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In Ohio Dem primary, Jewish groups seek to help moderate push past progressive

Squad-backed Nina Turner sees her massive lead shrink in recent weeks as more centrist Shontel Brown emerges from crowded pack of candidates with help of DMFI and JDCA

Jacob Magid is The Times of Israel's US correspondent based in New York

Nina Turner (L) and Shontel Brown, who square off in the Democratic primary for Ohio's 11th District on August 3, 2021. (AP, Shontel Brown For Congress Facebook Page)
Nina Turner (L) and Shontel Brown, who square off in the Democratic primary for Ohio's 11th District on August 3, 2021. (AP, Shontel Brown For Congress Facebook Page)

With polls showing the progressive, Squad-backed frontrunner in Ohio’s Democratic primary rapidly losing her lead over a more moderate rival backed by several pro-Israel groups, Jewish voters who make up roughly five percent of the 11th District’s electorate could well play a decisive role in Tuesday’s special election.

Former state senator Nina Turner, who once enjoyed a 35-point advantage over Cuyahoga County Councilwoman Shontel Brown, has seen that gap shrink to just five points, according to a recent poll conducted by the Mellman Group.

Turner and Brown stand out among a crowded field of 13 candidates vying to fill the seat vacated by former Rep. Marcia Fudge, tapped by US President Joe Biden to serve as his housing secretary.

Turner was a leading national voice for Bernie Sanders’ presidential campaigns, and the US senator is among a long list of progressives including Sen. Ed Markey, Reps. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Rep. Rashida Tlaib to back the early frontrunner.

Brown, for her part, received the endorsements of the Congressional Black Caucus, former secretary of state Hillary Clinton, House Majority Whip Joyce Beatty and Rep. Jim Clyburn.

The election is seen as a litmus test for the Democratic Party, which finds itself divided by those who point to Biden’s election as proof that a moderate approach is more effective in winning voters and those who note the rapid rise of the party’s progressive wing, which is particularly popular among young people.

Democratic presidential candidate Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., right, stands on stage with former Ohio state senator Nina Turner before speaking at a campaign event on Feb. 26, 2020, in North Charleston, S.C. (AP/Patrick Semansky)

The tug-of-war between moderates and progressives has ramifications for Israel’s support in Congress, where the latter group has begun chipping away at carefully cultivated bipartisan support for the Jewish state.

Identifying that shift as a major threat, the Democratic Majority for Israel (DMFI) threw its support behind Shontel Brown, spending some $2 million on the centrist’s behalf. Those ads included a series of attacks on Turner, highlighting comments she made against Biden who she likened to “[half] a bowl of shit.”

The attack ads sparked the ire of J Street, which did not endorse a candidate in the race but has historically been more closely aligned with progressives than with moderates in the party.

The negative strategy also comes with risks, as branding Turner an anti-Israel threat will make it more difficult to lobby her for support of pro-Israel legislation if she ultimately is elected to Congress.

Turner has been adamant that she does not oppose the Jewish state, and is both pro-Israel and pro-Palestinian. She came out against the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement, while clarifying that she opposes legislation seeking to curb BDS as well. The former state senator also backs US military aid to Israel, but says it should be conditioned to avoid it being spent beyond the Green Line.

During the recent Gaza conflict, Turner retweeted a post from the far-left, anti-occupation group IfNotNow urging the State Department “to say #SaveSheikhJarrah and #EndApartheid.”

Today Joe Biden is making his second trip to Ohio as President, visiting Cuyahoga Community College to spread the word…

Posted by Shontel Brown for Congress on Thursday, May 27, 2021

Brown has taken more traditional party stances on Israel, backing a two-state solution but also opposing BDS and conditioning US aid to Israel. She also spoke at a pro-Israel rally in Cleveland during the May Gaza war during she condemned Hamas rocket fire.

Turner’s association with outspoken critics of Israel has made the race a magnet for pro-Israel interest. In addition to DMFI, the Pro-Israel America PAC has also endorsed Brown.

With Brown widely viewed as the more Biden-esque candidate, she has also enjoyed the support of the Jewish Democratic Council for America — one of the president’s most vocal backers. JDCA launched a five-figure ad campaign targeting Jewish voters in the 11th District, which straddles Cleveland and Akron.

“Recent polling indicates that Shontel Brown has been narrowing the gap and it’s going to be a very close race determined entirely by turnout,” JDCA CEO Halie Soifer told The Times of Israel, adding that the relatively high Jewish turnout rates put the minority of roughly 22,000 in a position to punch above its weight at the ballot box.

Soifer said she expected the majority of Jewish voters to back Brown “because she is most closely aligned with Jewish values.”

Shontel Brown poses with former US president Barack Obama in an undated image from her congressional campaign website. (Courtesy)

“Seventy-seven percent of Jewish voters supported Joe Biden in the last election, and it’s clear that Shontel Brown is more closely aligned with the policies of the Biden administration. So given how narrow the Democratic House majority is at this moment, it’s critical to have a Democratic in the seat who supports the agenda of this administration,” she said.

While acknowledging that Israel is not near the top of the agenda for Jewish voters, she said that it is a threshold issue that Brown does a better job meeting than the other candidates.

In addition to the Jewish population, the district is 53% African American, and nearly a quarter of residents live in poverty. The winner of the primary in the solidly blue district will likely cruise to victory in November’s general election.

Agencies contributed to this report

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