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The Trailer: How a Democratic primary in Ohio became a Biden loyalty test

In this edition: The 2020 primary gets re-fought in Cleveland, second-quarter fundraising numbers roll in and high-profile candidates stay out of California's recall.

If you want 1,000 individual restaurant recommendations, just tell people you're heading to Cleveland for work. This is The Trailer.

CLEVELAND — Nina Turner knew this would happen. On Saturday morning, the former co-chair of Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders's last presidential campaign described a call from a “mover and shaker” — she would not say who — shortly after she announced her bid for Congress, telling her that an “anybody but Nina” candidate would emerge.

“It had me reminiscing about when Sen. Sanders announced again, for 2020,” said Turner, 53, wearing a shirt that read GOOD VIBES ONLY, and waiting for her sister to arrive for a canvass. “There were articles written about how the corporatist Dems met in Martha's Vineyard … basically saying: 'We have to stop him.' Let's not have a robust debate about democracy, or who's best for this district. No. It was ‘anybody but Nina.’”

In its final days, the Democratic primary in Ohio's 11th Congressional District has become what the “mover and shaker” predicted: a battle between Turner and a candidate who's defined herself against Turner. Shontel Brown, a 45-year old Cuyahoga County Council member and the chair of the local Democratic Party, has accused Turner of undermining President Biden during the 2020 campaign. Rep. James E. Clyburn (D-S.C.) and the Congressional Black Caucus PAC have endorsed Brown, as has Hillary Clinton, and nearly half a million dollars of PAC money has lashed Turner over the ways she advocated for Sanders. 

Brown's closing pitch is blunt. In a “legacy seat” (her words, invoking the city's history of powerful Black representation) that badly needs federal resources, a Democrat who goes along with Biden will deliver more than a Democrat constantly trying to push him to the left. Republican primaries, like the one in the neighboring 16th Congressional District, have become contests of loyalty to the party's last president. Turner's opponents are testing whether Democratic primary voters can be moved in the same way, by what their candidates said about Joe Biden.

“I don't have to start with a long letter of apology,” Brown said in an interview after speaking at three church services in Akron. “I have great relationships with the people that I'm expected to work for. That is a big difference in making sure that we can bring home the bacon.”

Turner and Brown are not alone on the ballot, which will effectively determine the next member of Congress in a seat Biden won with 80 percent of the vote. (The winner will not be seated until after a November general election, facing one of two perennial Republican candidates with little campaign infrastructure.) Eleven other candidates filed for the seat, which opened up when ex.-Rep. Marcia Fudge became Secretary of Housing and Urban Development. 

The early muddle helped Turner build an early advantage, outraising the field thanks to a fundraising network expanded by her six years of work with Sanders. She went on the air early, with ads highlighting her work across party lines and the parts of her agenda that every Democrat agrees with — equal pay for women, reducing wealth inequality, and criminal justice reform. In June, the campaign's internal polling put her 35 points ahead of Brown, with more voters undecided or picking a lesser-known candidate than voting for the Cuyahoga County party chair. Turner was at 50 percent, but her opponents saw an opportunity: None of them were that well-known, but none of them had criticized the parties' nominees against Trump as she had.

“They're less strident now, but they will never admit that they screwed up,” said Jeff Johnson, a longtime Cleveland politician once convicted of extortion, who struggled to raise money as anti-Turner dollars flowed toward Brown. “They would have been better off with Hillary, fighting to get something within the party, then with what they did.”

Turner had led protests against Clinton at the 2016 Democratic National Convention in Cleveland, even stopping by an event with Green Party candidate Jill Stein. Last year, she compared the Trump-Biden choice to picking between a full or half-bowl of human excrement, language she's left behind in this campaign. In power, Sanders has avoided attacking Democrats and focused on getting his priorities into spending bills. Turner suggested she was ready to do the same, warning in an op-ed last year that “the next Trump might be far more dangerous than the one we just defeated” if Democrats did not gave tangible benefits, fast, to working-class people.

