August 6, 2021

Lessons From Defeat

Nina Turner and Bernie Sanders

Reporter Daniel Marans on Nina Turner's loss, the role of Jewish organizing and the Israel lobby, and what it all means for the left.

Bernie Sanders joins Nina Turner at a rally at the Agora Theater in Cleveland, Ohio, July 31st, 2021. Photo: Sipa via AP Images/Matt Shiffler

On Tuesday, Ohio’s heavily Democratic 11th Congressional District, which includes much of metropolitan Cleveland and Akron, held a special primary election to determine the likely successor to retiring Rep. Marcia Fudge. The more centrist, establishment-backed candidate, Cuyahoga County Council Member Shontel Brown, defeated former State Senator Nina Turner—a champion of Medicare For All, a critic of Israel, and a longtime ally of Bernie Sanders—by about six points, representing just a few thousand votes, after a bitterly contested race that drew in money and high-profile endorsements from across the country.

One group in Brown’s camp was Democratic Majority for Israel (DMFI), a two-year-old lobbying organization that has spent millions attacking left-leaning candidates in Democratic primaries, not always successfully. With Turner’s defeat, DMFI is now claiming a major win against the insurgent left wing of the Democratic Party in Congress, often referred to as “the Squad.” “This is a tremendous victory, not only for Councilwoman Brown personally, but also for the pro-Biden-Harris, pro-Israel majority in the Democratic Party,” DMFI tweeted on Tuesday night. Meanwhile, in her victory speech, Brown thanked her “Jewish brothers and sisters,” noted that she had been to the Israel–Gaza border and seen how vulnerable Jews were there, and stressed “the importance of the US–Israel relationship.”

Recently, I interviewed Daniel Marans, a political reporter for
HuffPost who covers progressive movements within the Democratic Party, and who spent much of the past week in OH-11 reporting on the primary race. We discussed the political leanings of the district’s significant Jewish community, the role played by DMFI and other groups, and the lessons progressives can draw from this loss. Our conversation has been condensed and edited. It originally appeared in yesterdays email newsletter, to which you can subscribe here.

David Klion: What was the lay of the land in OH-11 going into this primary, as you saw it through your reporting?

Daniel Marans: I spent Friday through Wednesday in the district, which is heavily gerrymandered and oddly shaped to include majority Black areas stretching from Cleveland to Akron. The areas of Cleveland west of the Cuyahoga River are significantly whiter and wealthier than eastern Cleveland, and include the largest concentration of young, left-leaning gentrifiers, who were part of Turner’s base. Eastern Cleveland is heavily Black, and then the eastern suburbs are whiter and more affluent and include a sizable Jewish community; I believe Jews make up around 5% of the district, which is more than twice the national share. This is a community that ranges from middle-class to affluent and votes very reliably, and a larger share of it is Orthodox than in many metro areas. Although many of them are Republicans and supported Donald Trump, Ohio has an open primary system, which can work to the advantage of moderates registered with either party. That said, the non-Orthodox Jewish community, which leans more heavily Democratic, strongly supported Shontel Brown as well.

DK: What kind of impressions did you get talking to non-Orthodox Jews ahead of the primary?

DM: Often, the first thing people would say to me when I asked why they were voting for Brown was something negative about Nina Turner. Jewish voters would frequently say that Turner was anti-Israel. When pressed to explain, a lot of them said that she was planning to join the Squad—one voter literally said to me, “We don’t need a member of the Squad representing this district.” In the minds of some mainstream Democratic Jewish voters, there’s now a clear equivalency between Squad membership and a more critical approach to Israel, including support for conditioning aid or the BDS [Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions] movement. Several times, Brown supporters brought up that in May, during the violence in Israel/Palestine, Turner quote-tweeted IfNotNow protesting against “apartheid” in Israel. That was circulated heavily in the Jewish community and picked up by Jewish Insider.

The liberal Jews I spoke with would sometimes acknowledge disagreeing with some things Israel does, while maintaining that it’s still the only democracy in the Middle East and that the US–Israel relationship should be sacrosanct. By contrast, the Orthodox Jews I spoke with were more likely to call Turner anti-Israel or simply antisemitic without hesitation.

DK: Is it fair to say that DMFI had a meaningful impact on the outcome of this race?

DM: There’s no question that DMFI played a pivotal role. That’s not to say that this race was won by big money alone. When we tally up the total spending on both sides, we are very likely to find that Turner and her allies actually spent more overall. DMFI was very strategic compared to the super PACs that supported Turner in this race. DMFI and Pro-Israel America both endorsed Brown very early on. DMFI started out with a positive ad about Brown and then spent major sums hitting Turner on her greatest vulnerability, which is her lack of loyalty to the Democratic Party and her negative comments about Joe Biden. That enabled Brown to hint at these contrasts without explicitly attacking Turner until the final weeks. Meanwhile, because the main pro-Turner super PAC, Democratic Action PAC, got a later start, they didn’t have enough money to go on TV until the final weeks. There just wasn’t the same air cover, and Turner had to do her negative hits on her own.

Would DMFI have succeeded if Turner hadn’t compared Biden to a bowl of shit, or if she weren’t constantly saying negative things about Biden, Hillary Clinton, and other Democrats? I honestly doubt it. But coming in when they did was critical in creating a virtuous cycle for Brown, by boosting her numbers to help her raise money, which then boosted her numbers more.

DK: It seems noteworthy that a lot of the messaging from DMFI had nothing to do with Israel, and was just capitalizing on unrelated comments Turner made that any group could have exploited.

