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Carl P. Leubsdorf: What an Ohio congressional primary will tell us about the Democratic Party

Carl P. Leubsdorf: What an Ohio congressional primary will tell us about the Democratic Party

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On Aug. 3, both parties hold primaries for two open Ohio congressional seats. But the outcome of the Democratic clash in the Cleveland-area 11th District may have greater significance than the identity of any of the day’s other winners.

That’s because the race between former state Sen. Nina Turner and Cuyahoga County Councilwoman Shontel Brown, both African Americans, is the latest in a series of contests stemming from efforts by self-styled progressives to push the Democratic Party to the left and increase liberal pressure on President Joe Biden.

So far this year those efforts have flopped, notably in last month’s New York City mayoral primary, where centrist Eric Adams was the winner and another moderate, Kathryn Garcia, finished second. Earlier, more moderate Democrats captured Louisiana and New Mexico congressional races, and former Gov. Terry McAuliffe won the Virginia Democratic gubernatorial primary over more liberal challengers.

Progressives have high hopes that Turner, a prominent 2016 and 2020 backer of Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders’ insurgent presidential campaigns, will win the majority minority Ohio seat vacated when Rep. Marcia Fudge became Biden’s secretary of housing and urban development.

That has prompted several top Black Democrats, led by House Majority Whip James Clyburn and the chair of the Congressional Black Caucus, Rep. Joyce Beatty of Ohio, to support Brown, who backed Biden in the 2020 nominating race. So have other top Ohio Democrats and Hillary Clinton. They fear a Turner victory would play into Republican efforts to portray their party as dominated by its left wing, led by New York Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez.

The New York congresswoman and fellow members of the progressive group known as the Squad have endorsed Turner, as has Sanders. Ocasio-Cortez plans to canvass with her this weekend. A Turner victory would augment the ranks of progressives and make it even harder for Speaker Nancy Pelosi to manage the closely divided House, where the half-dozen Squad members already have substantial leverage.

Clyburn, who also plans a weekend appearance, said he endorsed Brown because of his long relationship with her and not because of antagonism toward either Sanders or Turner. Meanwhile, a pro-Israel Democratic political action committee is backing Brown because of Turner’s past criticism of Israel, a potential factor in a district with many Jewish voters.

Turner has refused to say if she voted in 2016 for Clinton, after the former secretary of state defeated Sanders for the Democratic nomination. And in an interview with Peter Nicholas of The Atlantic before the 2020 election, she said the choice between Biden and Trump was “like saying to somebody, ‘You have a bowl of [expletive] in front of you, and all you’ve got to do is eat half of it instead of the whole thing.’ It’s still [expletive].”

Progressives seeking a greater voice in the Democratic Party have taken encouragement from the elections in 2018 of Ocasio-Cortez and Reps. Ilhan Omar of Minnesota, Rashida Tlaib of Michigan and Ayanna Pressley of Massachusetts, and in 2020 of Reps. Cori Bush of Missouri and Mondaire Jones and Jamaal Bowman of New York.

They have been able to command considerable attention, especially on Twitter and cable television. But most represent very liberal areas with substantial minority populations and are well to the left of the overall party, making them outliers in the House Democratic caucus. Still, Democratic leaders like Pelosi and Clyburn are concerned their outsize media presence is allowing Republicans to use the progressives’ advocacy of issues like “defund the police,” the Green New Deal and “Medicare for All” to paint Biden and the entire party establishment as tools of left-wingers and socialists.

Meanwhile, in a related move, House Democratic Caucus Chair Hakeem Jeffries, the New York congressman seen as a potential Pelosi successor, is joining with two prominent moderate Democrats to form a political action committee called Team Blue PAC to bolster incumbents against potential left-wing primary challenges.

First on their list are two veteran Democrats, Rep. Carolyn Maloney of New York City and Danny Davis of Chicago, who are facing 2022 primary challenges from their left.

These and the other recent clashes between progressive and moderate Democrats mirror the party’s 2020 nominating fight between moderates like Biden, Pete Buttigieg and Sen. Amy Klobuchar and progressives like Sanders and Sen. Elizabeth Warren. So have the results.

Despite pre-2020 speculation that progressives were taking control of the party, Sanders never polled more than about one-third of the primary vote and wound up being defeated even more decisively than four years earlier. And progressives have lost every significant primary fight so far this year, though they won some local New York contests.

The winner of the Turner-Brown primary contest — 11 other Democrats are running — will almost certainly be elected in the November general election as the 11th District voted nearly 80% for Biden last year.

Similarly, the GOP primary winner in the suburban Columbus 15th District will likely win the general election in that Republican majority district.

But it won’t likely have the lingering impact of the latest showdown between the progressive and moderate forces within the Democratic Party, a battle destined to continue next year and into the 2024 presidential race.

Carl P. Leubsdorf is the former Washington bureau chief of the Dallas Morning News. Readers may write to him via email at carl.p.leubsdorf@gmail.com.

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