“I think the Congress is doing okay, but I do want to see Democrats leverage their power in the same way that Republicans do when they have the power,” Turner said in an interview here. “I would argue that Biden is going a little further than he ordinarily would because the progressive movement is pushing him hard, and still pushing.”

The White House publicly stayed out of the race, but the thought of Turner joining a growing “squad” of left-wing Democrats made some party leaders recoil. They didn't mobilize until last month, when Turner, who'd avoided the sort of friendly-fire media interviews she said yes to as a Sanders surrogate, participated in a Cleveland town hall organized by The Young Turks, a left-wing video news channel. “Killer” Mike Render, who'd shared countless stages with Turner as a Sanders surrogate, kicked off the discussion by criticizing Clyburn for endorsing Biden.

“All you get is a federal holiday, and nothing tangible,” Render said.

“You'd better talk about it,” said Turner.

Brown's campaign quickly clipped this and sent it to Clyburn, who nearly as quickly endorsed her. Democratic Majority for Israel, which has given air cover to other Democrats challenged from the left, started running spots and sending mail that not only reminded voters of Turner's Biden criticism but suggested that by opposing the party's 2020 platform — most of Sanders's delegates did so, protesting the absence of Medicare-for-all in the text — she had opposed “universal health care” and the rest of the Democrats' agenda.

“It was, and was seen as, a divisive move,” explained Mark Mellman, the president of DMFI. “That is particularly true in the context of her comment, at the same time, that voting for Biden was like eating [excrement]. It’s just hard to see Turner as uniting the party in the face of Trump.”

That has left Brown as the unity candidate, a role that includes a lot of jabs at Turner. In campaign speeches and TV ads, Brown highlights just a few accomplishments of her own, including a partnership to distribute 5,000 WiFi hotspots around the city during the peak of pandemic virtual learning. At forums and in campaign mail, she ticks off the “100 and counting” endorsements she's gotten from local Democrats, and knocks the Cleveland Plain Dealer for calling her record “undistinguished.” Turner talks little about her electoral history, while Brown describes hers as a sort of miracle, winning her first race by seven votes.

“As children of faith, we know that the number seven represents perfection, completion and God,” Brown told a Black political club at a Friday evening meet-and-greet. “I often attribute this journey of public service to his divine intervention, grace, mercy and favor.”

Turner hasn't concealed her contempt for the strategy, and has adjusted by running attacks on Brown that portray her as corrupt. Brown has called them “desperate,” distractions from how Turner's comments “hurt us in the battleground states” while making her a “celebrity.” Plenty of Republicans, in Ohio and elsewhere, have backed down from their old criticism of Trump by apologizing and becoming almost toadyish in their praise for the former president. And past Democratic opponents of Biden — including Vice President Harris — have made up with him. Why, Turner asked, should she recant anything?

“I will be able to work very well with the administration,” Turner said. “If the current vice president can stand side by side with the president, after what she did on that debate stage that night — when she said, 'I'm that little girl' — then no one should have any fear of whether or not I can work with this administration. I look forward to it, in fact.”

Early and mail voting has been thin so far, with both candidates planning to bring in surrogates to drive it up: Clyburn for Brown, Sanders and Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.) for Turner. Voters were not always tuned into the dispute, though a few were — and the vast majority of Democratic primary voters here had rejected Sanders twice. While waiting for Brown and Turner to arrive at a Black women's forum on Saturday, Cynthia Brown, 60, said she had ruled Turner out completely, because she hadn't worked to stop Trump in 2016.

“She's done things that have hurt the Democratic Party,” said Brown. “She's right that she has the most experience. Unfortunately, she said what she said and did what she did. You do it, you've got to own it.” Across the room, Wanda Benford, also 60, said she'd voted for Clinton and Biden but thought Turner had the “energy and integrity” to make the district matter in Congress.

“We all have to learn and grow,” Benford said. “She's had some dirty things thrown at her, but she's maintained her professionalism.”

Both Turner and Brown arrived at the event, where each was given 60 seconds to pitch the audience and each took a little more.

