In two Ohio congressional primaries Tuesday, Democratic voters embraced the party’s establishment, delivering President Joe Biden another ally and denying the left-wing “Squad” its latest member. Republicans, meanwhile, stuck with former President Donald Trump.
The two themes could preview what’s to come in next year’s midterm elections, with progressives set to square off against veteran Democrats in several primaries and Trump seeking to settle old scores and oust his intra-party critics.
In the heavily Democratic 11th District, which stretches from Cleveland to Akron, establishment-backed Cuyahoga County Democratic chairwoman and county council member Shontel Brown – who was backed by Hillary Clinton, Rep. Jim Clyburn and the Congressional Black Caucus – defeated former state senator Nina Turner, the long-time ally of Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders. Turner remained critical of Clinton after the primary’s conclusion in 2016 and in 2020 once compared voting for Biden to eating half a bowl of human excrement.
Meanwhile, Republican voters in Ohio’s 15th District – which includes parts of Columbus and rural areas south of the city – selected Mike Carey, a coal lobbyist endorsed by Trump. Carey’s win staved off a potential embarrassment for Trump a week after a candidate he’d endorsed lost to another Republican in a Texas congressional runoff.
The two primaries drew attention because of the nationally known figures who were involved. But neither is expected to be competitive in the special general elections. Brown is now all but certain to win the 11th District seat on November 2, while Carey is the heavy favorite in the 15th District.
Here are four takeaways from Ohio’s primaries:
Progressives saw Ohio as a chance to steer the House Democratic caucus further left. Turner – a long-time Sanders ally who became a national figure before any member of the left-wing “Squad” was elected to Congress – would have joined their ranks.
But, in what could be a preview of how establishment forces will mobilize to protect incumbent Democrats facing primary challenges next year, more moderate Democrats fought back. Out of a crowded field, they rallied behind Brown, a candidate more likely to support Biden and his agenda in Washington.
And again it was Clyburn – the kingmaker in the 2020 Democratic primary, when his endorsement propelled Biden to a massive victory in the South Carolina primary and a romp three days later, on Super Tuesday – playing a central role.
Clyburn stepped in when the rapper and activist Killer Mike, appearing at a campaign event with Turner, said the No. 3 House Democrat had been “incredibly stupid” to back Biden without securing more concessions. Clyburn endorsed Brown and warned that the left’s “sloganeering” – such as calls to defund the police – is politically damaging.
The Congressional Black Caucus’ political arm endorsed Brown, and Clyburn and other leading Black Democrats campaigned for her on the race’s closing weekend.
The race between Turner and Brown was a glimpse at the ways in which Democrats have never fully moved past the 2016 presidential primary. It even pitted Clinton, who endorsed Brown, against Sanders, who campaigned for Turner – one of his most loyal allies in his two presidential campaigns.
Viewed through that lens, though, it should not be surprising that Turner ran into stiff headwinds.
Ohio’s 11th District backed Clinton over Sanders by a 2-to-1 margin in 2016. Turner began the race with a financial edge and the advantage of years of national television appearances as a pundit and pro-Sanders surrogate. But there was always room for Brown’s support to grow.
In the race’s closing weeks, Brown and her allies were outspending Turner and her supporters on television ads.
Jewish voters and pro-Israel groups played important roles down the stretch. The Democratic Majority for Israel super PAC spent heavily against Turner, who has been critical of Israel at times. And Brown’s support from Jewish Democrats in the district proved pivotal – a reality that Brown acknowledged in her victory speech, in which she thanked “my Jewish brothers and sisters” and discussed how a 2018 trip to Israel shaped her view of the US-Israel relationship.
It’s hard to distill much about the direction of the Democratic Party on major generational and ideological issues from individual races – particularly low-turnout primaries in off-year special elections like Ohio’s 11th District contest.
Moderate, establishment-aligned figures have now notched a series of important victories over more progressive candidates, dating back to Biden defeating Sanders in the 2020 presidential primary. In Virginia, former Gov. Terry McAuliffe held off challengers to win the primary as he seeks another term. In New York City, centrist Eric Adams won the mayoral primary.
But at the same time, progressives have claimed victories of their own. New York City chose a progressive candidate for comptroller at the same time it picked a moderate for mayor. Buffalo voters ousted their incumbent mayor in favor of India Walton, a self-professed socialist and political newcomer. A progressive challenger, state Rep. Ed Gainey, unseated Pittsburgh Mayor Bill Peduto.
What seems clear is that progressives have yet to figure out – especially in high-turnout contests – how to crack up the Biden coalition of working-class voters, Black voters and suburban moderates who are playing an increasingly large role in Democratic primaries.
A week after his Texas misstep, Trump can again credibly claim that his endorsement is a deciding factor in Republican primaries.
The Trump-backed candidate in the Ohio 15th District Republican primary, Carey, defeated a host of rivals – including one backed by former Rep. Steve Stivers, the man they were all running to replace.
Trump’s pick in Texas had lost a congressional runoff to another Republican last week, and a second straight loss would have raised serious concern about whether GOP primary voters – who polls show still overwhelmingly support the former President, even if he is toxic with the broader electorate – are interested in continuing to follow his lead in down-ballot races.
“Great Republican win for Mike Carey. Big numbers!” Trump, taking a victory lap, said in a statement Tuesday night. “Congratulations to Mike and his family. He will never let you down!”
The district, which includes part of Columbus and the rural region to its south, is heavily Republican and likely to remain in the party’s hands in this fall’s special general election. Carey will face Democratic state Rep. Allison Russo on November 2.