(WASHINGTON) — Despite taking place during a politically off-cycle campaign year, a major intraparty battle heavy with national implications is brewing in Tuesday’s Democratic primary special election for Ohio’s 11th Congressional District.
The contest presents an early test case of whether progressives can gain traction ahead of a pivotal midterm election cycle by going up against establishment-backed candidates. A slew of high-profile figures even descended on the Cleveland area in the lead-up to election day — including Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., and House Majority Whip Rep. Jim Clyburn, D-S.C.
With Republicans simultaneously vying in another heated primary in the suburbs of Columbus in the state’s 15th Congressional District, Tuesday’s race in the 11th district takes place in one of Ohio’s few reliably blue areas and features more than a dozen Democratic candidates. Whoever comes out on top is all but guaranteed to go on to fill the seat left vacant by Housing and Urban Development Secretary Marcia Fudge when she joined the Biden administration.
Over the last several months, the field narrowed down to two candidates — Nina Turner, former state senator and top Sanders campaign aide, and Shontel Brown, who currently serves as chairwoman of the Cuyahoga County Democratic Party.
Regardless of who advances from the primary, either of the two candidates would continue the more than two-decade long tradition of Black women representing the 11th district in Congress. Although the pair of front-runners share the common cultural baseline in their goal of speaking on behalf of the majority-Black district in Washington, Turner and Brown approached the campaign trail from different ends of the Democratic political spectrum.
“I’ve talked to people, my team has talked to people, and although people … believe that things can change, they also say that they want a fighter, somebody that’s gonna push back,” Turner told ABC News in an interview.
As a former co-chairwoman of Sanders’ 2020 presidential campaign, Turner cultivated a firebrand, national image and went into the race as the early front-runner. Turner’s political ties helped her campaign rake in more than $4 million overall throughout her primary run and earned her the endorsements from well-known progressive figures on Capitol Hill including all of the “Squad” members, as well as Sen. Ed Markey and Sanders.
Beyond the high-profile figures in Washington, the former state senator also earned dozens of local endorsements that Ohio political experts said bolster her campaign’s vitality on a local level.
“Turner is not just a progressive candidate. She’s someone that’s been around and known and been in Cleveland for a long, long time as a city council member, as a state senator, as someone who’s got a lot of ties and connections. You can see that in some of the endorsements that she’s getting like the Cleveland mayor (Frank Jackson),” said former Ohio Gov. Bob Taft.
In broader statewide terms, progressive Democrats also see Turner’s candidacy as a potential spark that could reignite the party’s voter base in a state that has largely shifted to the right following the 2016 election.
“You’ve got a Democratic Party that’s been largely gutted in Ohio. It was part of the blue wall that’s been crumbling. Nina and her campaign could point a way for Democrats to rebuild the blue wall in the industrial heartland,” said Joseph Geevarghese, executive director of the progressive political action organization, Our Revolution.
Despite the sweeping endorsements and high hopes for the future, Turner appears to be aware of potential minefields her past comments about her own party members opened up on the campaign trail. Following Sanders’ 2016 presidential primary loss, Turner heavily criticized the Democratic Party and in a January 2020 op-ed, she accused President Joe Biden of betraying Black voters by working with Republicans throughout his career. After Biden won the nomination, Turner made a now-infamous comparison during an interview with The Atlantic, in which she compared voting for Biden over former President Donald Trump to eating half a bowl of excrement rather than eating the entire bowl.
Going into the primary, Turner told ABC News that she is looking “forward to working with Democrats across the spectrum” if she wins and hopes that people will see her as a “coalition builder” even though “people might not always agree with (her).”
“What we can see is that the Biden administration is moving in a more progressive direction and I believe that is because of the progressive movement, and progressives have been principal partners with this administration, so this is about the future and not relitigating old primaries, and the only people who benefit from relitigation of this, are the very people who don’t want to see the change happen,” Turner said.
Although Turner may want to leave the past behind, many Democrats are indicating that they would have a hard time letting bygones be bygones and are instead choosing to funnel their support toward Brown after a hard-fought general election year in which Black voters mobilized in favor of Biden. Brown also received the endorsement of Sanders’ 2016 primary competitor, former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, who praised her for breaking barriers as the first Black woman to chair her county’s Democratic Party.
Among the nation’s heavyweight Black lawmakers who are rallying for Brown in the primary are members of the Congressional Black Caucus, who played a key role in landing Biden the presidency.
Two of the nation’s top Black lawmakers, Clyburn and Congressional Black Caucus Chair Rep. Joyce Beatty, rallied across the district in the last weekend before the election, painting Brown as an inherent ally of the White House. During a campaign event on Sunday, Clyburn appeared to issue a veiled jab at Turner by saying Brown is the kind of candidate who is “interested in making headway than making the headlines” and “much more interested in getting results than spewing insults.”
“We need somebody from the 11th district here in Ohio who will work with Joe Biden, somebody who believes in his agenda that he’s put forth, not somebody who is going to insult the president,” Clyburn added to cheers and applause from supporters, while adding that he would not have to be concerned about counting on Brown’s positions as the majority whip if she were elected to Congress.
Biden has not issued an endorsement in the primary, but a recent ad from the Brown campaign that features Fudge’s mother, Marian Saffold, indicates the candidate’s intended ties to the administration.
“Marcia now serves in President Biden’s cabinet, so she can’t endorse in the race for Congress, but I can,” Saffold says in the ad.
“Shontel Brown is Marcia’s protege. She shares Marcia’s values and will continue her legacy in Congress. On August 3rd, we’re voting for Shontel Brown,” Saffold adds.
While the dueling endorsement camps set up high stakes for election day for both candidates, Tuesday’s outcome is likely to further direct the path Democrats forge beyond Ohio in 2022 and beyond.
“It’s a question of, do progressive politics only work in coastal cities, be they the East Coast, West Coast or the North Coast? And here we have a state that is certainly purple, and we have a city that is ripe territory for some of these progressive politics, but it also does have those suburbs and some of those more conservative regions,” Ben Bates, a professor at Ohio State University told ABC News.
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