press, Farmer liaised with Black-oriented media, Greco advised on strategy and tweeted on Turner’s behalf, and Marissa Nahem, the press secretary on the campaign’s payroll, managed relations with local media.
This is everything we’re supposed to be fighting against.
anonymous Nina Turner supporter
Weaver defended the arrangement. “Why would you not have a robust communications shop? You’re trying to communicate,” he said.
But other observers say that three communications consultants is excessive, especially considering the number of people the campaign employed directly. As of mid-July, the campaign was employing 19 people in either a full-time or part-time capacity.
Turrentine, who, like Boston, had worked closely with Turner on Sanders’ South Carolina team in 2020, is also a partner at the firm, Black Brown Partners, that served as the campaign’s direct mail vendor.
Some political professionals told HuffPost that the kind of dual role occupied by Turrentine can pose a conflict of interest that results in overpayment, or jeopardizes the quality of one of the services provided.
“It’s weird when anyone is doing a bunch of different things and they’re getting paid for all of them,” the Democratic consultant who worked on progressive campaigns said.
The costs of producing Turner’s TV and digital video advertisements were also a source of some controversy among Turner’s supporters.
As of Election Day, the media firm Devine Mulvey Longabaugh charged the Turner campaign between $350,000 and $400,000 for the shooting, production and editing of the campaign’s TV and digital ads. The campaign spent about $400,000 buying digital ad space and almost $1.9 million airing 10 original TV ads, though there were shorter versions of two of them and three different versions of the final spot.
Brown, by contrast, aired just six TV ads, despite outspending Turner on TV.
The cost of Turner’s production budget “makes me sick to my stomach,” said one of Turner’s supporters, who asked for anonymity for professional reasons. “This is everything we’re supposed to be fighting against.”
Political professionals unaffiliated with either campaign offered conflicting assessments of the value of the production spending, with some arguing that it was a fine price if each ad reached a sufficiently large audience. Others maintained that the production could have been done for much cheaper and questioned the need to produce so many spots.
Although DML declined to discuss the matter with HuffPost, the firm adheres to the industry standard of producing TV ads for candidates at cost and making money by taking a percentage commission on the TV airtime that gets purchased.
Weaver received a percentage of the commission on the airtime in exchange for referring DML to Turner’s campaign. But he also emphasized to HuffPost that because he and DML only make money from the airtime purchases, they actually have an incentive to keep production costs down, so the campaign will have more money to spend on airtime.
“We had some shoots that went overtime,” he said. “We only use union crews. When you use union crews and you go into overtime, it gets very expensive.”
Conflicting Polling Data
It’s by now well known that Turner’s rocky relationship with Democratic Party leaders in recent years was a key drag on her candidacy. As DMFI and Third Way made sure to inform voters, in July 2020 Turner likened the choice between Trump and Biden to deciding between a “bowl of shit” and “half” a bowl of shit.
Turner was trying to express the frustration of Black voters, in particular, who are hungry for candidates to present a positive vision for improving their lives, rather than just an alternative to Trump, and who sometimes feel taken for granted by the Democratic Party.
But the comments became shorthand in the district for the view that Turner would be an antagonist to Biden, rather than a “partner,” as Brown promised to be.
Some of her supporters wonder whether the remarks doomed her campaign before it even began.
“She probably lost [the race] when she said it,” said a progressive consultant involved in a pro-Turner super PAC, who requested anonymity for professional reasons.
The consultant expressed bewilderment at the campaign’s decision not to tackle the weakness head on, either through a public acknowledgment and apology, or a concerted effort to paint Turner as a staunch Biden ally.
Although an early direct mail piece noted that Turner had twice served as a convention delegate for Barack Obama, her first five TV spots did not so much as mention the words “Biden,” “Obama” or “Democrat.”
Instead, Turner’s campaign used its first TV ads to soften her image and remind voters of her local roots. They did not defend her partisan credentials on the airwaves until July in response to DMFI’s first negative ad.
The Turner campaign had data that supported their strategy.
Campaign officials were aware that the “bowl of shit” comments were a liability for Turner, but their research did not suggest that voters would fixate so much on her willingness to challenge Biden.
