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Nina Turner Relies On Her Pragmatic Past In Ohio Primary Race
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Nina Turner Relies On Her Pragmatic Past In Ohio Primary Race


On July 1, a leading Democratic congressional candidate aired a television commercial with a message that is about as uncontroversial as it gets in a Democratic primary: it condemned the wage disparity between men and women who do the same jobs.

“Women are paid less than men,” the candidate says in the 30-second spot, after highlighting the United States women’s national soccer team’s fight for pay parity.

The TV ad would be unremarkable if it came from a typical Democrat.

However, the candidate in question is Nina Turner, a former state senator from Ohio who is an ally of Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT) and a notoriously unfiltered critic of the national Democratic establishment.

Turner is running in a special primary election on August 3 to replace Housing and Urban Development Secretary Marcia Fudge in Ohio's 11th Congressional District. Early voting began on Wednesday.

Because of the district's strong Democratic lean, the winner of the primary will be the overwhelming favorite against the Republican nominee in the November special election.

Cuyahoga County Councilwoman Shontel Brown's decision to run, which almost immediately drew the support of key figures in the Northeast Ohio Democratic establishment, set the stage for an ideological proxy battle.

However, with less than a month until Election Day, Turner is cruising to victory, and ads like the one about women's pay equity are a big reason why.

Turner has used her devoted progressive fan base to raise millions of dollars online, far outpacing Brown's total.

Rather than focusing on the left-moderate divide, she has used those funds to reintroduce herself to voters as a pragmatic public servant who served on the Cleveland City Council and in the state Senate.

In addition to the pay equity spot, Turner's first two TV ads, which aired in early May, highlight her work with then-Ohio Gov. John Kasich (R) on a task force to combat racial profiling in policing in 2014, and describe how her baby grandson inspires her to run for office.

Turner campaign pollster Ben Tulchin did not deny Turner's TV ad campaign seeks to demonstrate her versatility in a June 1 interview discussing an internal poll that showed Turner leading Brown 50% to 15%.

“She doesn’t shy away from saying she supports Medicare for All,” said Tulchin, who also polled for Sanders’ two presidential campaigns. “What Nina brings to the table is she has a lot to offer to every voter in the district. She’s not a one-dimensional candidate.”

Turner's political career before 2016 was far less left-wing than it has become in recent years, which helps.

Turner has frequently advocated for political reform, even when it meant defying local Democratic Party leaders; in 2009, she was lauded for her support of a successful referendum that streamlined Cuyahoga County government.

At the same time, as a state senator, Turner was an outspoken proponent of charter-school-friendly education reforms to the Cleveland public school system in 2012. She has since advocated for tougher regulation of those schools, but has stood by her work on that overhaul effort.

Turner's service on the Cleveland City Council from 2005 to 2008, as well as her tenure in the state Senate from 2008 to 2014, earned her a number of moderate Democratic supporters.

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Cleveland Mayor Frank Jackson, former Ohio Democratic Party Chairman David Pepper, and her successor in the state Senate, Democratic leader Kenny Yuko, have all endorsed her.

Each of those endorsements reflects relationships in Ohio politics that predate Turner’s entry into Sanders’ orbit in November 2015. Her work on education reform increased Jackson’s control over the school system; she fought Kasich’s law restricting union rights alongside Yuko in 2011; and she was part of Pepper’s party leadership slate in 2014.

Turner's efforts to reconcile her new base with her more mainstream past are logical from a tactical standpoint.

As a former state senator, she knew how to represent not only the more progressive constituents in her district, but also the others.

University of Akron, David Cohen

The district, which has been represented by a string of Democrats with close ties to party leadership, is something of a stronghold for the Democratic establishment; Sanders received less than one-third of the vote in Ohio's 11th district in 2016 and far less in 2020.

Turner's conciliatory campaign posture is surprising given that, as a surrogate for Sanders in 2016 and 2020, she established a reputation as a charismatic pugilist for the left, often going further than Sanders himself in her indictments of rival candidates and the Democratic establishment.

“Some progressives lack that elected experience, so they go all in on the left and forget to appeal to other parts of the party,” said David Cohen, a political science professor at the University of Akron. “Having been a state senator, she understood how to represent the more progressive constituency, but also others in her district.”

As a result, Brown, who also serves as the chairman of the Cuyahoga County Democratic Party, has struggled to contain Turner's rise.

