Ohio becomes battleground for rival Democratic factions

Progressive Democrat Nina Turner and moderate Democrat Shontel Brown are competing for a House seat in Ohio’s 11th Congressional District. 

Democrats have zoomed in on a Cleveland-area congressional race for clues about the direction of the party. 

In Nina Turner, progressives see an animated advocate of left-wing orthodoxy. In Shontel Brown, moderates see a pragmatic complement to President Biden’s domestic agenda.

The two are competing for a House seat in Ohio’s 11th Congressional District. The Aug. 3 primary is expected to portend the outcome in the general election.

The race has become a test of Democratic doctrine and star power two weeks from Election Day, an uber-nationalized contest that has irritated some party faithful and activists who say you cannot diagnose a broader trend from just one district-level contest.

“One of the problems here is the national players are operating as if that’s all it’s about,” said Dave Pepper, the former chairman of the Ohio Democratic Party, who has endorsed Turner. “That’s made it into a much less positive race than I would like.”

“The whole debate, I’m afraid, has got distorted because people are superimposing other battles onto this race,” he said.

Chris Scott, chief political officer for Democracy for America, described the race as a “proxy battle” between the party’s progressive and establishment flanks. 

“It’s just unfortunate how at times contested and nasty this race has gotten,” Scott said. “You don’t ever want to see that, but at the same time, what do you expect when you have a clash of ideologies on how exactly we should be fighting for the people?”

In the latest sign of keen Washington interest, two of the most outspoken elected officials in the House, Majority Whip James Clyburn (D-S.C.) and Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.), are expected to stump for Brown and Turner, respectively, in the next few days. 

Both campaigns welcomed the high-level support but say they are striving to stay all about the Cleveland region. They are angling to replace former Rep. Marcia Fudge (D-Ohio), who was confirmed in January as Biden’s Housing and Urban Development secretary.

Democrats have incentives to keep the focus local. Historically, critics say overly nationalizing down-ballot races can detract from topics voters discuss at home that might not apply to the whole country. They argue that too much national hoopla can drown out smaller and perhaps more nuanced issues that actually take precedence among residents. 

In Cleveland, which has a high population of low-income residents, some say that it is even more essential to give attention to constituents’ calls for things like affordable housing and expanded medical access. 

Both campaigns argue they have done that. Turner released an ad supporting Medicare for All, while Brown’s campaign website says she will back a universal health care bill if it came to the House floor for a vote. 

Some of their priorities also jointly track with the Biden administration’s agenda, like a $15 federal minimum wage and making the child tax credit permanent. 

Turner, who has been the front-runner for much of the race, has seen her lead narrow in recent days amid new attacks and endorsements for her opponent from national Democrats and aligned special organizations. 

An influential slate of outside groups, including the Congressional Black Caucus PAC and the New Democrat Coalition’s action fund, recently endorsed Brown, as did Hillary Clinton, the former Democratic presidential nominee in 2016. The Democratic Majority for Israel PAC has also supported Brown’s campaign through targeted advertising.

Brown spent more than $1 million over the last seven weeks, her campaign said. A senior aide to Turner declined to comment on their spending.

Meanwhile, Turner slammed what she called dark money spending — one of the biggest gripes of movement progressives — from Brown’s allies during an Our Revolution organizing call on Monday evening, warning that such groups “are coming with a fury.” 

“The corporatists are throwing everything, the status quo seekers and keepers are throwing everything at us to try to stop this movement, but we will not be stopped,” Turner said during the call.

Brown’s campaign has focused a lot of its firepower on hitting Turner’s past criticisms of party leaders like Biden and former President Obama, accusing her of “constant grandstanding” in a statement to The Hill. 

“Nina Turner sees this race slipping away from her, and Shontel Brown has the momentum in the final weeks of this race,” said Brown’s campaign manager, Brian Peters.

Turner’s allies insist the negative push toward the final sprint was expected. The former campaign operative for Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) and close friend of the senator has built a name on insurgent, in-your-face style politics, arguing that change for working-class Americans is most effective when it comes from the grassroots. 

In essence, they say there’s nothing new to see here.

“This race is getting a lot of attention because Nina is a progressive star and will take on the entrenched special interests that we need to in Congress,” said Connor Farrell, a strategist who founded the fundraising firm Left Rising, which channels small-dollar donations to progressive candidates backed by groups like Justice Democrats.

“That makes a lot of people both excited and a lot of entrenched interests very, very afraid,” Farrell said.

In addition to Sanders and Ocasio-Cortez, Turner also received the backing of other progressive “squad” members like Reps. Rashida Tlaib (D-Mich.) and Ilhan Omar (D-Minn.). On Friday, activist and former NAACP President Ben Jealous will campaign for Turner in Akron.

Those who prefer a more traditional centrist kind of politics are hopeful Clyburn’s upcoming visit will enhance Brown’s chances, similar to what happened when the Democratic kingmaker endorsed Biden during the lowest point of his presidential campaign. 

Biden swept the South Carolina and Super Tuesday primaries with the help of Clyburn, who rallied much of the Black Democratic voting bloc behind the then-candidate.

“When you have the most consequential Black elected official of our day showing up in a place like Cleveland, where the African American vote serves at the nerve center, I think that only gives you a chance of success,” said Democratic strategist and Clyburn ally Antjuan Seawright.

But progressives say Clyburn isn’t likely to have the same impact in the industrial Midwest, pointing to Turner’s own name recognition and local standing in the community as bigger benefits. 

“I don’t think Jim Clyburn has that kind of presence or influence in Ohio or in that district,” said Our Revolution’s executive director, Joseph Geevarghese. “When you have someone like Nina, who served on the city council, who served as a state senator, an outsider coming in to say ‘the better Black representative is Shontel Brown,’ I don’t think that’s going to fly.” 

Tags Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez Bernie Sanders Hillary Clinton Ilhan Omar Joe Biden Marcia Fudge Rashida Tlaib

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