When Turner campaign pollster Ben Tulchin asked voters in May about whether they wanted a representative who would “be a partner with President Biden and Vice President Harris and work with them to get things done,” or “work with President Biden and Vice President Harris whenever possible and be willing to stand up for northeast Ohio and demand more when necessary,” 41% of respondents chose the former, and 52% chose the latter.
To this day, the Turner campaign believes that the DMFI and Third Way attacks on Turner that used the “bowl of shit” line used the issue of partisan loyalty as a veneer to employ the racist trope of depicting Turner as an “angry Black woman.”
“The campaign against Nina Turner by corporate outside interests was notable not only for its size, but for its viciousness, its dishonesty, and its use of racist tropes,” the Turner campaign said.
Turner’s team believes that the “angry Black woman” canard cost the campaign votes in Cleveland’s affluent Eastern suburbs, and in turn cost Turner the election.
At least one Brown voter ― albeit someone in Turner’s Lee-Harvard neighborhood rather than the suburbs ― used the “angry Black woman” language exactly to explain her objections to Turner. “Nina is portraying herself as an angry Black woman. And that’s how everybody sees Black women ― as angry,” Monique Jenkins, who is Black, told HuffPost on Election Day.
With the majority as tight as it is for Democrats in the House, having somebody who we know is going to be supportive of the president is critical.
Alan Melamed, Shaker Heights voter
For its part, Brown’s campaign polled a choice between candidates with different relationships to Biden that was nearly identical to the one Turner’s team tested, and got entirely different results.
When Brown’s polling firm Normington Petts asked voters in April whether they preferred a “Democrat who plans to work side by side with Joe Biden to help him pass his agenda,” or a “Democrat who has stood up to the establishment in Washington and will hold Joe Biden accountable,” voters favored the former over the latter 59% to 35%. Asked again in July, the numbers held steady, with voters preferring the cooperative Democrat to the independent-minded one 60% to 34%.
As a result, Brown’s team, which had been weighing whether to target Turner on other criteria, decided to home in on her relationship with Biden.
Rather than use its own resources to go negative on Turner though, the Brown campaign drafted what’s called a “red box,” or opposition-research memo designed to signal to outside groups what they should focus on. These messages are supposed to technically comply with campaign-finance laws barring direct coordination between the campaign and those external entities. (Turner, unlike Jamaal Bowman and some other progressive candidates, did not post a “red box.”)
In the “red box” on the Brown campaign’s website, Brown’s team wrote, “Voters across northeast Ohio need to see, read and hear that Nina Turner opposed President Biden and his agenda.” It went on to list a series of Turner’s most controversial actions and comments exemplifying that trend.
DMFI and Third Way hammered Turner with material featured in the “red box.” And sure enough, many voters who spoke with HuffPost explicitly cited concerns about whether Turner would work with Biden.
“I just think Brown’s going to be more supportive of the Biden agenda,” said Alan Melamed, a public relations executive in Shaker Heights. “With the majority as tight as it is for Democrats in the House, having somebody who we know is going to be supportive of the president is critical.”
The Turner campaign is skeptical of the idea that stressing Turner’s partisan credentials would have made the difference.
“Some argue that the presentation of Nina Turner’s considerable Democratic bona fides could have been highlighted even more,” the campaign said. “Perhaps that’s true but it was not determinative because Democratic bona fides was not the core attack but rather a proof point in the larger racist trope that DMFI, the [Congressional Black Caucus] PAC and other corporate interests deployed.”
Indeed, accusations of disloyalty to the party weren’t the only broadsides that Turner faced. DMFI, which had conducted its own polling, also misleadingly implied in direct-mail pieces and digital ads that Turner opposed the $15 minimum wage and universal health care, because she cast a symbolic vote against the Democratic Party platform in 2016. Turner, an avid proponent of those policies, simply felt that the platform did not go far enough.
The Turner campaign called the talking point a “Trump-like tactic of disinformation.”
Mellman, the president of DMFI, claimed that the material was not trying to say that Turner opposed the policies.
“What we were trying to say is that she was being divisive ― and she was being divisive even though [the platform] contained things she liked,” he said.
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