In upset, pro-Israel-backed candidate wins Ohio Democratic congressional primary

Progressive Squad-backed Nina Turner saw her massive lead shrink in recent weeks as more centrist Shontel Brown emerged from crowded pack of candidates with help of Jewish groups

Cuyahoga Councilwoman and congressional candidate Shontel Brown speaks during a Souls to the Polls rally at Sanctuary Baptist Church in Cleveland, Ohio on August 01, 2021. (Michael M. Santiago/Getty Images/AFP)
Cuyahoga Councilwoman and congressional candidate Shontel Brown speaks during a Souls to the Polls rally at Sanctuary Baptist Church in Cleveland, Ohio on August 01, 2021. (Michael M. Santiago/Getty Images/AFP)

Shontel Brown, a Cuyahoga County councilwoman, came from behind in the polls to win a critical Democratic primary in a Cleveland area district with a substantial Jewish population, with considerable help from a mainstream pro-Israel political action committee.

Dave Wasserman, the political editor of the Cook Political Report, on Tuesday evening called the election in Ohio’s 11th District for Brown, who was facing Nina Turner, a former state senator who co-chaired the 2020 presidential run of Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders, the flag-bearer for the party’s left. The AP also called the race for Brown.

Turner, who once enjoyed a 35-point advantage over Brown, saw her lead rapidly shrink in recent days and ended up being overhauled by Brown in 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, Rep. 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 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.”

“We are thrilled to congratulate Councilwoman Shontel Brown on her stunning upset primary victory tonight, and we are proud to have supported her successful campaign for the Democratic nomination in Ohio’s 11th District,” said DMFI PAC president Mark Mellman as the race was called.

Former Ohio state Sen. Nina Turner gives her concession speech after losing to Cuyahoga County Council member Shontel Brown in a special primary at The Lanes on August 03, 2021 in Maple Heights, Ohio. (Michael M. Santiago/Getty Images/AFP)

“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,” he said.

Also endorsing Brown was the Jewish Democratic Council of America and the nonpartisan PAC, Pro-Israel America.

JDCA launched a five-figure ad campaign targeting Jewish voters in the 11th District, which straddles Cleveland and Akron.

“JDCA was proud to endorse Brown in this race, and to mobilize Jewish voters on her behalf. JDCA knew that Jewish voters could make the difference in this election given their relatively high turnout numbers and overwhelmingly support of Brown, and we were right,” JDCA said in a statement after results came in.

Turner had 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.”

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 at which she condemned Hamas rocket fire.

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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