Centrist Democrats rush to blunt Nina Turner’s momentum in Ohio

Old tensions within the Democratic Party are flaring anew as centrist lawmakers scramble to head off a formidable progressive challenge from Nina Turner in Ohio’s 11th District. 

Moderate Democrats along with a senior leadership lawmaker, House Majority Whip James Clyburn (D-S.C.), have quickly coalesced around Shontel Brown to blunt Turner’s traction, drawing more eyeballs and scrutiny to the special House election to replace former Rep. Marcia Fudge (D-Ohio), the Biden administration’s Housing and Urban Development secretary.

“It’s a signal that the establishment and the more moderate wing of the party is paying attention now and trying to rally the troops because they see that Nina is the front-runner,” a senior Turner aide said. 

Turner, a former state senator, is leading the race in polling and has been stockpiling donations. She has also been endorsed by progressive stars such as Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) and Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.).

“The more attention, the more exposure, and the better choice people have,” Cleveland Mayor Frank Jackson (D), a top Turner endorser, told The Hill in an interview. “She has a passion for things that are important to people.”

“I know her and what she’s made of,” he said.

Turner is known as a progressive ringleader among the activist class. As co-chair of Sanders’s last presidential campaign, she helped the Vermont senator mount a grassroots-style challenge to then-candidate Joe Biden and nearly two dozen other contenders. Her fiery stage presence also drew new supporters into the party.

Top elected officials and leaders had mostly remained quiet in the Ohio race until recently, when former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton endorsed Brown, a Cuyahoga County councilwoman and chair of the county Democratic Party, earlier this month. Clyburn followed suit Tuesday, backing Brown in an interview with The New York Times.

“What I try to do is demonstrate by precept and example how we are to proceed as a party,” Clyburn told the newspaper, warning that popular policy phrases on the left such as “defund the police” might cause Democrats to lose their seats.

Turner’s campaign views the recent surge of activity from centrist Democrats like Clyburn and Clinton as a tactical shift. The Turner aide said that as the Aug. 3 primary nears, high-profile moderates are now rushing to intervene in the hopes of bringing national scrutiny to the race.

“The path for them is to nationalize the election,” the senior aide said. “And to remind people of 2016 and 2020.”

During the most recent presidential primary, Clyburn backed Biden when his campaign was tanking. The South Carolina congressman’s support was a critical step in Biden’s advancement in the South, which eventually helped him win the party’s nomination over Sanders. Four years earlier, Clinton also defeated Sanders after a string of upsets during an unexpectedly hard-fought cycle. 

Turner holds a double-digit lead in recent polling. A Tulchin Research survey, paid for by the Turner campagin, released earlier this month showed her at 50 percent of support among likely voters in the crowded primary, while Brown came in at 15 percent. Ben Tulchin, the group’s president, was Sanders’s campaign pollster in 2020.

The campaign announced a six-figure fundraising haul on the day Clyburn gave his blessing to her opponent. Brown’s campaign said on Thursday they raised $162,000 after Clyburn endorsed on Tuesday. 

Turner’s campaign received an endorsement from Rep. Ayanna Pressley (D-Mass.), joining her fellow “squad” members Ocasio-Cortez and Reps. Ilhan Omar (D-Minn.) and Rashida Tlaib (D-Mich.) in backing Turner. 

The senior aide said another high-profile lawmaker is expected to endorse her Thursday.

“What we saw overnight was people at the grassroots rallying to support Nina Turner against corporate interests,” said Kara Turrentine, who serves as Turner’s deputy campaign manager, in a statement about the recent fundraising.

Despite the steady momentum, centrists are warning that the progressive playbook won’t bode well for the party’s future.

Democrats who oppose Turner’s candidacy tie her success to her high-profile persona, which became more prominent during Sanders’s campaign. She has also been a regular face on cable news and has frequently caused a stir within the party for pushing against a moderate agenda.

“In a game where name recognition matters, I think that she automatically came into the race with some name recognition because of her national profile,” said Democratic strategist Antjuan Seawright, a friend of Clyburn’s. 

Some moderates point to recent high-profile progressive campaigns that garnered national media attention but ultimately flopped, such as in the Virginia Democratic gubernatorial primary and special House elections earlier this year in Louisiana’s 2nd District and New Mexico’s 1st District.

“This just shows how allergic the online left is to winning,” said Liam Kerr, the co-founder of The Welcome Party, a group dedicated to advocating for a big-tent Democratic Party. 

Kerr suggested that some notable left-aligned primary wins like India Walton’s victory in the Buffalo mayoral primary were a result of lower voter turnout in an off-election year. By nationalizing a race, he argues, primary voters are more likely to choose a centrist candidate who could bring in higher numbers of voters. 

“Why would you try to change the nature of a race in July?” Kerr asked. “If your polls show that you’re up 50 to [15 percent], that doesn’t mean you have to nationalize the race. It doesn’t mean that you have to focus on fighting and getting attention.” 

But progressives contend it’s an exaggeration to say the left flank is losing ground, pointing to gains in the House last cycle. They also argue that cornerstone liberal issues, such as “Medicare for All,” are popular with the voters Turner and Brown are trying to win. 

“Just because centrists choose to ignore it doesn’t mean it’s not popular,” said Paco Fabian, communications director at Our Revolution, which was formerly led by Turner. 

Still, the boost of activity shows a wide range of Democrats are now watching closely. One prominent political action committee, Democratic Majority for Israel, run by longtime party strategist and columnist for The Hill Mark Mellman, recently released an advertisement in the Cleveland market supporting Brown. 

Like some other centrist Democrats, Mellman sought to halt Sanders’s advancement in the presidential election. The new spot in favor of Brown notably does not go after Turner, a decision that surprised some on her campaign who had experienced attacks against Sanders. 

“Shontel Brown, for Biden, for us,” the narrator says, drawing on the president’s name in an attempt to boost the Ohio councilwoman. 

Moderates say the early vote in precincts that lean center-left will be an indicator of the direction of the race. The district, which Clinton won in the 2016 Democratic primary, extends from the Cleveland suburb of Euclid through Cleveland to Akron. 

“It’s not a huge liberal bastion,” said Quentin James, president of the Collective PAC, which is staying neutral in the race. “These are Democratic voters but when we say, ‘Big Tent Party’ that means you have folks of differing opinions regarding policing, regarding health care, regarding the relationship with Israel and the United States.” 

The district is expected to go to the Democratic nominee in the Nov. 2 general election, making the primary battle all the more consequential. 

“If Shontel is able to pull this off, might it be that the party should stay more moderate and should follow the path of Joe Biden?” James said. “That’s a question that I’m looking forward to seeing the voters answer for all of us.”

Updated 9:53 p.m.

Tags 2022 midterms Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez Ayanna Pressley Bernie Sanders campaign Hillary Clinton Ilhan Omar Joe Biden Marcia Fudge Nina Turner Ohio and Wisconsin ohio democrats progressives Rashida Tlaib
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