Nina Turner Ohio Special Election Results Explained
The Democratic primaries turned into a proxy war between progressives and the establishment. But the result does not tell us much about the future of the game.
Updated at 9:55 am ET on August 4, 2021.
In the days and weeks ahead, Americans will read headlines announcing all the lessons learned from Nina Turner’s loss to Shontel Brown in Ohio’s 11th congressional district yesterday. Political writers might treat the race as a parable: a warning to progressives and an endorsement of the political approach of the Democratic establishment. Experts on Twitter will post threads about what Turner’s loss portends for the American left, and cable news commentators could criticize the election as a harbinger of the 2022 midterm elections.
But, in truth, this election does not tell us much. The result does not have particularly useful implications for either type of Democrat, nor for the party’s broader electoral strategy. “Special elections are rare occurrences, and this is a primary for a special election held in a district,” Justin Buchler, a political science professor at Case Western Reserve University, told me yesterday. Any attempt to derive the meaning of such an event “makes exactly zero sense.”
The special election in Ohio 11, a black-majority district stretching from Cleveland to Akron, was held to replace former Representative Marcia Fudge, President Joe Biden’s secretary for housing and urban development. Thirteen Democrats ran in the primaries, but two women topped the polls: Turner, the former co-chair of Bernie Sanders’ 2020 presidential campaign who wears thick-rimmed glasses, and Brown, a member of the Cuyahoga County council. Last night, brown defeated Turner by six percentage points, or about 4,000 votes. The district is solid blue, which means Brown is almost certain to win the general election and be sworn in in Congress.
Because American politics appears to exist in a cycle of time, the dynamics of the race in recent weeks began to look a lot like the 2016 presidential primary fight between Sanders and Hillary Clinton – a bitter power struggle between two. opposing factions within the Democratic Party. Turner and Brown become substitute warriors for those factions; Sanders and his allies were puzzled by Turner, while the established system, including Clinton and House Majority Leader Jim Clyburn, backed Brown. Progressive groups like the Working Families Party and Justice Democrats backed Turner, while centrist organizations like Third Way and the Democratic Majority for Israel supported Brown.
A Turner victory would have provided a welcome injection of optimism for the party’s Sanders wing, after the recent defeats of left-wing candidates in Louisiana and New York. Instead, Brown’s victory indicates that the establishment was successful here and that their dedication of resources and late-game manpower worked. But those are the only reasonable extrapolations. In an out-of-year election like this, turnout is generally low, unpredictable, and not necessarily representative of the district. (It’s August, not November! People are on vacation or enjoying summer vacation.) Furthermore, special elections, held at random to fill vacancies in federal offices, are by definition rare events. Experts caution against overinterpreting the results to suggest that all progressives will be doomed in the Biden era, or that centrists will always win the day. There is no reason to expect the results of the race “to be repeated in any other contest anywhere else,” Buchler said.
Dozens of articles have been written about the race between Turner and Brown and how to interpret its result. But one of the reasons political reporters across the East Coast paid so much attention to a special election in Ohio is that there aren’t many other races – only a few elections are scheduled for this summer. And reporters, like this one, have editors to appease. Something similar happens with many Democratic legislators and outside groups who have invested so much in the race. “In a highly divided House of Representatives, one seat matters, so [they were] focused on this district, ”Buchler told me. But also, “They [had] nothing better to do with your time. “
People turn to journalism for help in understanding what to do with political events, and reporters and readers tend to look for the easy explanations, the clear lessons that align more clearly with the larger national narrative. But the truth is that voters are complicated, primaries are confusing, and individual districts are just that: individual.