Nina Turner seemed a little uneasy when we said goodbye after a mid-May weekend on the campaign trail, during which she’d logged eight events from Cleveland to Akron and back in about 24 hours. The former state senator’s campaign for Ohio’s 11th Congressional District was looking good: She would soon release an internal poll showing that she had 50 percent of the vote, with her closest rival, Cuyahoga County Democratic Party chair Shontel Brown, far behind at 15 percent (there are 11 other candidates). She was crushing Brown in fundraising, too.
But Turner knew things were about to get tough in her race to replace Representative Marcia Fudge, appointed as secretary of Housing and Urban Development. Democratic Majority for Israel (DMFI), a super PAC known for going negative against candidates perceived as insufficiently loyal to the powerful US ally —Senator Bernie Sanders and Representative Ilhan Omar have been two of its targets—had endorsed Brown and was ready to drop a bundle of money, in advertising and mailers, behind her candidacy. The Brown campaign had already gone a bit nasty, with an ad highlighting Turner’s criticism of President Joe Biden last year and promising that Brown was the candidate for Ohio 11 who would work “with Joe Biden.” (Biden won the district with 80 percent of the vote.)
Turner’s own well-funded campaign was already up on the air, by contrast, with a series of high-minded television ads that hyped her Democratic Party pedigree and her history of working, sometimes with Republicans, on issues like criminal justice, equal pay, and health care. She mentioned none of her rivals. Her ads, and even some of her campaign events, tended to emphasize her years on the City Council and in the state Senate, and her role in Ohio Democratic Party leadership, without making much of—sometimes without mentioning—the best-known part of her résumé: her role as a top surrogate for Sanders in his 2016 and 2020 presidential runs, which made her a progressive star and also a divisive one.
She wasn’t hiding it; how could she? But Turner clearly hoped reminding people that she’d twice been a Barack Obama delegate to the Democratic National Convention, in 2008 and 2012, would matter more than that she’d led protests against nominee Hillary Clinton at the 2016 convention.
It hasn’t entirely worked. Not only has she faced DMFI attacks, but in June Hillary Clinton herself endorsed Brown, who was scarcely known outside of Cleveland before this race. In July Brown won the endorsement of South Carolina Representative Jim Clyburn, No. 3 in House Democratic leadership. Then came backing from the official Congressional Black Caucus PAC.
Observers say Turner is still the front-runner, but the race has clearly tightened. An internal Brown poll showed Turner with a seven-point lead; outside polls have it closer, with a large margin of error. Turner’s internal polls show her with a larger lead. (So far, no major polling firm without ties to a candidate has surveyed the race.) No one can feel totally confident making predictions about a special primary election to be held in the dog days of summer, August 3 to be precise. Turnout is expected to be light, but the Turner camp hopes to defy those expectations. She has the ground game, people say, but Brown has the funding to keep a punishing onslaught of negative ads on the airwaves and in mailboxes.
“We’re canvassing, phone banking, and putting our treasure, talent, and time behind her,” says staunch Turner supporter Representative Juanita Brent. She notes that the former state senator has the endorsement of the vast majority of the district’s state legislative representatives, “and we’re all taking time to canvass for her, I’m out there three times a week. It’s very necessary that people hear from us, here.”
Brent did not mention Clyburn, by name, to me, but she told The New York Times the other day that she had a message for him: “Congressman, with all due respect, stay out of our district.” (By the way, Brent endorsed Biden in 2020 and Clinton in 2016. “I was never with Bernie,” she chuckled over the phone to me in June.) But she’s not happy with this establishment airlift into her home district to attack Turner.
Some blame Turner for forcing Clyburn off the sidelines with an apparent dig at him in a recent campaign appearance with “Killer Mike” Render, an ally from the Sanders days. Render criticized Clyburn for settling for the creation of a national holiday celebrating Juneteenth, without winning genuine criminal justice, voting rights, or economic gains. “I think it’s incredibly stupid to not cut a deal before you get someone elected president,” the musician/activist said, “and the only thing you get is a federal holiday and nothing tangible out of it.” Turner interjected, “You better talk about it.” People indeed talked about it, and Clyburn came out for Brown days later.
