CLEVELAND — Shontel Brown, whose campaign highlighted her loyalty to President Joe Biden, won a special election primary Tuesday in Ohio’s 11th Congressional District, a race that commanded national attention while dividing national Democrats along ideological lines.
Brown, whose victory was projected by The Associated Press, defeated Nina Turner, a former state senator known nationally for her work on Sen. Bernie Sanders’ presidential campaigns.
"Don’t leave this place sad,” Turner, who conceded shortly after 10 p.m. ET, told supporters gathered at a bowling alley in Maple Heights. “Don’t leave this place depressed. I want you to leave this celebration more resolute, because we still have more work to do.”
For months, the race had been Turner’s to lose, given her broader fundraising base and early lead in polling. Brown, a Cuyahoga County Council member who also chairs the county’s Democratic Party, caught up in the final weeks as outside groups helped her close the money gap and both candidates invited national surrogates to campaign in the district.
Given the heavy Democratic makeup of the Ohio 11th, Brown is the overwhelming favorite to win the November general election against Laverne Gore, who won Tuesday’s Republican primary, the AP projected. Brown, 46, would succeed former Rep. Marcia Fudge, her political mentor, who serves in the Biden administration as secretary of Housing and Urban Development.
“As essentially the next member of the 11th Congressional District, the next member of Congress, I can walk in the door with good relationships,” Brown, standing alongside Fudge’s mother, said at her campaign's watch party in Bedford Heights.
“I get the recognition,” Brown said, “but this was a collaborative partnership of the community.”
Eleven other Democrats sought the seat, but none had the resources that Brown, Turner and their allies did.
Turner, 53, spent the primary’s closing days campaigning across the district's Northeast Ohio footprint with Sanders, I-Vt., and other liberal firebrands, including Minnesota Attorney General Keith Ellison and political activist Cornel West. Brown, meanwhile, held events with top members of the Congressional Black Caucus, including Rep. James Clyburn, D-S.C.
The involvement of Sanders and Clyburn created the aura of a national proxy war and revived the tensions of Democratic battles in 2016 and 2020: the establishment vs. the progressive left. Biden allies are counting on a Brown victory to bolster their case for pragmatism, especially after wins by more moderate or centrist Democrats this year in a special congressional election in Louisiana and in the Virginia gubernatorial and New York City mayoral primaries.
It was Clyburn whose endorsement of Biden last year helped him win the pivotal South Carolina primary and outlast Sanders in the race for the Democratic presidential nomination. He and others cast Brown as a loyal ally of the Biden administration, the suggestion being that Turner would look out more for herself or “the squad” — the group of progressive House members led by Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of New York, who backed Turner.
Outside groups backing Brown were even more explicit about the contrast. The Democratic Majority for Israel PAC spent hundreds of thousands of dollars on local TV, including an ad that emphasized the time Turner equated voting for Biden to eating fecal matter.
State Rep. Kent Smith, a Brown supporter and Democratic leader in the Cleveland suburb of Euclid, said last week: “Democrats control the House, Senate and presidency. Shontel Brown is going to come in there as one of 220 Democratic voices in the House, but because of the bridges that she's built already with Clyburn and with Kamala Harris and other significant Democrats, they’ve already got her phone number. I’m not sure Nina's calls are going to get returned.”
Fudge, whose Cabinet post makes endorsements tricky, did not endorse in the race, but her mother starred in a TV ad for Brown — a message that carried little subtlety.
Brown also scored an endorsement from Hillary Clinton, the Democratic nominee for president in 2016, whom Sanders and Turner worked against. Turner, at the time a top Democrat in Ohio, had been among those initially encouraging Clinton to run, but she abruptly defected to Sanders. After the party nominated Clinton, Turner briefly entertained an invitation to join Jill Stein on the Green Party’s national ticket as a candidate for vice president.
Turner and her allies tried to turn Brown’s loyalty against her, framing her as a go-along-to-get-along politician. A particularly nasty Turner campaign ad in the final days attacked Brown’s ethics as a County Council member and asserted, without evidence, that she was under investigation. Turner’s supporters also argued that the district needed someone who would be more comfortable pushing Biden and the Democratic leadership in Congress to move more aggressively to address poverty, health care, gun violence and other issues.
“It is a very bad idea to say we just want somebody who's going to do whatever the president says, even if you love the president,” Ellison said Saturday at a get-out-the-vote event — headlined by Sanders — that drew 900 people to a concert hall in Cleveland.
The 11th District race was one of two special House primaries in Ohio on Tuesday.
In the 15th Congressional District, which stretches from suburban Columbus into the rural southeastern part of the state, Mike Carey, a coal industry lobbyist who had former President Donald Trump’s endorsement, prevailed in an 11-candidate Republican field. He will face Democratic nominee Allison Russo, a state legislator, in November.