“I've had the support of national leaders, but more importantly, over 100 local elected officials,” Brown said. “They know I deliver results, not rhetoric, and that I am going to deliver some solutions, and not sound bites.”

Turner arrived as Brown was wrapping up, and reminded the crowd that she'd spoken to them before, and that she'd been a DNC delegate “not one time but two times, for President Barack Obama,” and that she'd fought for years to raise the minimum wage to $15 an hour.

“Hello, somebody!” she said, a call-and-response she'd deployed at rally after rally for Sanders. “I am a proud Democrat, but the ‘D’ that's most important to me is the ‘D’ in ‘deeds.’ D-e-e-d-s. I want to change the material conditions for people in this district. Hello, somebody!” She did not mention Brown, but she said what she thought about her.

“I will be a partner, Turner said, and not a puppet.”

Reading list

“Democrats take their push for voting rights legislation to Georgia,” by Mike DeBonis

The party keeps looking for an opening on one of their reform packages.

“2020 presidential polls suffered worst performance in decades, report says,” by Dan Balz

Something happens to data when Donald Trump is on the ballot.

“Pence flatlines as 2024 field takes shape,” by David Siders

You don't get to 1600 Pennsylvania Ave. with polite applause.

“As mountain of video evidence grows, Capitol riot trials are pushed to 2022 and beyond,” by Spencer S. Hsu

The Jan. 6 insurrectionists go on trial, as they start to get more political support.

“A House race in Cleveland captures the Democrats’ generational divide,” by Jonathan Weisman

Another view of Turner vs. Brown.

“New academic center aims to 'strengthen' democracy in U.S.,” by Zach Montellaro

Rick Hasen's next move.

Money watch

Campaigns published their second-quarter fundraising numbers with the FEC last week, revealing a big, messy 2022 battlefield that already looks less lopsided than the one the major parties fought on two years ago. Here are a few highlights.

Republicans have caught up in the small donor wars. That trend was visible last year, but a new cycle, without Democrats starting out with a big cash lead, has revealed the effectiveness of new GOP donor portals like WinRed. Republicans got another boost from the 2020 elections, which narrowed the Democrats' House majority enough for the GOP to make a simple pitch: Flip five seats and they cancel the Biden agenda. The National Republican Congressional Committee outraised its Democratic counterpart in June, $20.1 million to $14.4 million — and just two years ago, that Democratic total would have set a record. Republicans have nearly quintupled their online fundraising since the same point in 2019, and two of their incumbents who were targeted by Democrats last year, California Rep. Young Kim and Pennsylvania Rep. Brian Fitzpatrick, cleared $1 million. 

The 2022 Senate Democrats are in good shape, for now. Republicans lost the Senate thanks to special elections in Arizona and Georgia, where new Sens. Mark Kelly (D-Ariz.) and Raphael Warnock (D-Ga.) will have to face voters again in 16 months. Both Democrats kept their money printers humming. Warnock raised nearly $7.2 million, while Kelly raised more than $6 million. Rep. Val Demings (D-Fla.), who practically cleared the field with her announcement, raised $4.7 million. Sen. Maggie Hassan (D-N.H.), whose potential challenge from Gov. Chris Sununu (R-N.H.) makes Democrats nervous, raised $3.4 million.

Senate Democrats had the same blockbuster numbers in 2018 and 2020, with many of their strongest fundraisers, like now-DNC Chair Jaime Harrison, unable to pull off wins. But there's no evidence of Democratic donors demobilizing after 2020, as they did after 2008. In the 2010 midterms, the Democratic nominee for U.S. Senate in Ohio raised just under $6.4 million for his entire race. Rep. Tim Ryan (D-Ohio) raised more than half as much as that last quarter.

Trump's candidate is being outraised in Texas. The election in Texas's 6th Congressional District is one week away, and state Rep. Jake Ellzey has run circles around Susan Wright, the widow of the district's most recent representative, who died after battles with cancer and covid-19 this year. Ellzey entered the final stretch with more than $1.7 million raised and nearly $500,000 left to spend; Wright raised less than half that, and had just over $164,000 in the bank. Trump endorsed Wright days before the May 1 primary, and his brief appearance on a Club for Growth-organized call for her represented his return to active political campaigning. But he's said nothing about the race since, and the Club has represented 100 percent of the pro-Wright advertising on TV. (The Club's PAC raised more than $6.5 million for the quarter.)