But the South Carolina Black caucus dean was always expected to endorse Brown, a Marcia Fudge protégé (the HUD secretary is officially staying neutral because of her federal job, but her mother endorsed Brown). In December, Turner told Vanity Fair that she envisioned her eventual election formalizing an alliance between the powerful CBC and the Congressional Progressive Caucus (which had already endorsed her), kvelling, “The Black caucus united with the Progressive caucus? Watch out, baby!” But in June a Turner ally told me, “This race is gonna wind up with Nina running against the CBC.”
I didn’t see it then, but I see it now. Still, Turner boasts the support of five CBC members: Omar plus Representatives Ayanna Pressley, Jamaal Bowman, Mondaire Jones, and Cori Bush. Brown has Clyburn and Ohio Representative Joyce Beatty, plus a few other rumored supporters. So Turner is not without CBC support, but the PAC’s backing matters a lot.
The division is painful for many observers: The CBC has often been the conscience of the Democratic caucus, taking the lead on voting rights and economic and criminal justice. But it also can act like an incumbent protection organization, endorsing Representative Eliot Engel, for instance, who is white, against challenger Jamaal Bowman last year. Bowman won; Turner hopes for the same outcome. But she’s rankled by their jumping into the race nonetheless, telling the Times: “I don’t begrudge anybody wanting to get involved in the race, but the entire Congressional Black Caucus PAC? That’s sending another message: Progressives need not apply.”
Brown-affiliated PACs have even tried to argue that Turner is no true progressive. DMFI, which The Intercept reports has already spent $660,000 behind Brown, sent out a preposterous mailer claiming that Turner opposes universal health care, immigration reform, and a higher minimum wage, just because she voted against the 2020 Democratic Party platform endorsing those items since it didn’t back Medicare for All. That’s standard procedure during a platform fight, from the right and the left.
As the race tightens, Turner’s ads have gone negative on Brown. In one, she alleges that as a Cuyahoga County Council member Brown steered more than $32 million in public contracts to firms connected to her supposed boyfriend and his family. Reporting by The Intercept backs these claims, although it must be said there is a tangle of families and firms involved. Also, the status of Brown’s relationship with the boyfriend identified as Mark Perkins is unclear. But back in 2014, when they were engaged, she promised to recuse herself from any contracts involving him or his family, and she did not.
Still, earlier this week, a group of Black ministers who’ve endorsed Brown held a press conference to push back on those claims. “Not everything that’s in your head ought to come out of your mouth,” the Rev. Dr. Marvin McMickle chided Turner. It got a lot of Twitter play.
Throughout the race, Turner has touted her more centrist endorsements, from Cleveland Mayor Frank Jackson, Cleveland and Akron Democratic elected officials, and the Cleveland Plain Dealer. In the closing days, though, she is emphasizing her progressive ties, campaigning on Thursday with Sanders surrogate and former NAACP president Ben Jealous, this weekend with Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (while Clyburn stumps locally for Brown) and in the campaign’s closing weekend with Sanders.
Leaning on Sanders might show that Turner has seen limits to her ability to reintroduce herself to the district as a hard-working veteran Democrat, a strategy I examined last month. But Sanders is still a big draw in the district; I met several voters in May who said they were drawn to Turner by her Sanders ties.
Turner and I were unable to connect for this article by my deadline; I’d have liked to ask if she regretted her Clyburn conversation with Killer Mike. But I venture she’d have said no. That’s what she said when I asked if she’d take back her comment likening voting for Biden to eating “half” a bowl of excrement—better than eating a full bowl of Trump, but still not ideal. She took issue with the fact that I was “centering” Biden. What someone else might view as sensible political message-tailoring, Turner often sees as “silencing..” Where she sees political foes “punishing” her for telling her truth, others see predictable consequences.
Still, there’s irony in the fact Sanders is no longer just a lefty firebrand but an elder progressive statesman, a leader in the Democratic Party he’s never joined (while Turner has been a lifelong member), the chair of the Senate Budget Committee—and a staunch, trusted ally of President Biden. You can recognize some difference in the way Turner and Sanders have approached their roles, rhetorically, but, well, you might also see a tinge of the way women are punished more harshly for all of their sins, real and imagined. Or maybe that’s just me.
Brent predicts Turner’s superior ground game will lead to a win August 3. “I believe we’ll see way more people on Election Day than expected.” She worries nonetheless. “I do believe all the negativity is suppressing the vote.” Expect the negativity to continue.