Cleveland (CNN)The final weekend of campaigning for the primary in Ohio’s 11th Congressional District brought to life the divisions that still exist deep inside the Democratic Party, despite broader signs of unity during the first six months of the Biden administration.
Sen. Bernie Sanders was back on the campaign trail here, trying to push back against a coordinated effort from Democratic establishment groups working to defeat Nina Turner, a former Ohio state senator and progressive leader who was one of Sanders’ top allies during his two failed presidential races.
“Why are they spending millions of dollars trying to defeat her?” Sanders said in an interview. “The answer is obvious. They are afraid of her.”
A week after New York Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez campaigned for Turner in Cleveland, the Vermont senator made the journey to the Midwest to boost his longtime ally and partner on the presidential stump, where — in a reversal from those 2016 and 2020 campaigns — he introduced her. Like Ocasio-Cortez, he pleaded with voters to send Washington progressives another ally to boost their influence on Capitol Hill, where narrow Democratic majorities mean that every member of Congress has outsized leverage in the shaping of big-ticket legislation.
Meanwhile, the top leadership of the Congressional Black Caucus fanned out across Cleveland to campaign for Turner’s leading rival, Shontel Brown, the Cuyahoga County Democratic chairwoman and a county council member who has emerged in a field of 13 candidates. The race is being closely watched as another test for the party and a sign of whether more primaries could emerge in the 2022 midterm elections.
Rep. James Clyburn of South Carolina, the No. 3 Democrat in the House who became a kingmaker in Joe Biden’s presidential campaign, is hoping to play a similar role in this contest.
Clyburn told CNN that Biden needed all the allies he could get in the House. It was a less-than-subtle message that he and other congressional leaders are trying to defeat Turner, in large part to deny the progressive Squad another member.
“I don’t understand why people think that the entire agenda has got to be yours. That’s not the way the world works,” Clyburn told CNN. “We have to sit down, find common ground, reconcile the differences and move an agenda forward. That’s what this President is doing and that’s why he’s been so successful.”
What kind of Democrat will emerge on Tuesday?
The primary contest on Tuesday is to fill the vacant seat of former Rep. Marcia Fudge, who joined the Biden Cabinet to serve as the secretary of the Department of Housing and Urban Development. There’s little doubt a Democrat will ultimately win the race, given the makeup of the district, which stretches across Cleveland and down to Akron, but the question is what kind of Democratic it will be.
Turner is a progressive in the mold of Sanders, a stance for which she makes no apology.
“Congress is a co-equal body. It has power, too,” Turner told CNN. “My job would not be to parrot any administration, whether it’s a Democratic administration or a Republican administration. My job is to represent the interests of the people who elect me.”
Standing by her side during an interview on Saturday, Sanders added: “She is a fighter. They do not want her in the Congress.”
Sanders rejected the suggestion that Turner would be a thorn in the side of the Biden administration, pointing to himself as an example of how compromise can work. As chairman of the Senate Budget Committee, Sanders is now a key player in negotiations surrounding the President’s economic agenda.
“She’s a practical politician, like we all are,” Sanders said. “They’re not mutually exclusive. You have a vision, and you deal with the day-to-day realities.”
For her part, Turner is still dogged by a derisive comment she made about Biden after the heated presidential primary with Sanders more than a year ago. She suggested the choice between Biden and former President Donald Trump was negligible, comparing it to eating a half a bowl of excrement, rather than a full one.
That statement, which originally came from an interview with The Atlantic in 2020, is plastered on billboards across Cleveland, with the four-letter word for excrement in large letters. The advertisements are paid for by a political action committee, Pro-Israel America. That group, along with others like Democratic Majority for Israel have spent heavily against Turner during the campaign and opposed other progressive primary candidates, including Sanders in the presidential contest.
“At that moment, we all know that primaries are very heated,” Turner told CNN on Saturday, explaining her comment, but stopping far short of apologizing.
“I am going to applaud the Biden administration, when they’re moving in the right direction,” Turner said. “And I’m also going to have the courage to ask for more for the people in my district, and those two things are not mutually exclusive. They go together.”
Anticipating the lines of attack that have since come her way, Turner has, in television ads, played up her connections to popular Democratic figures outside new leftist circles. One of her final spots makes note that she was a delegate for former President Barack Obama — twice — during his two presidential campaigns. Another early ad showed her sitting at Republican former Ohio Gov. John Kasich’s side as it touted her bipartisan work as a state senator.
But Turner’s comment about Biden — along with a litany of other remarks she has made over the years sharply critical of Democratic establishment leaders — is a central part of the argument against her candidacy.
Rep. Joyce Beatty of Ohio, chairwoman of the Congressional Black Caucus who is among the leaders campaigning hard against Turner, said “dignity and decency” were on the ballot. She urged voters during weekend campaign stops in Cleveland to send Brown to Washington to help the Biden agenda.
“It is a slim majority, and we need a team player,” Beatty told CNN. “We need somebody who’s willing to say they will set aside their own showmanship, their own ego, their own platform if inconsistent with the Democratic platform.”
New York Rep. Gregory Meeks, chairman of the Congressional Black Caucus political action committee, took the argument a step further on Saturday, saying divisions in the party from Sanders’ supporters had steep consequences. “If we had held together, Donald Trump never would have been,” Meeks told an audience here, noting that Turner and others didn’t back Hillary Clinton in 2016.
Shortly after Clinton won the primary that year, Turner said, “I’m a lifelong Democrat and I take great pride in that,” but added, “Really, it’s the values of the Democratic Party I’m fighting for, so I am a dedicated dissenter within the Democratic Party.” (She turned down an invitation to be Green Party presidential nominee Jill Stein’s running mate.)
Turner has sought to use the crush of endorsements from the Democratic establishment to portray her rival as a “puppet” for the party.
Brown, who has been endorsed by Clinton, sharply rejected that label, telling CNN she was “excited” about the Biden administration and would work to represent the needs of her district.
“I would consider a puppet someone that’s been on the national stage, delivering catchphrases like, ‘Hello, somebody,'” Brown said, taking aim at a trademark line that Turner uses in speech after speech. “I am a partner, who knows what it takes to sit at the negotiating table to get things done.”
The view from the White House
The White House has not weighed in on the contest and Fudge has remained neutral, though her mother endorsed Brown and said in a television ad that Brown “shares Marcia’s values and will continue her legacy in Congress.” But administration officials are watching the race carefully for early warning signs of the mood of the party and whether other primaries could even further complicate Democratic efforts to maintain their slim congressional majorities.
More than $3 million in TV ads are flooding the airwaves here, from both campaigns and several outside groups seeking to influence the special election. Yet it’s an open question how many voters are paying attention to the summer race — a point Sanders used to rally supports to the polls during his speech on Saturday, which also included remarks from Minnesota Attorney General Keith Ellison and Cleveland Mayor Frank Jackson.
“My suspicion is that here, in the middle of the summer in Cleveland, the voter turnout is probably going to be fairly low,” Sanders said. “It means that every single vote counts.”