While the ex-president has welcomed Republicans to Mar-a-Lago and Bedminister, and boasted that his endorsement can make or break them, the candidates challenging his main Republican targets were outraised. Wyoming Rep. Liz Cheney raised $1.9 million and Rep. Anthony Gonzalez (R-Ohio) raised $600,000. Gonzalez nearly doubled the haul for Max Miller, who welcomed Trump to northeast Ohio for a rally at the end of June (inside the fundraising window); no Republican rival came close to Cheney, and Trump has invited potential candidates there to New Jersey next week to vet them in the hopes of consolidating an anti-Cheney vote.

Ad watch

Shontel Brown, “Left to Do.” Many of Brown's TV spots for the 11th House District race in Ohio have referred to her support for the Biden-Harris ticket in 2020, as a way of reminding viewers that opponent Nina Turner did not involve herself in the 2016 or 2020 presidential campaigns after Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) dropped out beyond actively criticizing the Democratic nominees. “Thank God we defeated him,” Brown says of ex-president Donald Trump. After briefly mentioning her agenda (“better jobs, affordable health care, and stopping gun violence”), Brown says she's “sick of” hearing people attack the president and vice president, another not-too-subtle reference to Turner.

Jeff LaRe for Congress, “Meet Jeff.” Donald Trump's endorsement of coal industry attorney Mike Carey has put LaRe at a disadvantage, despite his support from retired Rep. Steve Stivers in the special election in Ohio's 15th House District. On TV, he emphasizes his law enforcement background, beginning with footage of last summer's riots and warning that “D.C. radicals want to defund our police.” Stivers's image appears in the ad, which doesn't mention Trump at all, focusing instead on LaRe's priorities: his “fight to stop illegal immigration” and supporting the Second Amendment.

In the states

There were no surprises on Friday, when candidate filing for California’s recall ended. No well-known Democrat made a last-minute panic bid, as then-Lt. Gov. Cruz Bustamante did in 2003. The best-known Republicans — former San Diego Mayor Kevin Faulconer, 2018 gubernatorial nominee John Cox, state Assemblyman Kevin Kiley, former Rep. Doug Ose, and former athlete and reality TV star Caitlyn Jenner — got no notable competition. 

That was what Gov. Gavin Newsom (D) hoped for, and it should put an end to facile comparisons between this recall and the election that produced Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger. In the run-up to the 2003 recall, party and labor leaders beseeched no Democrat to file, arguing that it would complicate their strategy: Portraying the recall as a right-wing power grab.  

Bustamante made a memorable but doomed appeal to Democrats: “No on the recall, yes on Bustamante.” He had to run, he argued, because of Davis's “declining political viability,” with polls showing that most voters were ready to recall him. Republicans wondered if the same panic would scramble Democrats this year, but the few polls conducted between the recall announcement on April 26 and the end of the filing period on July 16 found momentum behind this recall fading, and Newsom's approval staying over 50 percent.

“Followed my instructions to the T,” joked former Davis strategist Garry South, who argued against a “backup plan” throughout the filing process.

The result will be a 42-candidate list, less than a third as long as the 2003 ballot: 21 Republicans, nine little-known Democrats, nine independents, two Green Party candidates and one Libertarian. Several, including free speech attorney Daniel Watts, ran 18 years ago. Some, like former SFO administrator Joel Ventresca, had run unsuccessfully for other offices. The best-known Democrat, YouTuber Kevin Paffrath, has held rallies across the state and interspersed his usual investment analysis videos with criticism of a recall process that does not easily allow him to put his “Meet Kevin” branding on the ballot.

He's not the only candidate wrestling with the election statutes, which have changed since 2003. Candidates are required to provide five consecutive years of tax returns, which has tripped up Larry Elder, who recorded a video over the weekend to say he'd filed the documents and would go to court after being kept off the ballot anyway.

