Shontel Brown tops progressive favorite Nina Turner in Ohio’s 11th District primary

Special election split party’s progressive and establishment wings

Cuyahoga County Council Member Shontel Brown won the Democratic primary Tuesday in the special election for Ohio’s 11th District.  (Michael M. Santiago/Getty Images)
Cuyahoga County Council Member Shontel Brown won the Democratic primary Tuesday in the special election for Ohio’s 11th District. (Michael M. Santiago/Getty Images)
Posted August 3, 2021 at 10:42pm

Shontel Brown, the chair of the Cuyahoga County Democratic Party in Ohio, defeated progressive favorite Nina Turner for her party’s nomination Tuesday in the special election for the state’s 11th District.

Brown, who also serves as a Cuyahoga County council member, was leading Turner, a former state senator, 51 percent to 44 percent, when The Associated Press called the race at 10:41 p.m. Eastern time. Some 11 other candidates split the rest of the vote. 

Turner conceded the race in a speech to supporters shortly after 10 p.m.

“I have been on a long justice journey through a desert of despair, indifference, inequality and racism,” she said, according to a video clip posted by HuffPost. “Tonight, my friends, we have looked across to the promised land, but for this campaign, on this night, we will not cross the river.”

The win makes Brown the favorite in November for the deep-blue seat that Democrat Marcia L. Fudge vacated in March to become Housing and Urban Development secretary in the Biden administration.

Business owner and community activist Laverne Gore, the 2020 Republican nominee, won the GOP primary Tuesday, defeating Felicia Washington Ross, who ran as a Democrat in a state House primary last year. Gore had 76 percent of the vote when the AP called the race at 8:47 p.m.

The 11th District Democratic primary split the party’s establishment and progressive wings. Along with attracting heavy spending by outside groups and significant grassroots funding, the race drew high-profile figures from Washington to the district in the days before the election. 

Brown was buoyed by outside groups, especially one focused on supporting Israel, that compensated for her being out-fundraised by Turner by an almost 2-to-1 margin. 

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

Brown and her supporters argued that she would be a coalition builder and advocate for President Joe Biden’s agenda in Congress, a jab at Turner, who played prominent roles in Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders’ two presidential campaigns and has not shied away from fights with party leaders. 

“It is a slim majority, and we need a team player,” Ohio Rep. Joyce Beatty, the chairwoman of the Congressional Black Caucus and one of Brown’s earliest endorsers, told CNN last week. “We need somebody who’s willing to say they will set aside their own showmanship, their own ego, their own platform if inconsistent with the Democratic platform.”

While progressive leaders such as Sanders and New York Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez stumped for Turner, Beatty and other members of the Black Caucus fanned through the district to support Brown.  

House Majority Whip James E. Clyburn praised her “substance,” speaking at a church in Cleveland on Saturday. Mississippi Rep. Bennie Thompson said at a rally in Highland Hills the same day that voters needed a candidate whocan “get right in and get something done.”

“You don’t need somebody who is going to go there and talk about tearing the place up and all that,” Thompson said. “What we need is somebody who can be a good Democrat, work with all the Democratic leadership, who will support Joe Biden as president, who will make sure we continue to get the resources in this district that you need.”

Brown, a Fudge protégée, also had endorsements from Hillary Clinton and Fudge’s mother, who said in a television ad that Brown “shares Marcia’s values and will continue her legacy in Congress.” 

Fudge, who was cited for violating Hatch Act prohibitions on campaign activity for discussing the Ohio Senate race from the White House briefing room in March, remained neutral in the race. 

Brown trailed Turner in fundraising, pulling in $2 million to Turner’s $3.8 million through July 14. Early polls released by Turner’s campaign had showed Turner with a healthy lead, but the race tightened in the summer, as outside groups stepped up their involvement. 

Much of the outside spending came from pro-Israel groups after deadly fighting between Israel and Hamas in May.

The Democratic Majority for Israel PAC spent over $1.9 million on television, newspaper, direct mail and digital ads supporting Brown and attacking Turner, who sided with progressives who have called for putting conditions on U.S. aid to Israel. 

Another pro-Israel group, Pro-Israel America, reportedly paid for billboards across Cleveland plastered with the four-letter word for excrement, a reference to a comment Turner made during the 2020 presidential campaign when she compared voting for Biden, while not as bad as Donald Trump, to eating half a bowl of “s---.”

The center-left Washington think tank Third Way also spent $505,000 opposing Turner, while the progressive Democratic Action PAC spent $526,000 opposing Brown and supporting Turner. 

Turner’s campaign, in turn, pointed out that some of the money that went into supporting Brown’s campaign came from prominent Republican donors, including New England Patriots owner Robert Kraft and former Cuyahoga County Republican Party Chairman Roger Synenberg.