Shontel Brown won the Democratic primary for Ohio’s 11th District special election Tuesday night, according to the Associated Press, defeating her chief rival, Nina Turner. The race was a bitterly fought proxy war between the Democratic establishment and the left, between senior members of the Congressional Black Caucus and members of the Squad, and, most of all, between Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders in what is now the sixth year of the 2016 Democratic presidential primary. Brown will almost certainly win the November special election in the safely Democratic district.
“I am going to work hard to ensure that something like this doesn’t happen to another progressive candidate again,” Turner said in her concession speech. “We didn’t lose this race. Evil money manipulated and maligned this election.”
The win is an impressive comeback for Brown in the northeast Ohio district covering much of Cleveland and Akron, where the seat was vacated when ex-Rep. Marcia Fudge joined the Biden administration to serve as secretary of housing and urban development. Turner, a former Cleveland City Council member and state senator who rose to national prominence as a loyal, combative surrogate for Sanders in both of his presidential campaigns, entered the race early and racked up a host of endorsements from leading progressives including Sanders, Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and other Squad members. There hasn’t been much public polling of the race. But early private polling showed Turner with a commanding lead over a muddle of potential rivals.
That lead narrowed as anti-Turner forces consolidated around Brown, a Cuyahoga County councilwoman and chair of the local Democratic Party. Brown portrayed herself as less divisive than Turner and her allies, and a pragmatic figure and ally of President Joe Biden, who comfortably won the district in the 2020 presidential primary over Sanders.
Turner, perhaps even more than Sanders himself, became a vessel for the left’s rage over Sanders’ fate. She was one of the most assertive surrogates on Sanders’ behalf in both presidential races, pushing him to continue late into the 2016 nomination contest and protesting Clinton at the messy 2016 Democratic National Convention. In 2020, after Sanders had bowed out, she described choosing between Biden and Trump as “like saying to somebody, ‘You have a bowl of shit in front of you, and all you’ve got to do is eat half of it instead of the whole thing.’ It’s still shit.” She would eat those words—the whole bowl of them—repeatedly during her primary campaign.
Clinton, whose anger with Turner dates to 2015 when Turner, originally an early Clinton supporter, switched to Sanders’ team, is not known to let bygones be bygones. She endorsed Brown in June. Leaders of the CBC—including its current chair, Ohio Rep. Joyce Beatty—also endorsed Brown, making a rare decision to choose sides in a race between two Black candidates. Senior CBC members have seen too many of their incumbents earn primary challenges in recent cycles from further-left, activist candidates in majority-minority districts. They wanted to make a stand. Earlier this week, Politico summed up the tenor of the CBC message:
Shontel Brown—the chosen candidate of the caucus—would honor “the rich history” of the group, not be someone who fights against it while “trying to make a name for themselves,” CBC Chairwoman Joyce Beatty (D-Ohio) said while campaigning in the district Saturday with other top Black lawmakers. Brown wouldn’t be “a single solitary know-it-all,” said Rep. Bennie Thompson (D-Miss.). She wouldn’t “come in and try to break up that unity,” Rep. Gregory Meeks (D-N.Y.) added.
The most senior CBC member in Congress, House Majority Whip Jim Clyburn, got personally involved, too. At a June event with Turner, rapper and activist Killer Mike suggested it was “stupid” for Clyburn to have endorsed Biden in the presidential primary when all he got out of it was making Juneteenth a federal holiday, a sentiment that Turner—who had been trying to show off how she could work with people she’s had harsh words for in the past—appeared to approve. Clyburn endorsed Brown shortly after, and didn’t hide that the remark set him off.
“I personally got involved … when I was invited by the Turner campaign,” Clyburn said in a recent interview with the State. They “talked about my stupidity for endorsing Joe Biden, and I just kind of decided if I’m going to be stupid, might as well be stupid.”
Clyburn also hasn’t appreciated some of the sloganeering the activist left has brought into Democratic politics. “What I try to do is demonstrate by precept and example how we are to proceed as a party,” Clyburn told the New York Times in a June interview about the Ohio race. “When I spoke out against sloganeering, like ‘Burn, baby, burn’ in the 1960s and ‘defund the police,’ which I think is cutting the throats of the party, I know exactly where my constituents are. They are against that, and I’m against that.”
And so the final weekends of the race in Cleveland saw, on one side, Sanders and Ocasio-Cortez stumping for Turner in one part of the district while Clyburn, Beatty, Meeks, and Thompson stumped for Brown in another. Brown leaned heavily, as she said in one ad, on having done “everything to make sure Joe Biden beat Donald Trump,” as a contrast to Turner. Meanwhile, Turner labeled Brown a “puppet” of establishment interests propping up her campaign.
What does the narrow victory for Brown mean for the long-term intraparty struggle for power between the establishment and the left? We don’t want to over-extrapolate from one result, especially as other races in recent memory have gone progressives’ way. But messing with Jim Clyburn remains a bad idea.