“I guess what they're saying is that we redacted something that shouldn't have been redacted, or we didn't redact something that should have been redacted,” Elder, clad in a white bathrobe, said in the video.

The radio host and recent Epoch Times contributor is one of the best-known conservatives on the ballot, though he's never sought office before. (Ric Grenell, a former Trump administration diplomat and Twitter combatant who also has a conservative following, opted not to run.)

In Wisconsin, the crowded Democratic U.S. Senate primary got its highest-profile candidate yet — Lt. Gov. Mandela Barnes, who at 34 would be the youngest member of the Senate, and the first Black senator from Wisconsin. Barnes's interest in the race was a poorly kept secret, with local reporters deducing the website he was updating to make the announcement.

“Hard work isn't paying off like it used to,” Barnes said in a launch video that portrayed him lacing up sneakers to go on a literal run. “Let’s be unabashedly unafraid to work together to change the game.”

Gov. Tony Evers (D-Wis.), who was joined at the hip with Barnes during their 2018 campaign, said in a statement that he'll remain neutral in a race that's attracted Outagamie County executive Tom Nelson, state Treasurer Sarah Godlewski, and Milwaukee Bucks Senior Vice President Alex Lasry, who's gotten some fresh attention from the team's NBA finals run.

“Bucks in six,” Barnes said at the start of his Tuesday news conference on the race.

2024 watch

It was busy weekend for Republicans with not-too-secret national ambitions. Two of them, former vice president Mike Pence and former Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, headlined the annual Family Leader summit of social conservatives in Iowa. Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Tex.) and former U.N. Ambassador Nikki Haley headed to the Christians United for Israel summit in Dallas. And Sen. Tom Cotton (R-Ark.) got comfortable with an automatic weapon at a New Hampshire county GOP's 3rd annual Machine Gun Shoot.

“Why did I not know about the first and second annual Machine Gun shoots?” Cotton joked after his time at the range. “How often do you get to shoot some of the rarest machine guns in the world?”

Cotton, who's made multiple trips to New Hampshire this year, used his remarks to go after ATF nominee David Chipman, the latest Biden nominee that Republicans are trying to defeat with a unified front, mocking his answers before a skeptical Senate committee. 

“There is no such thing as an assault weapon,” Cotton told Hillsborough County Republicans. “It is a made-up term by liberal lawyers and pollsters and politicians in Washington to mislead the American people, in an effort to confiscate your weapons.” At a separate event, a breakfast in nearby Rockingham County, Cotton said he'd been “leading this fight” against critical race theory, “no matter what they call me, no matter what the left says about me.”

Pence went after CRT in his Iowa speech, touting the Trump administration's 1776 education project (an effort quickly scrapped by Biden), arguing that “patriotic education is essential for the survival of liberty,” and saying that Americans should “never again be dependent on foreign nations for essential health care supplies.” He wove religious stories into a mostly familiar speech, which avoided specific references to the aftermath of the 2020 election by emphasizing the GOP's gains in House and legislative races.

“I understand the disappointment with last November's election,” Pence said in Iowa. “You might remember, I was on the ballot.” A reference to his refusal to entertain a plan to challenge election results was tucked near the end of his speech, after a paean to the founders: “We need to be the movement that keeps our oath, even when it hurts.”

At the CUFI conference, Haley recounted her work as U.N. ambassador, casting votes against condemnations of Israel, while Cruz recounted what he'd heard from signatories to the Abraham Accords, the Trump-era measure that formalized relations between the country, Bahrain and the United Arab Emirates.

“It is now clear to us that America stands unequivocally with the nation of Israel,” Cruz recalled representatives telling him. “We want to be friends with America. Therefore, we should be friends with Israel.”


… seven days until the special election in Texas’s 6th Congressional District 
… 14 days until primaries in Ohio’s 11th and 15th Congressional Districts 
… 56 days until California's recall election
 … 105 days until elections in New Jersey and Virginia, and primaries in Florida’s 20th Congressional District