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Opinion Nina Turner’s loss in Ohio means Biden doesn’t need to keep caving to the left

Shontel Brown speaks during a Souls to the Polls rally at Sanctuary Baptist Church in Cleveland on Sunday. She was joined by Rep. James Clyburn (D-S.C.). (Michael M. Santiago/Getty Images)
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Too many politicians, in both parties, promise to be “fighters” when they run for office. But the last thing Congress needs is more brawling.

That’s what makes Shontel Brown’s upset victory on Tuesday in an Ohio special election so refreshing. She beat Nina Turner, the epitome of smashmouth-style liberalism, in a Democratic primary to fill the House seat vacated by Housing and Urban Development Secretary Marcia L. Fudge.

Brown prevailed by embracing President Biden — and celebrating his brand of incrementalism. “This is about making progress, and sometimes that takes compromise,” she said during her victory speech in a Cleveland suburb. “Because when you demand all or nothing, usually you end up with nothing.”

The crowd of grass-roots activists cheered the mention of compromise. Democrats who might be tempted to torpedo a scaled-back infrastructure package, on the grounds that it’s not sweeping enough, should listen.

Biden has to be attentive to the left, given Democrats’ slim House majority. But Tuesday’s results suggest he doesn’t need to contort himself to placate the party’s progressive wing — as he’s doing with the extension of the eviction moratorium — as much as they demand or he has often deemed necessary.

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A single special election shouldn’t be over-interpreted. But in the latest proxy war for the soul of the party, the pragmatists again beat the ideologues. After failing to win the presidential nomination in 2020, the party’s progressives have suffered a string of high-profile primary losses to moderate alternatives this year, from another House special election in Louisiana to the governor’s race in Virginia and the mayoral contest in New York City.

Turner, the national co-chair of Sen. Bernie Sanders’s 2020 presidential campaign and one of his highest-profile surrogates in 2016, promised to hold Biden’s feet to the fire and attacked her opponent as a “puppet” who would go along to get along. Brown, a county councilwoman, countered that she’d be more effective as a “partner” to the president than a thorn in his side.

Sanders (I-Vt.) headlined a Saturday rally for Turner. All four members of the self-described Squad endorsed her. “Please send me Nina,” Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.) urged voters during a swing through the district.

Turner lost by 5.7 percentage points, even though she outraised Brown $5.6 million to $2.4 million. She released an internal poll from May that showed her leading by 35 points.

A turning point came in June when Turner appeared alongside Killer Mike as the rapper said it was “incredibly stupid” for House Majority Whip James E. Clyburn (D-S.C.) to endorse Biden before the South Carolina primary. “The only thing you get is a federal holiday and nothing tangible out of it,” he said, referring to Juneteenth. Turner appeared to agree.

That viral moment helped spur Clyburn, the No. 3 in Democratic leadership, and leaders of the Congressional Black Caucus (CBC) to come out strongly against Turner. “I just kind of decided if I’m going to be stupid, might as well be stupid,” Clyburn told the State newspaper last week.

Fear was another motivation for CBC leaders. They privately worried a Turner victory would embolden additional radicals to launch primary challenges against incumbent Black lawmakers in 2022. What happened to Lacy Clay in Missouri remains top of mind. The 10-term congressman, whose father co-founded the CBC, was defeated in a primary last summer by activist Cori Bush, who had the support of Sanders and the Democratic Socialists of America.

Now a freshman congresswoman, Bush campaigned with Turner in Ohio. She made the news this week for sleeping outside the U.S. Capitol to protest the lapsed federal eviction moratorium. Bush is being widely credited with pressuring the Biden administration to issue a new ban on evictions.

Biden had resisted such a move because, as the president himself acknowledged on Tuesday, it is legally dubious. “The bulk of the constitutional scholarship says that it’s not likely to pass constitutional muster,” he told reporters.

This is an unsettling approach for someone who took an oath to uphold the Constitution — a statement that would have enraged liberals had it come from Donald Trump. And maybe it’s unnecessary, as a matter of political calculation. Biden may not be as beholden to the left as he thinks.

And that may be the real significance of the Ohio results. They show the leader of the Democratic Party is not Sanders or AOC. It’s Biden. And he should start acting like it. At least he can count on Shontel Brown’s vote.