Late last month, former Ohio state senator and Bernie Sanders ally Nina Turner announced that she would run again for congress this year. The decision comes less than six months after her loss against Marcia Fudge protégé Shontel Brown in the special election for the same seat.
It also comes after months of uncertainty and speculation about Turner’s next move, particularly after she was quoted by Politico’s West Wing Playbook in a piece “Presented by Walmart” and titled “Rage of the left-wing machine.”
The piece began with a series of claims which were true at the time—and largely remain true today: “Voting rights legislation appears to be going nowhere. Student loan collection is expected to restart early next year. Some of the Trump administration’s border policies remain in effect. And the $6 trillion social spending and climate action bill Democrats had once envisioned had already been whittled down to less than $2 trillion over a decade, leaving many progressive priorities on the cutting room table.”
The writers then suggested that Biden’s handling of these issues has led to progressives’ “entertaining the idea of a primary challenge to Biden in 2024.” An interviewer asked Turner if she thought there would be such a challenge. “Without a doubt,” she said.
These three words were enough for the authors to imagine Turner herself as such a challenger.
“Any primary challenge of Biden would likely be unsuccessful,” Politico was quick to assert. “But someone like Turner, a dynamic speaker on the stump who often opened Sanders’ presidential campaign rallies and would likely be able to raise money online, would at the very least be an unwelcome annoyance for the Biden team.” The suggestion that Turner herself would confront Biden in a primary was conveyed with an almost palpable sense of excitement by Politico’s journalists—driven perhaps by the prospect of all the headlines and clicks such a candidacy would generate. But the coverage does prompt some questions perhaps less facetious and more grounded in present realities: Where is Nina Turner these days? What has she been doing since her loss to Brown? And, now that she’s running, what lessons is she taking with her into 2022? Turner spoke to The Nation to answer these questions herself.
My first interview with her took place on the first anniversary of the January 6 insurrection, which was followed over the next several days by Biden’s voting rights speech in Georgia and the failed effort by Senate Democrats to change the filibuster rules and get a legislative win on the issue ahead of midterms. A follow-up interview took place on January 25, the day before she announced her candidacy.
“Of course, we didn’t get the result we wanted,” she said regarding 2021, “but we certainly believe and know that our race [left a mark], and every time a progressive runs we leave a mark. We’re continuing to build a strong foundation, but I didn’t miss a beat.”
“My commitments to the causes of justice are solid,” Turner said. “I stayed in the game, helping local candidates and also candidates across the country.” Most recently, Turner endorsed congressional candidates Shervin Aazami, running against incumbent Democrat Brad Sherman in California’s 32nd district and Kesha Ram Hinsdale, running in Vermont.
It’s clear that the mainstream opposition to her candidacy in 2021 was, in some ways, a wake-up call. “It made me even more resolute to fight for campaign finance reform, starting with doing away with Citizens United,” she later said. “Corporations certainly are not people. People, in those capacities, should not be able to pour unlimited money into any campaign.”
When asked what lessons she took away from her last race, Turner said a stronger presence on the ground will be key to her approach this time. “We are going to do everything that we can to not only drive out the voters, but create relationships along the way that will outlast even this election cycle.”
Many who were involved in her last race remain optimistic. Trevor Elkins served as Turner’s political director and campaign manager, and left in December. “Nina Turner is the truth teller of the progressive movement in Ohio. And she’s fearless in her willingness to call out injustice,” Elkins said. “Although the Senator lost that race, there’s a bubbling energy that I can feel as I navigate my community.”
Kristin Kranz, a full-time physician who volunteered with Our Revolution, explained, “I spent every extra moment I had for eight months doing the work,” she said. “It’s so frustrating to have fought such a good fight and just know that she was the right candidate, and to be defeated in the way that we were.”
David Pepper, former chair of the Ohio Democratic Party, tweeted, “What’s your top priority for Democrats in DC?,” to which Turner replied: “Voting rights should be the TOP priority.” In Ohio, gerrymandering has been an issue for the last several decades. The Ohio Supreme Court recently rejected redistricting maps that would give the Republican Party—which holds trifecta control over the Ohio government—an even greater advantage in the state’s legislature.