DM: That’s right. DMFI spent millions against Bernie Sanders last year and didn’t mention Israel once. I think their presence in a race signals to voters that there is a contrast on Israel. At the same time, there was a genuine grassroots Jewish community effort behind Brown that didn’t require outside resources. The non-Orthodox Jewish community had a number of lay and political figures who were in Brown’s corner—city councilmen, major philanthropists, people like that.

Meanwhile, the Orthodox community organizing was really unique, cohesive, and effective. I interviewed the figure most responsible for that, to whom the Brown campaign gives enormous credit: Rabbi Pinchas Landis, who is not a congregational rabbi. He had been one in Cincinnati, and he was recruited to start an organization that encourages interdenominational Torah study in the Cleveland Jewish community as a vehicle for community building. His role was critical, because congregational rabbis are actually pretty hesitant to endorse candidates, even over an issue like Israel. This hasn’t been reported yet, but over Pesach, he took a call from an AIPAC activist in the Cleveland area named Elissa Wuliger who asked him if he knew about this race, which he hadn’t followed. He quickly realized the significance of a new member of the Squad replacing Rep. Fudge, who was seen as a friend of the Jewish community and never faced a major challenge.

So he sprang into action, endorsing Brown and taking her to small meetings in the Orthodox Jewish community, where voter registration is very high, but a lot of people just hadn’t been aware of the race. He and his team of volunteers created an online resource called to help register voters. They started keeping a stack of mail-in ballot application forms to hand out at shul, and he would identify people who were in a community directory that the local mikvah sold to raise money and cross-reference that with the voter registration rolls. They identified 1650 Orthodox families who are registered to vote in the district and targeted them through a variety of means. They recorded a video that circulated heavily on social media, which emphasized that Turner supported the agenda of the Squad on Israel. They would recruit volunteers who attend shul three times a day and tell them to pick one person at each minyan and ask them if they had a plan to vote, and talk them through that.

They also made sure that every one of those 1650 households, which usually had at least two voters, got their doors knocked at least three times. And they raised money to cover modest expenses for a small group of mostly young, modern Orthodox men, who came to volunteer directly for Brown’s campaign from out of state. They would stand outside kosher supermarkets and restaurants with mail-in ballot request forms. Yard signs were also important, because this is a community where not everybody always watches TV; a yard sign is something you can see and discuss while walking to shul on a Saturday.

DK: So what demographic groups did come out for Nina Turner?

DM: I met only one Jewish supporter, a Reconstructionist rabbi who spoke at an interfaith breakfast the day before the primary and delivered a benediction before Cornel West, incorporating Hebrew liturgy and discussions of social justice. But I assume there were some younger Jewish people who supported Turner; young people of all races came out for her. She performed well in the neighborhoods west of the Cuyahoga River, which are whiter and wealthier and younger, and she performed very well in the Akron metro area. In the predominantly Black eastern wards, she and Brown both did very well, but it wasn’t enough to overcome Brown’s massive margins in Cleveland’s eastern suburbs.

DK: Did you get any sense that Israel is a salient issue to the Black community that makes up a majority of OH-11?

DM: I did not see that. It just wasn’t a big issue either way for them.

DK: What should progressives who would like to see the Squad expand in Congress take from this loss?

DM: Some Turner supporters are saying that this was just about “dark money.” First of all, it wasn’t really dark, because super PACs have to disclose their donors. Turner had super PACs supporting her that could have marshalled their resources more effectively, and nobody called that “dark money.” It’s also a little ironic since we still don’t know who Turner’s consulting clients are. I asked her campaign about those clients, and she stood by her decision not to disclose them.

This was also a candidate who, in both 2016 and 2020, wavered in her support for the Democratic nominee against Donald Trump, who is Satan personified for the average Democrat. In 2016, she was publicly entertaining joining Jill Stein’s third party ticket, and we still don’t know whether she voted for Hillary Clinton in the general election. And in 2020, it was the “bowl of shit” comment about Biden. Compare her to Bernie Sanders, who can be a polarizing figure, but who can’t be accused of not supporting Biden. Over the past five years, Turner developed an intense following among left-wing activists while saying a lot of things that alienated rank-and-file Democrats. That gave her a false sense of confidence. You didn’t see the same kind of national effort forming on social media to stop Jamaal Bowman, for instance.

Right now, moderates are saying that this is the death knell for the left, while the left is blaming big money. The truth is, everybody should be expecting big money, and this is a very telling failure of execution on the part of progressives. The ideological implications are less clear. For instance, Data For Progress found that while Turner’s unfavorables went up over the course of the race, support for Medicare For All remained stable. So I think there needs to be a much higher standard for professionalization in left-leaning campaigns. There’s a hanger-on problem in the left political subculture—you have a lot of Bernieworld people who end up filling not just volunteer positions, but consulting gigs and major campaign roles. When left-wing candidates aren’t willing to confront uncomfortable truths about the things they’ve said and done in the past, because the people around them keep them insulated, then they’re going to keep losing.

People on the left complain about these races being seen as a referendum, but the left is all too happy to make them into referendums when the moderate candidate loses. This was an open primary for a vacant seat, which should be easier than challenging an incumbent. Turner raised a huge amount of money, and she blew a 30-point lead. Progressives need to take that seriously.

This article has been updated to clarify how Rabbi Landis employed a community directory to identify potential voters.

David Klion is a writer and a contributing editor at Jewish Currents.