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Notes on the State of Politics: August 4, 2021

Dear Readers: This is the latest edition of the Crystal Ball’s “Notes on the State of Politics,” which features short updates on elections and politics.

— The Editors

OH-11 and OH-15: Wins for Clinton and Trump?

In two special elections last night, Ohio voters in two congressional districts went to the polls to cast ballots in primaries. Though there were four primaries overall, the results in the the two most watched contests were, to some degree or another, unexpected.

In the Cleveland area’s OH-11, County Councilwoman Shontel Brown upset former state Sen. Nina Turner in the Democratic primary. Turner, who had superior name recognition, built a fundraising advantage and was seen as a clear, but not prohibitive, favorite for much of the campaign. Though Turner represented part of the area in the legislature from 2008 to 2014, she was most known for her work on Sen. Bernie Sanders’ (I-VT) presidential campaigns. Brown, who was initially elected to the Cuyahoga Council in 2014, positioned herself as a mainstream Democrat.

As the campaign wound down, Democratic heavy hitters flocked to the district, as the race, rightly or wrongly, was cast a re-litigation of their party’s 2016 presidential primary. In the closing week, Sanders stumped for Turner while House Majority Whip Jim Clyburn (D, SC-6), a major figure in the Congressional Black Caucus, made a visit on Brown’s behalf — Hillary Clinton endorsed Brown earlier on.

Despite Turner’s apparent advantages, Brown prevailed by a 50%-45% margin (there were almost a dozen minor candidates who split up the balance). While Turner’s association with Sanders undoubtedly seemed to help raise her profile, her association with the Vermont senator may ultimately not have been much of an asset in OH-11: in the 2016 primary, it was Clinton’s best district in the state, giving her a nearly 40-point advantage over Sanders.

Roughly 90% of OH-11’s votes come from Cleveland’s Cuyahoga County, where Brown did slightly better than her districtwide showing, but there were some interesting local patterns. Brown ran better in most suburban communities, and held Turner to just a narrow edge in Cleveland proper — Brown was especially strong in Beachwood, which has a high Jewish population.

Though it doesn’t account for much of the district, Turner narrowly carried OH-11’s portion of Summit County. An interactive map from our friends at RRH Elections gives a detailed breakdown: Brown carried many of the white-majority areas while Turner ran better in the heavily Black precincts that make up Akron proper.

Given the working class nature of the Akron area, perhaps Brown’s relative moderation played better with white voters. A few months ago, a similar dynamic was at play in Louisiana’s 2nd District: in an April special election, now-Rep. Troy Carter (D, LA-2), who was tagged with the “establishment” label, beat out state Sen. Karen Carter Peterson in an intraparty runoff. Peterson’s posture as an “unapologetic progressive” sold well in gentrifying white neighborhoods in New Orleans, but Carter racked up healthy majorities in the district’s white — and non-white — working class pockets.

Both the LA-2 result and the New York City Democratic mayoral primary, where Brooklyn Borough President Eric Adams was seen as a moderate choice, represent, to some degree or another, disappointments for progressives. Now, with a loss in Ohio, progressives find themselves looking for a high profile win.

Elsewhere in Ohio, someone else who needed a win last night — and got one — was former President Donald Trump.

In June, Trump waded into the crowded OH-15 primary and endorsed lobbyist Mike Carey. Not surprisingly, against a field that featured several state legislators, Carey positioned himself as the “conservative outsider,” a profile has seemed to hold increasing currency in Republican primaries.

In an 11-way field, Carey prevailed with a 37% plurality. State Rep. Jeff LaRe, who had an endorsement from former Rep. Steve Stivers (R, OH-15), finished next, taking just over 13%. Impressively, Carey finished first in 11 of the 12 counties that make up OH-15 — state Sen. Bob Peterson represents Fayette County in the legislature and carried it last night.

Carey’s commanding primary win comes as a relief to Trump, who was stung last week in a Texas special election. Though now-Rep. Jake Ellzey is by no means anti-Trump, he defeated the former president’s pick, Susan Wright (the widow of the man Ellzey will replace), in a low-turnout intraparty runoff.

With the prospect of another defeat looming, Trump’s Make America Great Again Action PAC upped its spending on Carey’s behalf last week, immediately following Wright’s defeat. Though the power of Trump’s endorsement will be put to the test the coming election cycle, for now, the former president’s allies can claim, with some authority, that the TX-6 result was a fluke.

In the OH-15 Democratic primary, state Rep. Allison Russo easily received the nomination, taking about 85% of the vote. Since 2018, Russo has represented part of the Columbus metro area in the legislature.

With the primaries settled, the general elections for both Ohio districts will be on Nov. 2. In OH-11, which gave President Biden 80% last year, the general election is close to a formality — Brown will almost certainly be its next congresswoman. While the Crystal Ball sees OH-15 as a more competitive race, it is still a Likely Republican contest. While the lower turnout that often characterizes special elections sometimes lead to noisy results, OH-15 supported Trump by double-digits last fall, so the Republicans are favorites to hold it.