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Loyalty or loyal opposition? Democrats test fealty to Biden in special elections

In Ohio, rivals accuse Bernie Sanders ally Nina Turner of not being a team player. In Louisiana, Troy Carter brags about having access to the White House.
President Joe Biden at the White House complex on Jan 25, 2021.
President Joe Biden at the White House complex on Jan 25.Jabin Botsford / The Washington Post via Getty Images file

CLEVELAND — Nina Turner, the perpetual public face of Sen. Bernie Sanders' unsuccessful presidential campaigns, once compared voting for Joe Biden to eating a bowl of fecal matter.

Now Turner is a top contender for Congress. And her Democratic opponents hope to differentiate themselves by embracing President Joe Biden, who was elected thanks to the overwhelming support of Black voters like those in Ohio's 11th District, which Turner hopes to represent.

The race is one of several this year that illustrate a division that persists in the Democratic Party: the allies of a president who practices centrist politics against a progressive flank that wants to push him to the left with proposals like "Medicare for All," the Green New Deal and a $15-an-hour minimum wage.

Special House elections in Ohio's 11th and Louisiana's 2nd districts were triggered when the districts' longtime officeholders, Housing Secretary Marcia Fudge and White House aide Cedric Richmond, respectively, left to join the administration. Both are majority Black districts where Biden won by more than 50 percentage points last year.

In Fudge's Ohio district, at least seven Democrats are preparing to run in the Aug. 3 primary, a contest that is likely to decide the eventual winner given the tilt of the district. Turner is the only candidate so far who appears to have an open invitation to join "the squad," the group of progressive House Democrats led by Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of New York.

The blossoming alliance has caught the attention of Bryan Flannery, a former state lawmaker who is among Turner's rivals.

"I'm not running for Congress to join a squad," Flannery said Tuesday as he launched his campaign. "I'm running to be a member of Team Biden."

'What kind of Democrat?'

Louisiana voters have already narrowed the race for Richmond's successor to two Democratic state senators: Troy Carter and Karen Carter Peterson. They are not related.

Richmond, who joined the Biden administration as a senior White House adviser, endorsed Carter as he left Congress. Carter brags that he has "the ear of the guy who has the ear of the president."

Unlike former President Donald Trump, who picked sides in primaries and reveled in GOP chaos, Biden does not plan to weigh in on the battles, consistent with his preference not to get involved in primaries, a White House official said.

But the success of those who embrace Biden in special elections — whether it works or backfires — could offer a warning for Democrats plotting runs in the midterm elections next year.

Peterson has the support of Our Revolution, the Sanders-aligned PAC that Turner use to run, and the Congressional Progressive Caucus PAC, as well as voting rights advocate Stacey Abrams of Georgia. Carter has suggested that Peterson's base of support could make it harder for her to build relationships in the White House.

"My style," Carter said, "is quite different than hers."

State Sens. Troy Carter and Karen Carter Peterson, both D-New Orleans, speak about their campaigns for the 2nd Congressional District seat after they signed up for the race on Jan. 20 in Baton Rouge, La.AP file

Louisiana holds open general elections and then runoffs between the top two vote-getters if no candidate gets more than 50 percent of the ballots. Carter got 36 percent and Peterson finished with 23 percent in the general election.

Peterson is not easily branded as an anti-Biden choice. She is a former state party chair who was a vice chair of the Democratic National Committee last cycle. But Peterson frames her candidacy as an opportunity for independent representation, at a healthy remove from the administration. She got a boost this week when Gary Chambers, a progressive activist who finished a close third in the general election, with 21 percent, endorsed her.

"A Democrat is going to get elected," Peterson said. "But what kind of Democrat? Is it going to be a bold and courageous fighter? Or is it going to be somebody who is trying to accommodate, assimilate and just going along to get along?"

Carter leans heavily on Richmond's support — an ad before the primary emphasized Richmond's endorsement, in addition to endorsements from newspapers and unions — while focusing on issues such as criminal justice reform and the environment.

"Being able to build relationships to advance important issues, to compete for important dollars for your state, is critical," Carter said. "When you have 535 members of the House and Senate and everyone competing for limited resources, those relationships matter."

Carter said he would have no problem disagreeing with Biden if a particular proposal fell short of his constituents' needs. "Friends," he added, "are not obligated to always agree."

Peterson remains skeptical.

"His whole campaign is 'I'll have the ear of the ear of the toe of the thumb of the guy who has the ear to do what's right for the people,'" she said. "And I'm saying I'm talking to the people."

'Being a team player'

In Ohio, Turner describes attacks fueled by her past bashing of Biden — including the time she compared the choice between Biden and Trump to choosing between eating a half or a whole "bowl of s---" — as oversimplifications.

She said she values the needs of the district's constituents over loyalty and access to the president, and she does not make explicit criticism of Biden a central part of her campaign.

"The people who are trying to make it seem like there's some big divide between me and the Biden administration — so big that we won't be able to work together? That's a false narrative," Turner said. "Just because I'm fighting for something that is more progressive than this administration does not mean we won't be able to see eye to eye on some things."

Turner's national fundraising base and years of local politicking as a Cleveland City Council member, a state senator and an Ohio Democratic Party official established her as an early front-runner in a crowded field.

She points to her work with longtime Cleveland Mayor Frank Jackson, a Democrat who endorsed her this week, and former Ohio Gov. John Kasich, a Republican who endorsed Biden last year, as evidence that she can work with the establishment and with people she does not always agree with. She also has a reputation for splitting with the local party. A decade ago, she angered Cleveland's Black political leaders by supporting an overhaul of the dysfunctional, patronage-heavy Cuyahoga County government and later threatening to challenge Fudge in a primary.

The clashes have further fueled the suspicions fanned by her opponents.

"In looking at who's running, this country does not need more divisiveness," Flannery, who played on Notre Dame's 1988 national championship football team and communicates in sports metaphors, said in an interview. "People who have been on teams get it and understand that being a team player means you work out your dirty laundry in the locker room."

At a forum last month hosted by the Jewish Democratic Council of America, Flannery and several other Turner rivals often crammed Biden shoutouts into their answers.

"I am ready to go to Congress to stand with the Biden administration to build America back better," Jeff Johnson, a former state senator and Cleveland City Council member, told the virtual audience gathered on Zoom, echoing a Biden campaign slogan.

Turner's toughest competition is likely to come from Shontel Brown, a Cuyahoga County Council member who runs the local party apparatus. Brown has sought to align herself closely with Fudge, who has not endorsed a potential successor.

"You just have to follow what an individual says," Brown said in a jab at Turner. Given the narrow Democratic majority in the House, she added, "we need someone who won't necessarily be a thorn in the side, but someone who will be a partner to help push forth a robust, aggressive, progressive agenda."