Cleveland Heights, Ohio (CNN)A congressional primary in Ohio is revealing the generational and ideological fissures in the Democratic Party that have been largely hidden in the early months of Joe Biden’s presidency — but could burst into full view as the midterm elections approach.
Nina Turner, the former state senator and prominent surrogate for Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders’ presidential campaigns, is battling the establishment-backed Shontel Brown, the Cuyahoga County Democratic chairwoman and county council member, in a race that also features 11 other long-shot candidates bidding to represent the 11th District, which stretches from Cleveland south to Akron.
The August 3 primary comes ahead of a special election to replace former Rep. Marcia Fudge, who left the seat to join Biden’s Cabinet as secretary of Housing and Urban Development. The winner of the Democratic primary is all but certain to win the general election — a reality that has turned the contest into an intra-party struggle that could set the tone for more primary battles next year, as progressives target more veteran House members.
At a campaign stop for Turner on Saturday, New York Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez told volunteers who were about to go door-knocking that the district represents a “very rare” chance for Democrats to chart a course for the party nationally without any concerns about electability.
“There’s a lot of other districts that are much more competitive — they don’t have the privilege or the luxury to say ‘Yes, ‘Medicare for All.” ‘Yes, a Green New Deal,'” Ocasio-Cortez said. “There aren’t too many districts like these that can lead the country. And so you all have the responsibility for all of us to help us add one more member to lead that fight.”
At another event, Ocasio-Cortez was even more direct. “I need Nina. Please send me Nina. Please,” she said.
Ocasio-Cortez’s visit Saturday came as leaders of the Democratic Party’s younger, progressive wing have rushed to back Turner, one of the movement’s founding members. Ocasio-Cortez described at one event how Turner had offered her advice on a Zoom call before her stunning 2018 primary ouster of then-Rep. Joe Crowley. Sanders will campaign for Turner next weekend.
The Democratic establishment, meanwhile, is lining up behind Brown. Hillary Clinton and South Carolina Rep. Jim Clyburn, the highest-ranking Black member of the House, have endorsed her. The Congressional Black Caucus’ political arm, a number of labor unions and a flood of local officials have also backed Brown.
Clyburn and other veteran Black Democratic lawmakers — Reps. Joyce Beatty of Ohio, Gregory Meeks of New York, and Bennie Thompson of Mississippi — will visit the district next weekend, Brown said Saturday.
The lineup of out-of-district visitors underscores the stakes in the race: Inspired by Ocasio-Cortez and other recent progressive victories, left-wing challengers have lined up against several other House Democratic incumbents, including members of the Congressional Black Caucus — threatening to shift the political balance in Washington toward the Squad, even after Clyburn’s endorsement and older Black voters’ support lifted Biden to the Democratic nomination and the presidency last year.
Clyburn, as he announced his endorsement of Brown, criticized “sloganeering” by the left — citing calls to “defund the police” from progressives as out of touch with voters.
How Brown narrowed Turner’s advantage
Turner entered the race with built-in advantages: As a leading surrogate for Sanders’ presidential campaigns, she already had the profile and fundraising contacts of a nationally known progressive firebrand.
But a late flood of money and endorsements to Brown in the race’s final weeks has made Brown competitive.
And if the primary is a low-turnout affair, she could benefit from her support from older, more reliable Democratic voters.
Turner doesn’t rely on her national profile or her ties to Sanders while campaigning in what is, politically, her own backyard. She talks about issues like Medicare for All and eradicating student debt in personal terms. As she did on the presidential campaign trail, Turner punctuates speeches with her signature catchphrase, “Hello, somebody!” — one meant to convey that everyday people without titles or political power matter, too.
But she hasn’t been able to escape her former role as one of Sanders’ most loyal backers — and one who was most resistant to the establishment-aligned nominees who defeated him. Brown has hammered Turner for comparing the choice between Biden and former President Donald Trump in 2020, in an interview with The Atlantic at the time, to eating half a bowl versus a full bowl of excrement.
In an interview after a stop at a National Association of Letter Carriers union convention, Brown also brought up Turner’s recent jabs at Brown. Turner has said repeatedly that she would be a “partner, and not a puppet.”
“For me, a partner is someone who comes to the table and negotiates and has difficult conversations,” Brown said. “A puppet is someone who entertains on a national stage and has catchphrases like ‘hello, somebody’ — with folks pulling their strings and giving them talking points.”
On the campaign trail, Turner says she’s willing to cross party lines. She described working with then-Republican Ohio Gov. John Kasich on police reforms in 2014, when she was a state senator. But she also describes the stakes as dire, telling supporters that universal health care, addressing a legal system that is “rotten to its core” and more, require progressive wins.
“Only all that we love is on the line, that’s it — nothing too big,” she said.
Brown touts more modest accomplishments, such as helping secure 5,000 free WiFi hotspots for students studying at home during the pandemic and helping modernize the local 911 system so that hearing-impaired people, those escaping domestic violence and others can text rather than call.
She said she would break with Biden on some issues — including the filibuster. She said she backs Clyburn’s call for a carve-out for constitutional issues, which would allow the Senate to pass voting-rights legislation with just 51 votes rather than 60 votes.
Fudge’s mother makes an appearance
Fudge, as a member of Biden’s Cabinet, is staying neutral in the primary to fill her former seat. But Brown has sought to align herself as closely as possible to the former congresswoman.
Brown told a group of Black women at a backyard meet-and-greet in Cleveland Heights on Saturday evening that a phone call from Fudge is what led her to run to become Cuyahoga County Democratic Party chairwoman. She said Fudge “has been a mentor and a friend to me.”
“We need someone who has those relationships in place, who can go to Congress on day one and make sure that we’re getting the resources we need,” Brown said. “And I am that person.”
To drive the point home, Brown’s campaign turned to its next best option — Fudge’s mother — for a memorable 30-second television ad.
In the ad, Fudge’s mother says Brown is her daughter’s protege. “She shares Marcia’s values and will continue her legacy in Congress,” she says.