Five things to watch in two Ohio special election primaries

Two special House primaries in Ohio Tuesday have emerged as potential predictors of whether the centrist or more ideological wings of both the Democratic and Republican parties hold more sway heading into the 2022 midterms. 

A special election in a red district near Columbus for the seat vacated by former Rep. Steve Stivers (R) and another in for a blue seat near Cleveland formerly held by now-Housing and Urban Development Secretary Marcia Fudge have drawn massive interests from lawmakers and outside groups, making the latest battlegrounds for the civil wars gripping both Republicans and Democrats. 

Near Columbus, energy lobbyist Mike Carey is trying to defeat a slate of other Republicans by running mainly on his endorsement from Donald Trump, marking that primary as another early test of the former president’s strength. In the race for Fudge’s old seat, progressive stalwart Nina Turner, a former state senator who shot to national prominence as a surrogate for Sen. Bernie Sanders’s (I-Vt.) presidential campaigns, is looking to hold off Shontel Brown, a local official with the backing of some of the Democratic Party’s most high-profile establishment figures. 

Here are five things to watch as voters head to the polls: 

Trump’s endorsement will be put to the test

Trump has already attempted to wield his endorsement as a powerful tool in the 2022 cycle, but the contest in Ohio’s 15th Congressional District will test the strength of his brand at a precarious time.

While Trump has come out strong for Carey, a virtual unknown before winning the former president’s endorsement, several of the approximately dozen other candidates in the GOP primary field are bringing in their own high-profile backers.

Former state Rep. Ron Hood, another conservative, has the support of Sen. Rand Paul’s (R-Ky.) political action committee, and Stivers has backed state Rep. Jeff LaRe (R). State Sen. Bob Peterson (R), meanwhile, has racked up a slew of more local endorsements.

Observers have said Carey will have Trump to thank should he win the primary, given his low name recognition before announcing the endorsement. But Trump’s backing alone might not be enough to drag him over the finish line. 

“I think it’s one of the top influencers in this race. Nobody had an idea who Mike Carey was until former President Trump endorsed him. And that’s the only thing he’s banking on really,” said Ohio-based GOP strategist Mike Hartley. 

“The Trump endorsement put Carey as the front runner. But the significant spend by the Freedom PAC and Rand Paul…has potentially put a kink in that plan,” he added.

Trump suffered a setback last week in a special House election in Texas where his chosen candidate, Susan Wright, lost to state Rep. Jake Ellzey (R) in a runoff, setting off questions over whether Trump’s endorsement still packs the kind of punch it did when he held office.

The former president tried to spin Wright’s loss as a win for him, but is likely eager to solidify his standing as the de facto leader of the GOP after Ellzey’s victory.

Should Carey win, pundits would likely cast it as a demonstration of the strength of Trump’s endorsement and his lingering sway among the GOP base. But a loss would compound on a narrative that his influence could be slipping. 

The importance of the Ohio race was underscored by an 11th hour, $350,000 buy late last week on targeted text messages, digital and TV ads backing Carey, a late indication that the former president views the race as a priority.

Can Turner and progressives pull off a win in the 11th district? 

The winner of the Democratic primary in the deeply blue 11th Congressional District will likely coast to victory in November’s general election, making the intraparty contest consequential. 

National progressive and Democratic establishment figures have flocked to the Cleveland-area district in recent days, with Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) and Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.) carrying the progressive banner on Turner’s behalf. 

The election comes after progressive candidates, like Buffalo, N.Y., mayoral candidate India Walton (D) and Rep. Cori Bush (D-Mo.), won major victories in their primaries over the past year. 

But Democratic establishment candidates have also seen victories over progressives in the Virginia Democratic gubernatorial primary and special House elections earlier this year in Louisiana’s 2nd District and New Mexico’s 1st District. 

Many have painted the primary as a test for the progressive movement going forward, while others have argued its evidence that the Democratic Party truly has a big tent. 

“I think it’s just a reminder that in races where the nominee will likely decide the person who serves in the seat, it shows the value, the intensity and the importance of a primary,” said Democratic strategist Antjuan Seawright. 

Progressives argue that their movement is already gaining prominence within the party, but say Turner’s presence on Capitol Hill will only strengthen their numbers.  

“It would further empower the congressional Progressive Caucus. It would be incredible to have Nina in the Congressional Black Caucus,” said Joseph Geevarghese, the executive director of the progressive group Our Revolution, which was formerly led by Turner. “But that being said…the progressive movement is rolling forward, and win or lose, I feel that momentum is on our side.”

How big are the intraparty divisions for Republicans and Democrats?

While both races have laid bare the intraparty divisions within both the Republican and Democratic parties, it remains to be seen how large those divisions are. 

Polling in both races has been scant, leaving many to wait until election day to see who wins – and by how much.

