Politico

House rematch in Ohio sparks frustration on the left


The last time Nina Turner challenged Shontel Brown, she carried support from top officials, groups and even entertainers on the political left, including the Congressional Progressive Caucus.

Nine months after that 2021 special election, however, many of those liberals have left Turner high and dry. In a rematch of that Democratic contest for a Cleveland-based House seat, a different political calculation appears to have taken effect.

While Sen. Bernie Sanders is still on board for Turner — a former top surrogate and presidential campaign co-chair for the Vermont senator — the Progressive Caucus snubbed her, flipping their support to Brown.

Even Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.), who canvassed for Turner in 2021, didn’t weigh in for her until primary election eve, just hours before voters head to the polls in Ohio. 

Turner has also been up against significant outside money from groups like Democratic Majority for Israel PAC, AIPAC’s new super PAC and the Protect Our Future PAC, which is connected to the crypto industry.

The foot-dragging and lack of support for Turner has some on the left fuming and calling out national progressives for abandoning one of the movement’s biggest stars, seemingly in an effort to consolidate political capital in Washington.

Turner, who lost to Brown by roughly 6 percentage points in a special election primary that attracted a 13-candidate field last summer, says she was given no explanation about why the caucus didn’t re-up its endorsement.

“That’s something certainly that caucus is going to have to answer [about] why they did that,” she said, noting that the political action committee associated with the caucus endorsed Brown the day after Sanders announced he was backing Turner.

Notably absent from Turner’s campaign this time around were members of the progressive “Squad” and their allies, among them Reps. Ayanna Pressley (D-Mass.), Rashida Tlaib (D-Mich.), Ilhan Omar (D-Minn.) and Jamaal Bowman (D-N.Y.) — none of whom publicly supported Turner after doing so in the previous contest.

“I can’t,” Turner said when asked to explain why they and other leading liberals did not come through for her. “Some of these people may have other calculations, but we are still fighting for the same issues and for the same set of people.”

The Progressive Caucus PAC has recently come under scrutiny for how it endorses candidates. As a rule, it does not back primary challenges to its existing members of the caucus, which at 98 current members, including Brown, makes the body a formidable voting bloc.

Rep. Pramila Jayapal (D-Wash.), who chairs the caucus, said there is a review underway for how the group considers endorsements, including a minimum length of service before determining if one is in good standing and signing onto a certain number of bills the group supports.

“For example, if somebody has been [in Congress] for a very long time and a month before their election … they apply to become a member of the CPC. We don’t mind that,” Jayapal told POLITICO in an interview last week.

“We welcome anybody at any time and we’ve taken members throughout the time that we’ve been here, but from the PAC side, maybe that person — maybe you can’t apply for an endorsement from the CPC a month after you join,” she said.

The endorsement furor has exposed divisions within the Progressive Caucus, revealing internal questions over Brown’s progressive credentials.

Turner hasn’t been completely abandoned by her former allies.

Nine state and national chairs of liberal-leaning groups — including Judith Whitmer, the Nevada state Democratic Party chair, and Amar Shergill, chair of the California Democratic Party Progressive Caucus — recently announced their support for Turner in a public letter.

“There are politicians crowing about endorsements from corporate Democrats and then there is Nina Turner, endorsed by Sen. Bernie Sanders,” the letter states. “We don’t need more feckless politicians. We need Nina Turner.”

By contrast, Brown has the support not only of the Progressive Caucus, but of President Joe Biden, who endorsed Brown on Friday, calling her “an ardent advocate for the people of Ohio and a true partner in Congress.”

In addition to the backing of the president, Brown boasts all the trappings of the incumbency. She is running on a record that includes casting a vote in favor of the bipartisan $1 trillion infrastructure package that Biden signed into law.

Brown says she’s grown her coalition of support since winning the special primary last year, and shored up her standing among constituencies that may not have supported her last year.

“I reached out to my challenger’s supporters and said, ‘Hey, now that I’ve won the election, I’d like to work collaboratively so we can get things done,” Brown told POLITICO.

She said the Progressive Caucus endorsement was largely a product of her voting record, a sign that she embodies the principles and values aligned with the group’s policies.

Brown says she’s leaning into her experience leading the Cuyahoga County Democratic Party, which enables her to work with both liberal and moderate members of the party. Brown has also joined the moderate New Democrat Coalition.

Over the weekend, Rep. Jim Clyburn (D-S.C.), the third-ranking House Democrat, and Rep. Hakeem Jeffries (D-N.Y.), who chairs the House Democratic Caucus, stumped with Brown in her district.

The presence of those national Democrats in the district so close to Election Day reinforces perceptions that big corporate money is playing an outsized role in this rematch election, according to Yvonka Hall, outreach director of the Cuyahoga County Progressive Caucus, which re-upped its support for Turner.

Hall says Turner has a track record when it comes to key progressive issues like the fight for a $15 minimum wage and to fight for tax dollars to go toward building up cities — and not stadiums for sports teams — proving she’s for helping residents of Cleveland that have been in the midst of economic transition for years.

“I think that we have an opportunity here to decide, you know, is this about community? Or is this about cooperation?” Hall said. “The voice that does resonate with me, for my particular needs, and the needs of our community, is Nina Turner.”

Turner’s campaign hopes to reverse its fortunes in this election by winning a majority of the roughly 30 percent of voters that it says was added to the district in the latest round of redistricting. The district no longer stretches south to Akron, but it does include all of Cleveland and some suburbs to the east and west, including the city of Lakewood.

Tuesday’s contest is being held under the new map, though the new lines are being contested. The state Supreme Court isn’t expected to rule on whether the 2022 congressional map violates the state’s anti-gerrymandering rules until after votes are cast in the primary.

Nicholas Wu contributed to this report.

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