BEDFORD HEIGHTS, Ohio — The Democratic establishment dealt a crushing blow to the progressive movement Tuesday, when Shontel Brown, the preferred candidate of party stalwarts, triumphing over Nina Turner, a face of the insurgent left, in a special congressional primary election.
Turner conceded shortly after 10 p.m. with a biblical reference: “On this night, we will not cross the river.” She trailed Brown 51 percent to 44 percent when The Associated Press called the race.
Brown’s victory in the primary, which is tantamount to the general election in this deep-blue, Northeast Ohio seat, brings an end to a contentious summer of internecine squabbling for Democrats over the direction of their party with Joe Biden in the White House. The establishment forces leave the race with a blueprint for how to blunt progressive enthusiasm this cycle. But for the liberal wing, it’s another setback after a series of losses in off-year races.
In a spirited concession speech from a bowling alley in the Cleveland suburb of Maple Heights, Turner blamed the super PACs that opposed her for the loss and vowed to fight for better infrastructure and campaign-finance reform to aid like-minded candidates.
“I am going to work hard to ensure that something like this never happens to a progressive candidate again,” she said. “We didn’t lose this race — the evil money manipulated and maligned this election.”
Turner, a former Ohio state senator who became a chief surrogate for Sen. Bernie Sanders’ presidential bids, entered the special as a well-known figure with a huge financial edge; her own internal polling from late May had her with 50 percent of the vote, and she had endorsements from Sanders, Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.) and the Justice Democrats, a leading progressive group.
But that notoriety was perhaps as much a hindrance as an asset for Turner. Her impassioned speeches on behalf of progressive policies won her a cult-like status on the left, but her tendency to take aim at fellow Democrats brought more than a few enemies.
Brown, a councilmember and Democratic party chair in Cuyahoga County, is a protege of the former incumbent Marcia Fudge, who vacated the seat to serve as Biden’s housing secretary. Among her boosters were Hillary Clinton, who thwarted Sanders for the 2016 presidential nomination; Jewish Democrats wary of Turner’s comments on Israel; and the leaders of the Congressional Black Caucus, including Majority Whip Jim Clyburn (D-S.C.) and chair Joyce Beatty (D-Ohio).
Turner was a staple on cable TV and did not hold back her distaste of Clinton and Biden and the Democratic Party’s leaders. That left behind a trove of footage that her detractors used to cut ads.
To chip away at Turner’s early momentum, Brown’s allies bombarded the airwaves with ads dragging up unfavorable Turner comments about the Democratic Party. (Some spots included a now-notorious interview Turner gave comparing voting for Joe Biden to eating excrement.) The Democratic Majority for Israel super PAC was the main spender, dropping nearly $1 million on TV to boost Brown.
And in their post-mortem on Tuesday, progressives wondered whether or not a candidate that was less hostile to the party could have prevailed.
“Democratic voters like the Democratic Party. Progressives need to show that we support the Democratic Party living up to it’s true values, not trying to tear it down,” said Sean McElwee, the co-founder of the liberal polling outfit Data for Progress. “Progressives also need to invest more in block and tackle campaign infrastructure. We need to be prepared to go dollar for dollar with DMFI on the airwaves.”
The CBC, eager to blunt liberal insurgents from challenging their own members in primaries, went all-in for Brown. Their political arm formally endorsed her, and Beatty, Clyburn and Rep. Gregory Meeks (D-N.Y.) and Bennie Thompson (D-Miss.) spent the final weekend of the race storming the district, which includes parts of Cleveland and Akron.
Their heavy-handed involvement drew protests from progressives confused why the group would get involved in an open-seat race between two Black women. But the caucus took special umbrage at a June exchange between Turner and the rapper Killer Mike, in which the two suggested Clyburn had not extracted enough in return from Biden in exchange for his powerful endorsement of his presidential campaign. Clyburn endorsed and cut an ad for Brown shortly after.
For progressives, it’s another stinging lost after their candidates flopped in off-year nominating contests in Virginia, New York City and Louisiana, spreading concern that they had lost some of its urgency with Donald Trump out of office. And Turner’s starring role in the movement — and inherent early advantages — make the outcome even more painful.
The race united several establishment forces in the party, including pro-Israel groups and the centrist organization Third Way — partnerships that will likely continue throughout the cycle. Redistricting will create a swath of open seats over which the different ideological factions will spar. But it’s worth noting the moderate attacks against Turner did not take aim at the progressive proposals she supports, such as Medicare-for-all or a Green New Deal — an indication they are popular with the base.
And Turner’s supporters contrasted their painful loss with the win secured today on the eviction moratorium by Rep. Cori Bush (D-Mo.) and other progressive members who camped out on the steps of the Capitol to nudge the White House to action.
“Our progressive issues and our progressive movement is strong in people’s hearts. That doesn’t always translate to the ballot,” said Mike Oles, a field director with Our Revolution, a Sanders-aligned group. “Organizers — we got to figure out how to beat the establishment in big cities.”
Over at Brown’s victory party at an Italian restaurant less than a mile away, she framed her win as a testament to her nine years in local government and voters’ desire for someone who will work with party leadership.
“Results over rhetoric won out the day,” she said, repeating an oft-used dig at Turner. She added: “You can’t erode nine years of public work with a 30-second commercial.”
She said she’s already thinking about what committee she might want to join: “I feel good about Congressman Clyburn being in such a powerful position that he might grant a wish for me.”
Brown was still surrounded by supporters as it approached midnight. She also received a congratulatory call from Biden. “He was very kind and very complimentary,” she said.
But in a final sign of the nasty turn of the race, Brown’s staff said Turner had not yet called to congratulate her.