A polling memo put out by Carey’s campaign in late June showed him winning 20 percent of the vote, 11 points over LaRe, his closest competitor. But the survey also showed 44 percent of voters remain undecided. 

Still, the race has shown that with a broad enough field, even those who are typically aligned with each other, such as Trump and Paul, can find themselves on opposing sides of a contentious race. 

The race in Ohio’s 11th Congressional District has also seen minimal public polling from independent firms, but the internal polling that has been released has indicated a tightening race. 

Brown’s campaign in July released a poll showing her trailing Turner by 7 points, 36-43. That survey marked a drastic improvement for her from a poll Brown’s campaign conducted in April showing her a whopping 32 points behind. 

Both candidates have hauled in gargantuan sums of money, though Turner has proven the stronger fundraiser. Turner took in $2.3 million from April 1-July 14 and has raised $4.5 million overall since the start of her campaign, while Brown has raised $1.3 million over the same 3.5-month period and just over $2 million overall.

The divisions have been highlighted more by who has come out to support the two contenders. Turner has been backed by prominent progressives like Sanders Ocasio-Cortez, while Brown has won the endorsements of Rep. Jim Clyburn (D-S.C.), the No. 3 Democrat in the House, and Hillary Clinton.

But observers are warning not to extrapolate too broadly the lessons from each race, given the unique nature of the special elections and a turnout that is expected to fall far short of normally scheduled House races. 

“This is why this race and the one up in 11 is just weird. It’s a special election. This is not a normal election, this is not your normal primary election. So I don’t know what you can take from it,” said Hartley. “Honestly I don’t think you can read that much from it. People will, but it’s just such a unique and weird race where most people don’t even know there’s an election tomorrow.” 

Outside groups, figures put to the test after campaigning in 11th district 

The race between Turner and Brown has tightened recent weeks, thanks in part to Brown’s campaign and allies upping the amount they spend on the airwaves. Outside groups have also aired ads on behalf of Brown, with many attacking Turner. 

The Democratic Majority for Israel PAC has released ads and statements hitting Turner for her past remarks about Biden and Hillary Clinton. Progressives have hit back at the efforts from outsider groups backing Turner, saying their playbook shows they are afraid of unconventional candidates like Turner.  

“Why are they spending millions of dollars trying to defeat her?” Sanders told CNN over the weekend. “The answer is obvious. They are afraid of her.”

National progressive organizations, like Our Revolution and Democracy for America have also jumped into the race, seeking to mobilize their own progressive voting base.  

In an interview with CNN, Clyburn appeared to take a swipe at the progressive movement and their playbook in Congress.  

“I don’t understand why people think that the entire agenda has got to be yours. That’s not the way the world works,” he told the network.  “We have to sit down, find common ground, reconcile the differences and move an agenda forward. That’s what this President is doing and that’s why he’s been so successful.”

Clyburn, Ocasio-Cortez, and Sanders’ campaign stops in the district is yet another indicator of how the race has become widely nationalized. 

“This campaign will be battled in Cleveland but possibly won outside of Cleveland in terms of who actually gets out the vote,” Seawright said. 

Turnout will be key in the off-year races 

Both special election primaries are taking place in an off-election year, meaning that turnout is likely to be lower than in a regularly scheduled House election.  

“The expectation is to have marginal turnout,” Seawright said. “In a primary it’s all about turning out your voters, and at this stage in the game any campaign is not necessarily focused on trying to engage more people but persuade their people.” 

Our Revolution is a part of a network of progressive groups working with leaders to turn out the progressive vote in the district.  

“Our goal is to make sure that everyone of our supporters gets out to vote,” Geevarghese said. “We’re going all out to mobilize the progressive voters in this district.” 

The establishment and progressive flanks of the party also hope that the presence of their national leaders in the district will help to motivate their respective bases.  

“I think they’ll have a tremendous impact,” Seawright said. “It’s a reminder that not only is politics a contact sport, but politics is a game of addition and multiplication, not of subtraction and division.” 

In the 15th district, turnout will also be key, but could ultimately lead to a splitting of the vote. 

“When you’re dealing with such small relative numbers and 11 candidates, there’s all kinds of weirdness that can happen,” Hartley said. “Particularly if Carey and Hood kind of split that Trump lane, that can open up somebody else to kind of run up the gap on them. And that could be a number of people, I mean that could be Peterson, that can be a LaRe, there’s probably four or five people that could potentially win this race.” 

Tags 11th congressional district 15th congressional district Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez Bernie Sanders Donald Trump Hillary Clinton Marcia Fudge Ohio Ohio primaries Ohio Special election Rand Paul Steve Stivers

The Hill has removed its comment section, as there are many other forums for readers to participate in the conversation. We invite you to join the discussion on Facebook and Twitter.

See all Hill.TV See all Video

Most Popular

Load more


See all Video