BEDFORD HEIGHTS, Ohio — The Democratic establishment dealt a crushing blow to the progressive movement Tuesday, with Shontel Brown, the preferred candidate of party stalwarts, triumphing over Nina Turner, a face of the insurgent left, in a special congressional primary election.
Turner conceded shortly after 10 p.m. with a biblical reference: “On this night, we will not cross the river.”
The Associated Press had not yet called the contest, but Brown led Turner 50 percent to 44 percent.
Brown’s victory in the primary, which is tantamount to the general election in this deep-blue, Northeast Ohio seat, brings an end to a contentious summer of internecine squabbling for Democrats over the direction of their party with Joe Biden in the White House. The establishment forces leave the race with a blueprint for how to blunt progressive enthusiasm this cycle. The outcome is another setback for the liberal wing, which has struggled to put wins on the board this year.
Turner, a former Ohio state senator who became a chief surrogate for Sen. Bernie Sanders’ presidential bids, entered the special as a well-known figure with a huge financial edge; her own internal polling from late May had her with 50 percent of the vote, and she had endorsements from Sanders, Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.) and the Justice Democrats, a leading progressive group.
But that notoriety was perhaps as much a hindrance as an asset for Turner. Her impassioned speeches on behalf of progressive policies won her a cult-like status on the left, but her tendency for taking aim at fellow Democrats brought more than a few enemies.
Brown, a councilmember and Democratic party chair in Cuyahoga County, is a protege of the former incumbent Marcia Fudge, who vacated the seat to serve as Biden’s housing secretary. Among her boosters were Hillary Clinton, who thwarted Sanders for the 2016 presidential nomination; Jewish Democrats wary of Turner’s comments on Israel; and the leaders of the Congressional Black Caucus, including Majority Whip Jim Clyburn (D-S.C.) and chair Joyce Beatty (D-Ohio).
To chip away at Turner’s early momentum, Brown’s allies bombarded the airwaves with ads dragging up unfavorable Turner comments about the Democratic Party. (Some spots included a now-notorious interview Turner gave comparing voting for Joe Biden to eating excrement.) The Democratic Majority for Israel super PAC was the main spender, dropping nearly $1 million on TV to boost Brown.
The CBC, eager to blunt liberal insurgents from challenging their own members in primaries, went all-in for Brown. Their political arm formally endorsed her, and Beatty, Clyburn and Rep. Gregory Meeks (D-N.Y.) and Bennie Thompson (D-Miss.) spent the final weekend of the race storming the district, which includes parts of Cleveland and Akron.
Their heavy-handed involvement drew protests from progressives confused why the group would get involved in an open-seat race between two Black women. But the caucus took special umbrage at a June exchange between Turner and the rapper Killer Mike, in which the two suggested Clyburn had not extracted enough in return from Biden in exchange for his powerful endorsement of his presidential campaign. Clyburn endorsed and cut an ad for Brown shortly after.
For progressives, it’s another stinging lost after their candidates flopped in off-year nominating contests in Virginia, New York City and Louisiana, spreading concern that they had lost some of its urgency with Donald Trump out of office. And Turner’s starring role in the movement — and inherent early advantages — make the outcome even more painful.
The race united several establishment forces in the party, including pro-Israel groups and the centrist organization Third Way — partnerships that will likely continue throughout the cycle. Redistricting will create a swath of open seats over which the different ideological factions will spar. But it’s worth noting the moderate attacks against Turner did not take aim at the progressive proposals she supports, such as Medicare-for-all or a Green New Deal — an indication they are popular with the base.
It may not be quite as easy for the establishment to tear down a progressive candidate with a thinner public record. Turner was a staple on cable TV and did not hold back her distaste of Clinton and Biden and the Democratic Party’s leaders. That left behind a trove of footage that her detractors used to cut ads.
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