Nina Turner’s Loss Holds Lessons for Future Left Candidates
A flood of dark money and establishment opposition helped sink Turner’s campaign—but progressive challengers can still win if they learn from the defeat while running on a redistributive platform.
Last July, in the midst of the 2020 presidential election and the burgeoning coronavirus pandemic, The Atlantic asked Bernie Sanders’ former top campaign surrogate Nina Turner how she’d feel about endorsing Joe Biden over Donald Trump. “It’s like saying to somebody, ‘you have a bowl of shit in front of you, and all you’ve got to do is eat half of it instead of the whole thing.’ It’s still shit,” she quipped.
It’s the kind of colorful, audacious quote the journalist interviewing her must have been thrilled to get, and that Turner — no longer bound by the decorum of campaigning or serving in the Ohio state senate — was probably relieved to give. Little did Turner know that within a year, her own district’s Rep. Marcia Fudge would get tapped for the role of Secretary of Housing and Urban Development under President Biden — prompting Turner to run in a special election primary that would be largely defined by Turner’s off-the-cuff remark.
Tuesday’s election between Turner and Cuyahoga County Democratic Chair Shontel Brown was widely seen as a proxy battle between the Democratic Party’s establishment and progressive flanks, just like the Biden vs. Sanders primary fight that Turner was heavily engaged in last year. To that end, the establishment scored a resounding victory, as Brown won by six points.
While Turner initially held a polling lead of over 30 points ahead of an opponent one local newspaper described as “pleasant but undistinguished,” an institutional coalition formed behind Brown in the final two months of the race, with the Democratic Chair receiving endorsements from Hillary Clinton, Jim Clyburn and the Congressional Black Caucus, as well as over $2 million in SuperPAC funding. That flood of dark money helped churn out 24/7 attack ads against Turner that ultimately pushed Brown over the top. HuffPost’s Daniel Marans, who covered the race, noted how many voters in the district brought up the “bowl of shit” quote unprompted in interviews, and the race effectively became a referendum on the brash style of Nina Turner herself, whom voters ultimately rejected in favor of a Democratic Party unifier. Jacobin’s Luke Savage, meanwhile, has argued that centrists’ cynical cash dump to bury someone they resentfully associate with Sanders was little more than a run-of-the-mill bought election. I think they’re both right, and the fact that Turner’s words were so easily weaponized against her speaks to the tension inherent to the insurgent Left electoral project.
Turner entered the race not only as an already-nationally known figure, but a highly polarizing one closely associated with a certain cranky democratic socialist from Vermont with whom broad swaths of the political class have a deeply personal axe to grind. She racked up similar friends and enemies as those in previous center-Left matchups, hauling millions in small donations (including from many Sanders supporters) while also inciting millions in large donations against her from monied interests who hate Bernie’s guts, including the powerful Democratic Majority for Israel.
The hulking TV ad buys bankrolled by the latter were how so many Ohioans caught wind of Turner’s “bowl of shit” comment, as well as her openness to voting for the Green Party in 2016, each of which were already out in the public when she was ahead by over 30 points back in May. Still, Turner raised far more than Brown did in direct fundraising — suggesting that the ads’ content ultimately made more of a difference than simply the resources poured into making and airing them.
There’s a reason that the Democratic Party antagonism played well enough with voters to matter, and it presents a messaging challenge for the insurgent Left. Cuss words aside, Turner had a point: Democrats do overlap with Republicans in key ways that help explain the persistent inequality upon which Turner and other left-wing politicians have built their redistributive platforms. If the Republicans have lurched so far to the right that the Democrats can’t help but look better by comparison, the unfortunate fact is that both parties are captured by the same well-heeled corporate donor base, and generally prioritize the interests of the rich.
Support for neoliberal trade policies, never-ending wars and bloated military budgets have been resoundingly bipartisan. So, too, is disdain for universal public welfare programs like Medicare for All. Winning left victories — like the extension of the eviction moratorium that Rep. Cori Bush (D-MO) helped secure through her high-profile campout on the Capitol steps — demands a confrontation with the Democratic Party. The whole point of a movement to elect more insurgent politicians is to get more elected officials with ties to movement politics in public office to confront the party establishment, which wouldn’t be necessary if “half a bowl of shit” weren’t more or less accurate.
But many voters don’t necessarily see it that way — particularly those who vote in Democratic primaries, even more so when it’s a special election. Among this highly keyed-in minority of voters, Biden is immensely popular, the Democrats are doing great, and the kind of saccharine “work together to get things done” drivel that makes Left Twitter cringe actually sounds pretty nice. And as journalist Ryan Grim pointed out, primaries can squeeze insurgent lefties from both sides. In 2016, Sanders’ camp championed open primaries to break out of the bind in states like New York, where strict registration deadlines favor both voters and candidates most loyal to the Democratic Party. But there’s strong evidence that open primaries in Ohio actually brought more Republicans into Brown’s fold, who were free to request Democratic ballots to vote against Turner.
This doesn’t mean there aren’t people who crave both a progressive and antagonistic stance — there are many! — but it does mean they’re tougher to find during primaries. There’s a paradox here: primary voters are also highly likely to support more left-leaning policies, which are still obstructed by mainstream Democrats, no matter how defensive voters are of them. And while the establishment’s desperation to crush Turner, not to mention her famous former boss, exemplifies Democratic powerholders’ contempt for working class-centric politics, there’s no viable short-term alternative to running within the party infrastructure and courting a swath of its base.
There’s an obvious lesson here for future Left insurgent candidates, which is more or less the messaging settled on by most successful progressive challengers: to call on the Democrats to live up to their full potential, and start doing more for the American people. This was the tack Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y) took in her first viral spot in 2018: “It’s time we acknowledge that not all Democrats are the same — that a Democrat who takes corporate money…cannot possibly represent us.” It was also used by Cori Bush, who, while pressuring her party to extend the eviction moratorium earlier this month, tweeted, “this is a defining moment for Democrats and how we lead when we’re elected…we could have extended it yesterday, but some Democrats went on vacation instead.” In other words, “help me help the Democrats.”
It’s an approach that’s corny enough to play with typical voters, while still leaving room for a forceful critique and drawing a contrast between the party’s center and left-most tendencies. After all, building institutional power that’s accountable to social movements is a grueling process that requires optimism to succeed. Perhaps we all need to look at the bowl of shit as half-full.