The establishment and the far left 'battle for the soul of the Democratic Party' in Ohio

AP Photo/Patrick Semansky

The special election in Ohio’s 11th congressional district takes place two weeks from today. The race has become an important proxy battle between the relative moderates in the Democratic party and the far left. The reason it matters is that the outcome could shape the party’s views of how moderate the party will be in future elections. National Journal may be overstating things a bit but they described the race as “an all-out civil war” within the party:

The battle for the soul of the Democratic Party is now centered on the streets of Cleveland in a special election that’s poised to signal its future ideological direction.

A once-sleepy primary between a stalwart Bernie Sanders ally, former state Sen. Nina Turner, and Cuyahoga County Councilwoman Shontel Brown has suddenly turned into an all-out civil war between the party establishment and the progressive Left.

In some sense, this is a replay of the divide we saw in 2016. The establishment moderates like Hillary have embraced Shontel Brown who is chair of the county Democratic Party:

The progressives are supporting former Bernie Sanders campaign co-chair Nina Turner.

AOC endorsed Turner in March saying, “I need her alongside me in Congress in the fight for racial, economic, social, and environmental justice.”

Early on, the race seemed to be completely one-sided with Turner collecting significant donations from out-of-state progressives, particularly those in California.

As of the first quarter fundraising reports released in April, Turner had raised about $2.2 million to Brown’s $680,000. Turner’s campaign said last week that it raised another $930,000 in June alone. Brown’s campaign, while not giving a monthly total, touted $162,808 in donations raised 24 hours after receiving a late-June endorsement from Rep. James Clyburn. The South Carolina Democrat helped President Joe Biden pull ahead with his endorsement in the 2020 presidential primary.

The lion’s share of Turner’s early fundraising support came from California donors (2.2 times what she raised from Ohio donors, according to the Federal Election Commission) as progressives across the nation look to Ohio’s special election to swing the political pendulum within the Democratic Party. Brown raised more from Ohio donors than anywhere else, and 13.4 times more than she raised from California donors, according to the early FEC reporting.

And that early support was reflected in polling which initially showed Turner with a 30 point lead. However, more recent polling suggests a much tighter race:

Brown’s campaign released a poll last week showing the councilwoman trailing Turner by 43 to 36 percent—a much closer race than it was in April, when a poll showed the former state senator leading by 30 points. A subsequent poll commissioned by the conservative Washington Free Beacon, surveying 300 likely Democratic primary voters on July 8-10, found the race tied, with both Turner and Brown tallying 33 percent of the vote. The poll found that Biden is a more popular figure in the district than Sanders.

Both sides are fighting for this one because, as the NY Times pointed out today, the outcome of this race could have a big impact on the perception of other races around the country where progressives hope to challenge moderate Democrats.

The outcome of the special election could reverberate through the party. Progressive primary challengers have already declared — and are raising impressive sums, far more than previous challengers — to take on Representatives Carolyn B. Maloney in New York, Danny K. Davis in Chicago, John Yarmuth in Louisville and Jim Cooper in Nashville. They are hoping to build on the successes of Representatives Ocasio-Cortez and Jamaal Bowman in New York, Ayanna S. Pressley in Boston, Marie Newman in Chicago and Cori Bush in St. Louis — all of whom have knocked off Democratic incumbents since 2018.

One interesting aspect of this battle is that the Congressional Black Caucus and Rep. Jim Clyburn have both taken sides and are supporting Brown. You may recall that last year Rep. Clyburn said “defund the police” had killed Democrats. The Times story quotes some older black voters who are turned off by Nina Turner’s approach:

“It seems to me that Nina tends to work for herself more than working together,” Roberta Reed said. “I mean, I need people who are going to work together to make it all whole.”

“She’s going to help the Biden-Harris agenda; that means a lot,” Denise Grant, Mr. Grant’s wife, said of Ms. Brown, hitting on her biggest talking point. “We don’t need anybody fighting with Biden there.”

Her husband jumped in, expressing weariness of the kind of confrontational politics that Ms. Turner embraced. “We did four years of foolishness,” he said. “Now it’s calmed down. That’s how politics should be. I don’t have to look at you every day.”

Finally, I have to cite this one comment on the piece which echoes that concern:

Ms. Turner would like people to think that anyone opposing her is opposed to progressive policies, yet I agree with almost every progressive idea she and others put forward. What I dislike about her and some of her progressive bretheren is their style of governing and messaging. Publicly insulting fellow Democrats turns me off. I don’t want Democrats elected who are too immature (regardless of their age) to communicate effectively. Bombast takes no intelligence or maturity, and we need both in Congress.

So we’ll see if progressives can claim a win here or whether this is shaping up as a repeat of a NY mayoral race where the most progressive candidate pushing to defund the police comes in third place and the more moderate figure supporting police wins.