2 House races in Ohio will test Democratic divisions and Trump’s sway

By Jeremy W. Peters

Two primary contests today for open House seats in Ohio are poised to act as a stress test for both Democrats and Republicans, offering early hints about whether party leaders are aligned with their voters before the midterm elections next year.

In the Cleveland area, two Democrats are locked in an increasingly embittered and expensive clash that has become a flashpoint in the larger struggle between the party’s activist left flank and its leadership in Washington. The early favorite to win, Nina Turner, is now trying to hold back Shontel Brown, the preferred candidate of more establishment-friendly politicians and allied outside groups.

Turner, a former state senator who built a national following as a surrogate for U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders’ presidential campaigns, has been buoyed by support from U.S. Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, D-N.Y., and other leaders in the progressive movement. But Brown, a local Democratic Party official, has benefited from the help of Hillary Clinton, Rep. James Clyburn of South Carolina and others in party leadership roles.

About two hours to the south, near Columbus, a dense field of Republicans is vying to upset the preferred candidate of former President Donald Trump, an energy lobbyist named Mike Carey who was largely unknown until Trump endorsed him in early June and all but ensured that he would be the front-runner.

But the crowded competition — more than 10 candidates are running for the Republican nomination in the solidly right-leaning district — means that the race is fluid, especially considering that special elections typically draw low turnout.

If Trump’s candidate does not prevail, a loss would be seen as another sign that his blessing is not the political golden ticket that he and his allies insist it is.

“The question is ‘What does a Trump endorsement mean?’” said Aaron Baer, president of the Center for Christian Virtue, a Columbus-based conservative advocacy group. “Typically, people would say it means a lot,” he added, with the caveats that the candidates are largely indistinguishable on the issues and that some of Carey’s rivals have also won endorsements from Trump allies.

“When you have a number of people in the race with solid conservative credentials, and Trump world is spreading out its endorsements, it’s really anyone’s game,” Baer said.

Trump and his allied political groups are hoping to avoid another loss after the defeat last week of a Trump-backed House candidate in Texas. In that race, a state representative, Jake Ellzey, beat Susan Wright, the widow of Rep. Ron Wright, who held the seat until he died in February after battling lung cancer and being hospitalized for COVID-19.

Last week, the pro-Trump group Make America Great Again Action made a last-minute purchase of nearly $350,000 in text messages, digital ads and television commercials in support of Carey. And Carey has pointed to the Trump seal of approval as his main selling point. When he filled out a candidate questionnaire for USA Today’s Ohio bureau, for instance, the first thing he wrote as his answer to a question about why voters should pick him was “First, I am honored to have President Trump’s endorsement.”

Despite Trump’s dominance in the Republican Party, its voters are by no means a monolith. And some of Carey’s rivals have more established reputations in the district, the 15th Congressional, as well as the backing of prominent allies of the former president.

These rivals include Bob Peterson, a state senator who also operates a 2,700-acre grain farm and has the backing of Ohio’s leading anti-abortion group, Ohio Right to Life. There is also Ruth Edmonds, who has a following among Christian conservatives and the endorsements of Ken Blackwell, Trump’s former ambassador to the United Nations, and Debbie Meadows, an activist and the wife of Mark Meadows, Trump’s last White House chief of staff.

Both primaries on Tuesday will test the limits of outside influence and money, which have flooded the state all summer.

The presence of national groups and political boldface names is inescapable in the Democratic race in Cleveland and Akron, where Sanders, I-Vt., paid a visit over the weekend, and television ads impugning the character of both women in the race are running on a continuous loop. They are competing to replace Marcia Fudge, who held the seat in the 11th Congressional District until she was confirmed as President Joe Biden’s secretary of housing and urban development.

“You can’t turn on your social media, you can’t turn on your TV, you can’t turn on anything without having to deal with this,” said Blaine Griffin, a member of the Cleveland City Council who is supporting Turner. “It’s that bad,” he added. “And I can tell you that a lot of people are getting turned off.”

In recent weeks, Brown’s allies have escalated their attacks on Turner, who has rankled party leaders with her past, unvarnished and sometimes crude criticisms of Democratic standard-bearers such as Hillary Clinton and Biden. She has also angered some Jewish Democrats over statements she has made about Israel.

Supporters such as Griffin said they found these criticisms disingenuous. “Nina Turner was running away with this, and people got scared because they don’t like the way she can throw some sharp elbows,” he said.

Brown and her supporters have made the case that Turner would be divisive and counterproductive as a member of Congress, given her history of antagonizing party leaders. No doubt there are voters who will turn out in a Democratic primary to support Turner precisely because she has been so unapologetic about questioning the commitment of many in her party to advancing progressive goals on issues such as universal health care.

But her success will ultimately depend on what type of candidate Democratic voters want to send to Washington.

“Right now, voters are interested in voting for the person who’s going to go to work and they’re not going to have to think about ever again,” said Sean McElwee, executive director of Data for Progress, a Democratic messaging and polling firm. “That’s what wins races now.”

McElwee said the mood in the party had shifted away from the anti-establishment, throw-the-bums-out mentality. “Most Democratic incumbents still won reelection,” he said, “and only a few bums were thrown out, so to speak.”

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