Taking on the Democratic establishment is always going to be an uphill battle for a left-wing challenger, and that’s doubly so when they take on an incumbent. The Left was served a hard reminder of this last night when Nina Turner lost again to Representative Shontel Brown in Ohio’s 11th congressional district.
Brown handily consolidated her hold on the Cleveland-based seat in the second contest between the two in less than a year, beating Turner by more than thirty points, more than four times her winning margin last August. It was a disappointing result for Turner, a Cleveland native who had served on the city’s council and represented it in the Ohio state senate, and who had banked on higher turnout and as many as 30 percent new voters brought in by the district’s remapping.
Instead, turnout dipped by about three thousand votes on the rainy day, and Turner fared poorly in Cleveland. In almost every precinct in the city, Brown’s votes held steady or even increased, while Turner’s dramatically fell, even in precincts she’d won last August. The city of Lakewood, newly incorporated into the district, was thought to give Turner an advantage this time around — it was one of the few areas in Cuyahoga County that Bernie Sanders had won in 2016 — but Turner lost in nineteen of the city’s thirty-seven precincts yesterday.
It was a common story across the district. University Heights was tipped to be better for Turner this year, owing to its large population of college students who had been gone for the summer in August’s contest. But turnout there fell in the nine months since, and as in Cleveland, Turner saw a significant decline in her vote tallies in every precinct, sometimes nearly halving, while Brown’s totals increased in five of the nine precincts.
Similarly, the heavily Jewish community of Shaker Heights had been unfavorable for Turner last year, after her position on Israel became a wedge issue in the campaign and a pro-Israel super PAC poured in money to defeat her, resulting in Turner winning only five of its twenty-one precincts. This time, she didn’t win any.
Money undoubtedly plays a role. Brown slightly out-fundraised Turner this year, and her candidacy was once more backed by significant amounts of money from oligarchs and outside pro-Israel groups, who again ran ads attacking Turner.
Turner may also have been hurt by the race’s comparatively low profile. Last year’s contest was a national story and a major proxy battle in the tug of war between the Left and the party establishment, a state of affairs widely assumed to have disadvantaged Turner at a time when President Joe Biden was still riding high in the polls and Democratic voters seemed to prize party loyalty. But with Biden now in the doldrums even among his own voters, Turner ended up faring worse.
Meanwhile, Turner ran this race without the full-throated backing of leading progressives that she got last time. While she was again endorsed by her old ally Bernie Sanders, the “Squad” mostly stayed out of the contest this time, with Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez being the only member of the left-wing faction to officially back her, and that only one day before polls opened. Despite her corporate backing, Brown also won a shock endorsement from the Congressional Progressive Caucus (CPC), angering progressives, with CPC cochair Mark Pocan telling MSNBC that “no one voted not to endorse Shontel.”
There were certainly internal doubts about Turner’s chances. Justice Democrats, the group behind the elections of several Squad members, hinted as much to the Intercept, saying they had to be “strategic about our priorities” owing to the big-money resources arrayed against them.
But another explanation for Turner’s defeat could also be simply that Brown has only been in Congress for half a year, giving her little time to establish a record to be attacked (aside from some minor scandals over falsely taking credit for congressional earmarks to her district and staying on as the chair of the Cuyahoga County Democratic Party while in public office). Turner’s main point of difference was Brown’s decision to break with the Squad and vote to decouple Biden’s infrastructure bill from his social spending legislation — the correct position, but not the most potent attack line given its procedural basis and the fact that almost every Democrat, including CPC members, did the same.
It’s instructive to look at Bernie Sanders’s campaign for Vermont’s lone House seat thirty-two years ago, which was likewise a rematch following the progressive challenger’s initial loss, but ultimately succeeded in bringing the socialist former mayor into Congress for the first time. Sanders had bided his time after his defeat and taken a sabbatical from politics for two years, by which point the corporate-funded GOP incumbent had taken several controversial votes that upset key voter blocs. Sanders made this record, combined with the recent savings and loan crisis and accompanying taxpayer bailout, the cornerstone of a populist campaign that succeeded in defeating his opponent.
Political outsiders have good reason to wait for fortuitous openings to launch effective challenges, an opening that doesn’t appear to exist in Ohio’s 11th district for now. Turner is a compelling voice on the left, but with Brown establishing a firm hold on her Ohio House seat, the best course of action may be to play the long game, wait for political conditions to change, and give the incumbent the space to make the political mistakes her reliance on corporate money will inevitably lead her to.