Pepper told me that he remains in touch with Turner, and has reflected on the outcome of the race. “I actually think Ohio politics weren’t the issue. I think it was national politics. That race became a refighting, unfortunately, of the whole Bernie Sanders versus Hillary Clinton battle of 2016.”
It is important to recall that, early in the race to replace Fudge, Turner was considered one of the most likely candidates to win Ohio’s 11th Congressional District. Instead, she lost by over 4,000 votes. Some attribute this to the outsized national attention the race received; because the election was an off-year race, many claim it received more coverage—and money from outside political actors—than it otherwise would.
Turner discussed this in an interview last year with The Intercept’s Ryan Grim. Following criticism by “the Squad” of Israel’s May 10 air strikes on Gaza, Turner was asked by pro-Israel groups to disavow those House members who spoke out. When she did not, Democratic Majority for Israel—a right-wing Democratic PAC that had already endorsed Brown—ratcheted up its opposition to her candidacy and began spending hundreds of thousands of dollars to defeat Turner, even publishing mailers that lied about her policy positions.
Pepper criticized the PAC and defended Turner. “She’s advocated ideas for years that turn out to be incredibly popular in her district. So they’re trying to fool people into thinking she holds the opposite views,” he tweeted in July after the mailer began circulating online. “Think about how bankrupt and twisted that is.”
However, many now believe that Turner’s loss was preventable, and that she might well have a chance even against the new incumbent.
Diane Morgan, leader of Our Revolution Ohio, which supported the Turner campaign with phone banking and canvassing efforts, said some progressives grew complacent after third-party polling showed Turner with a “commanding lead.”
“I was on calls with other organizations that were doing independent expenditures with Our Revolution,” Morgan said. “And they’re saying, ‘Well, you know, after that poll, we don’t feel that we need to really spend any money or time,’”
“I’m practically screaming into my phone,” she said. “‘No, no, you don’t understand. They’re going to do everything they can to stop her. That poll might have come out, but that’s not true. You’re not here on the street, you don’t know what’s going on here.’ And I don’t think they heard it.”
“What we were finding was Republicans in the district were coming out to support Shontel, to defeat Nina,” Morgan said. An analysis of publicly available voter file data and election results supports Morgan’s account; Ohio’s open primary system allows voters to participate in elections outside of their registered party, and thousands of individuals with established Republican voting records participated in the 2021 Democratic primary—some for the first time in years. The influx of conservative voters, combined with a premature sense of victory by her campaign, likely contributed to Turner’s defeat.
“Personally, I think it was a mistake to release that poll,” Morgan said.
Turner has continued to organize and expand her base, participating in local campaigns including that of Cleveland Mayor Justin Bibb. “I think both from an electoral perspective, but also an activism, grassroots perspective, we have to be able to…let voters know what is going on to tilt the scales,” she told The Nation.
This momentum may improve her odds, along with other factors: less national and statewide attention will be on the race, and it’s unlikely that conservative money and action will return at the same scale. Progressives aren’t currently the target of mainstream Democratic frustration; that honor goes to Joe Manchin, Kyrsten Sinema, and, for lackluster results on voting rights, Joe Biden. Finally, if new congressional maps include more of Cleveland’s urban areas, that could afford Turner the votes needed to win.
However, Brown has all of the advantages of an incumbent, and there’s little chance DMFI will sit just out this rerun. Brown’s focus during her time in office has largely been on infrastructure; this month, she announced funding increases for the district and touted the $500 million Ohio is scheduled to receive from the bipartisan infrastructure bill, all for the purpose of repairing small and medium-sized bridges. Turner said that while infrastructure is important, other aspects of life have not substantially improved for people in Northeast Ohio under Brown.
“Cleveland is still the poorest big city in the country,” Turner said. “People are still suffering. The food lines are still just as long if not longer. The need for a fighter, for a champion in that seat, remains the same.”
“I’ve had good life experiences so far, glory be to God. I had painful life experiences, coming from a very poor family, having nights where my siblings and I didn’t have food,” she said. “If people are hungry, they need food. If people are thirsty, they need water. If people are about to have their homes foreclosed on, what the hell does a paved road matter to them?”
“We’ve got to keep things in perspective and lift up the things that materially matter to people who are struggling first,” Turner says.