Heated congressional primary in Ohio a battle between Democrats’ establishment, progressive wings

Top surrogates, outside groups, parachute into nasty Democratic congressional primary fight in Ohio

It was a brief truce amid a nasty campaign fight between the two leading candidates in a congressional special election Democratic primary in northern Ohio that’s turned into proxy battle between the party’s establishment and progressive wings.

Nina Turner, a former state senator and a top surrogate for Sen. Bernie Sanders' 2016 and 2020 presidential campaigns, and Cuyahoga County councilwoman Shontel Brown shook hands as the joined together on stage at a predominantly Black megachurch in suburban Cleveland.

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The brief moment of peace came two days before Tuesday’s primary election in the special election in Ohio’s 11th Congressional District, a predominantly Black and overwhelmingly Democratic district that includes large portions of Cleveland and its southern and eastern suburbs, as well as parts of the city of Akron.

Turner and Brown, who are both Black, are the top two candidates in a 13-candidate field in the race to fill the seat left vacant when longtime Democratic Rep. Marcia Fudge stepped down early this year after being confirmed as Housing and Urban Development secretary in President Biden's administration.

"Soon as church is over, ya’ll go back to fighting," senior pastor R.A. Vernon of the Word Church said as he prayed for both Turner and Brown.

Turner, the 53-year old front runner in the contest, supports Medicare for All and the Green New Deal, two top goals for progressives. And she’s hauled in nearly $6 million in fundraising since launching her campaign in December, more than twice what Brown’s raised.

The battle between Brown and Turner – always tense – has turned even more negative in recent weeks.

The narrator in a Turner commercial spotlighted that Brown "voted to give herself a $7,000 raise while opposing Biden’s $15 minimum wage plan." The narrator then spotlighted a report questioning Brown’s ethics before charging that "Brown could face charges, if convicted, jail time." Brown’s campaign criticized the ad as false.

Brown, 46, is targeting Turner as a Democratic outsider who’s far too critical of President Biden.

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"In Congress, I’ll bring people together and work with Joe Biden to stop gun violence and provide economic relief for families. That’s different than Nina Turner," Brown says in a campaign commercial from May. The ad then show’s a brief clip of an MSNBC interview with Turner where the anchor points out that Turner’s been "highly critical" of then-President-elect Biden."

An outside group backing Brown has gone further, running a spot that highlights critical comments from Turner from July of last year when she argued that for Sanders supporters, there was basically minimal difference in voting for Biden over then-President Trump, comparing it to eating half a bowl of s**t instead of a full bowl of excrement.

The outside groups and the campaigns shelled out more than $4.5 million to run ads since the start of May, according to the national ad tracking firm AdImpact, in what’s expected to be a low turnout election.

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Further highlighting the establishment-progressive rift in the race – endorsements from high profile politicians. Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez campaigned with Turner a week ago, and Sanders stumped with his one-time advisor and surrogate this past weekend.

"If you want somebody who's not going to be just another member of Congress, but someone who has the guts to speak out on the important issues, and fight for working people, I urge you to elect @ninaturner to represent Ohio's 11th District," Sanders tweeted.

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Brown – who’s been endorsed by 2016 Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton as well as the Congressional Black Caucus, was joined this past weekend on the campaign trial by House Majority Whip Rep. James Clyburn of South Carolina, a top ally of the president who’s support was instrumental in boosting Biden’s bid to win the 2020 nomination, and by longtime Rep. Bennie Thompson of Mississippi.

Another disagreement with campaign consequences in a district with a sizeable amount of Jewish voters – the candidates disagreement on support for Israel. Turner, unlike Brown, doesn’t back unconditional U.S. aid for Israel and has expressed sympathies for the Palestinian people. Pro-Israel groups are backing Brown and taking aim at Turner.

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The progressive wing of the Democratic Party, which looked at Biden with a suspicious eye during the 2020 primaries, heavily supported their party’s nominee in the 2020 election, and to date has kept criticism of the now-president to a minimum. But the ugly battle in northern Ohio is a sign that the tensions that have long divided the party have not disappeared.

Regardless of who wins on Tuesday, the Democratic nominee is all but certain to win in November’s general election in a district that Fudge won 80% of the vote in her reelection last November, and Biden carried by a similar amount in the presidential contest.