Brown, who had less campaign funding than Turner, used her first TV ad to both introduce herself to the public and contrast herself with Turner. (Typically, candidates will use later ads to differentiate themselves — or, better yet, rely on outside groups to do the dirty work.)

“In Congress, I’ll bring people together and work with Joe Biden to stop gun violence and provide economic relief for families,” Brown says in the ad.

The commercial then cuts to a TV interview in which the interviewer tells Turner, "You've been highly critical of President-elect Joe Biden."

When Turner responded by calling the incident an "attack," as she had done in a fundraising email, Brown mocked her with a tweet, questioning whether she had changed her tone for political reasons.

“Is Nina's ability to be 'highly critical' no longer something she is proud of now that she is trying to win votes?” Brown asked.

Despite Turner's fundraising advantage, Brown outspent her on broadcast television ads in the last three weeks of June, according to Stardia data. Turner's campaign did not respond to requests for a response to Brown's allegations of flip-flopping or an explanation of the TV spending gap.

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However, neither Brown nor the Democratic Majority for Israel (DMFI), a well-heeled super PAC backing her bid, have capitalized on some of Turner's more controversial comments in the past. For example, in July 2020, Turner appeared to compare the race between President Donald Trump and then-candidate Biden to giving people the option of eating a "bowl of shit" or "half" a bowl of shit.

DMFI's first television commercial, which aired on June 30, promotes Brown rather than Turner.

Jeff Rusnak, a Democratic consultant in the Cleveland area who supports Brown but does not work for either candidate, believes DMFI erred by failing to define Turner as an "extremist."

“It’s a waste of money for an outside group to run a positive ad,” Rusnak said.

DMFI did not respond to a request for comment on the criticism or whether it plans to be more aggressive in the future.

Other candidates must explain and apologize for opposing and insulting Democratic candidates in general elections.

Turner's primary opponent Shontel Brown

When asked if Brown intends to be harsher on Turner, the campaign provided a statement from Brown that did not significantly alter her tone toward Turner.

“It is up to other candidates to explain why they opposed and insulted Democratic candidates in general elections — and to apologize for it,” Brown said in a statement. “Personally, I am proud to be a Democrat and proud to have voted for Hillary Clinton and Joe Biden.”

Turner's most recent gaffe has given Brown's supporters renewed hope.

During a video town hall with Turner hosted by the Young Turks, a popular left-leaning YouTube network, rapper "Killer" Mike Render, a fellow Sanders surrogate, criticized House Majority Whip Jim Clyburn (D-S.C.) for not eliciting greater promises from Biden in exchange for his endorsement.

Render called Clyburn’s failure to extract more concrete concessions from Biden “incredibly stupid,” to which Turner appeared to affirmatively respond: “You can talk about it.”

Clyburn, the highest-ranking Black member of Congress, endorsed Brown a few days later, and Brown wasted no time in featuring him in a new TV ad in which he dubbed her the rightful heir to the "legacy" built by former Reps. Lou Stokes, Stephanie Tubbs Jones, and Fudge, all three of whom he served with in Congress.

Clyburn made a subtle dig at Turner in the ad, implying that her penchant for the spotlight would be a problem. Referring to Fudge and her predecessors, Clyburn said, "They were effective because they focused on you, not on themselves."

Brown has received national endorsements from former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Fudge's mother in recent weeks, as moderate Democrats seek to slow Turner's momentum. (Fudge, with whom Brown has been close for years, has declined to endorse in the race for fear of violating a law that prohibits federal elected officials from using public resources for political purposes.)

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If the Democratic Party wants to make the race a replay of the presidential primaries, Turner's progressive supporters are content to respond in kind. Turner claims to have raised more than $100,000 in both 24-hour periods following Clinton's endorsement of Brown and the release of DMFI's first ad, for a total June haul of more than $930,000.

The Cleveland Plain Dealer editorial board endorsed Turner on Sunday, citing a “practical, not ideological” career in Ohio politics. The newspaper chastised Brown for refusing to step down as chair of the Cuyahoga County Democratic Party after launching her campaign, calling her “pleasant but undistinguished.”

Stardia has also learned that Turner's allies have established a super PAC to counter the influence of DMFI: The Democratic Action PAC, which was founded by Connor Farrell, a left-wing campaign finance consultant who also helped establish Justice Democrats' super PAC to support Jamaal Bowman in 2020.

The pro-Turner group has not yet been required to disclose its fundraising and spending figures, and Farrell refused to provide any, but vowed that it would leave an impression on the race.

“We are not going to stand by and let them attack Nina Turner,” he declared.

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