The left of the Democratic Party is pinning its hopes on a primary victory on Tuesday to ease the pain of some recent disappointments.
Nina Turner, a former Ohio state senator who served as a high-profile surrogate for Sen. Bernie SandersBernie SandersFranken targets senators from both parties in new comedy tour Pelosi says House members would not vote on spending bill top line higher than Senate's Groups push lawmakers to use defense bill to end support for Saudis in Yemen civil war MORE (I-Vt.) during the 2020 presidential campaign, looks to have the edge to win the Democratic House primary in the state’s 11th Congressional District. The seat was previously held by Housing and Urban Development Secretary Marcia FudgeMarcia FudgeBiden administration launches new national initiative to fight homelessness Sanders goes back to 2016 playbook to sell .5T budget Activists detail legal fight against HUD for Philadelphia housing MORE.
Turner is backed by Sanders — who campaigned for her over the weekend — as well as progressive Reps. Alexandria Ocasio-CortezAlexandria Ocasio-CortezFeehery: The confidence game Democrats face full legislative plate and rising tensions McCarthy on Dems' spending bill: 'The amount of money we spent to win World War II' MORE (D-N.Y.), Cori Bush (D-Mo.) and Jamaal Bowman (D-N.Y.).
But the large polling lead she enjoyed in the early stages of the race has been winnowed down. Turner’s main rival, Cuyahoga County Democratic Party Chairwoman Shontel Brown, is in with a fighting chance.
If Brown were to pull out a win on Tuesday, it would extend a series of letdowns for the left that encompasses the New York City mayoral primary and the Virginia gubernatorial primary, which were won respectively by Eric Adams and Terry McAuliffe.
Both men are relative moderates who vanquished left-wing challengers.
Those defeats have raised the stakes on Tuesday.
“We need Nina. I need Nina. Please send me Nina,” Ocasio-Cortez urged voters at a Cleveland rally for Turner late last month.
Sanders, alluding to critiques leveled against Turner by outside groups, told CNN over the weekend: “Why are they spending millions of dollars trying to defeat her? The answer is obvious. They are afraid of her.”
But the vital primary is increasingly hinging on questions of tone and approach as much as an ideological divide.
Turner, a supporter of the Green New Deal and “Medicare for All,” is a notch or two to the left of Brown, whose record nonetheless suggests she would be a reliable vote for President BidenJoe BidenUN meeting with US, France canceled over scheduling issue Schumer moves to break GOP blockade on Biden's State picks GOP Rep. Cawthorn likens vaccine mandates to 'modern-day segregation' MORE’s agenda. Both are Black women, a germane point in a party that champions issues of racial and gender justice.
The big difference is in rhetoric. Turner was notably outspoken, even by the impassioned standards of Sanders supporters, during the 2020 campaign.
That makes her an admirable fighter in the eyes of her fans. But her detractors fear her approach is counterproductive. They also raise the issue of her loyalty, or otherwise, to Biden.
A 2020 remark, in which Turner compared the choice between then-President TrumpDonald TrumpUN meeting with US, France canceled over scheduling issue Trump sues NYT, Mary Trump over story on tax history McConnell, Shelby offer government funding bill without debt ceiling MORE and Biden to one between eating a full or half-bucket of excrement, has been amplified by supporters of Brown.
House Majority Whip James Clyburn (D-S.C.) has been Brown’s most important backer.
“I just don’t know why, all of a sudden in this country, we like to hurl these insults,” Clyburn told this column on Monday. “I am going to do my part to increase civility in the political world.”
Clyburn pushed back against the idea that either he or Brown were less progressive than Turner and her biggest supporters.
“I have been out here fighting these battles for a long, long time,” he said. “People know I met my late wife in jail. [Former Rep.] John LewisJohn LewisHouse Democrats unveil legislation to curtail presidential power Michelle Obama looks to mobilize voters for midterms Harris, CBC put weight behind activist-led National Black Voter Day MORE and I were original founders of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, SNCC. I would put my résumé up against anybody’s. But I don’t think being progressive or moderate should dictate whether you are pleasant or respectful.”
Matt Bennett, an executive vice president of the center-left Third Way group, contended that “tone matters and the Democratic brand matters.”
He added, “It matters in an age in which relatively junior members of the House can have an outsize voice on social media and help define what it means to be a Democrat — to the detriment of their colleagues in swing districts.”
Still, Turner’s vigor — “I’m turning over tables on behalf of the poor,” she tweeted on Monday — has drawn passionate supporters. It has boosted her campaign coffers too. She has raised about $5.6 million for the race, more than double Brown’s $2.4 million.
Unaligned Democrats in Ohio think Turner could enjoy a potentially decisive enthusiasm gap.
Jerry Austin, a Democratic strategist in the state not affiliated with either candidate, said that he would be “surprised” if Turner did not win, even though his own sources consider the race too close to call.
“The people who are for Nina are more enthusiastic and passionate than the people for Shontel,” he said.
Meanwhile, Turner has been highlighting her support for former President Obama, featuring footage of the two together in a recent ad that also touted her endorsement by the Cleveland Plain Dealer and some labor unions.
Some of her backers are also loath to accept the left-vs.-center framing of the race.
Cleveland Mayor Frank Jackson (D), who has endorsed Turner, told this column that her critics are “obviously some people who believe Nina Turner would not represent their points of view or fall in line with their ideology or dogma.
“That, to me, lends another qualification she has, which is that she will be independent,” the mayor added. “What she stands for is what everybody wants — they want a better quality of life, they want to be healthy, they want their kids educated. I don’t see where that is a progressive or conservative thing.”
Make no mistake, though — a Turner victory on Tuesday will be viewed by the left as a win in their broader struggle for the soul of the party.
And, if she is defeated, progressives will once again find themselves facing hard questions.
The Memo is a reported column by Niall Stanage.