Ohio sets November special election, leaving Pelosi with empty seat most of the year

Democrats’ progressive-establishment split could affect race

Nina Turner, left, was co-chairwoman of the presidential campaign of  Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders, who is expected to support her bid for the open seat in Ohio's 11th District. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call file photo)
Nina Turner, left, was co-chairwoman of the presidential campaign of Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders, who is expected to support her bid for the open seat in Ohio's 11th District. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call file photo)
Posted March 18, 2021 at 5:35pm

Ohio’s Secretary of State announced Thursday that the special election to replace former Rep. Marcia L. Fudge in the 11th District will take place on Nov. 2, leaving Speaker Nancy Pelosi with an empty seat for most of the year. 

Fudge won the district with 80 percent of the vote in 2020 and 82 percent in 2018.

It’s too early for candidates to have officially launched — they couldn’t even pick up petitions to run until the race had been set — but with several prominent figures already campaigning, the race is shaping up as a referendum on the divide between progressive and moderate Democrats.  

So far, the field includes Nina Turner, the co-chairwoman of Sen. Bernie Sanders’ 2020 presidential campaign and occasional Fudge rival, who is expected to have the support of national progressives, including Sanders.

Cuyahoga County Councilwoman Shontel Brown, a Fudge protégé who has the endorsement of Columbus-area Rep. Joyce Beatty and more than 100 other figures in the Democratic establishment, has attracted local and national attention as the candidate with the most support from the establishment. 

Former Ohio state Sen. Jeff Johnson, former state Sen. Shirley Smith and former state Rep. John Barnes Jr. have also said they would run. 

Candidates have until May 5 to declare, with the primary scheduled for Aug. 3.

The November election is the latest for the five House seats that are vacant. Louisiana has a special election for two open seats on Saturday, while Texans will vote in May and New Mexicans in June. The decision of when to fill Fudge’s seat in a heavily Democratic district was up to Ohio’s Republican state officials, who said in a news release that they followed a similar process when then-Speaker John A. Boehner, a Republican, resigned in 2015. At the time, the GOP majority in the House was more than 30 seats.

But with the House narrowly divided — there are currently 219 Democrats and 211 Republicans — Pelosi has few votes to spare, and an empty seat that the party won with 80 percent of the vote in November could put pressure on more vulnerable members. 

Criticism from party loyalists

Turner had threatened to challenge Fudge in a primary in 2012 and attracted criticism from party loyalists four years later when she flipped her endorsement in the presidential race from Hillary Clinton to Sanders. 

Recently, her potential opponents have questioned her commitment to the Biden administration, pointing to her history of blunt criticism of the Democratic establishment. That includes her comment during the 2020 presidential nominations for saying that a vote for Biden, while not as bad as former President Donald Trump, was still “sh--.” 

Locally, though, voters likely remember Turner more for her work as a state senator, one Ohio Democrat told CQ Roll Call in December. Turner has reportedly already raised $1 million

“My views are informed by my own experience and that of people I love,” Turner told the local WKYC station when she announced her campaign in December. “What I want the people of Akron and Cleveland to know is that I know what it means to be counted out. I am running to ensure the people of Akron and Cleveland are always counted in.”

Brown has sought to set herself apart from Turner by focusing on her work in the community — a counter to Turner’s national profile. 

“I have been here for the past nine years as a legislator in the district working closely with leaders in the community,” Brown told Spectrum News in February. “And that has given me a great advantage and a pathway to victory.”

While all House districts will be redrawn this year once the 2020 census results are released, geographic divides could also be an issue in the 11th District. The district currently includes both Cleveland and Akron, and multiple Cleveland candidates could split the vote and provide an opening for an Akron Democrat in the primary.

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