Nina Turner's Defeat Wasn't Only About the Onslaught of Big Money Smears
Progressives keep trying to will older and moderate suburban voters over to their political ideology rather than meeting them where they are
After reporting in Cleveland and Akron in the days leading up to Nina Turner’s congressional special election defeat, and then Flint Michigan for several days on the ongoing water crisis and cover-up, I decided to wait a few days to offer my observations and analysis on the main drivers of Turner’s defeat.
I wanted to read the predictable litany of campaign Post mortems and YouTube pontification from authors and hosts who never stepped foot in the northeast Ohio district Turner lost.
The more I read, the more I realized there is a severe disconnect, and in many cases—blind refusal—among a growing number of progressives to understand, and accept, why we’ve been losing a lot more elections than we’ve won before Turner’s demise and her specific defeat.
Of course, nuance and grey area have been all-but banned in specific corners of the progressive movement—specifically online—but the reality is there are several reasons Turner, and other progressives before her, have lost that are deeper and require more strategic and nuanced thinking among a progressive movement growing less strategic and nuanced by the day.
I’m sure this take will result in me receiving the dreaded, but predictable, “sell out” and "sheepdog for the Democratic Party” label from the wing of the movement shifting more and more toward nihilism and self-sabotaging permanent cynicism.
Oh well; I’m never going to play for clicks of feeding people what they want to hear rather than the actual truth and reality on-the-ground.
With this said, I want to put out an important disclaimer to the folks whose anger, frustration, cynicism, and downright hopelessness has deepened since repeated Bernie Sanders presidential losses, politicians like Sanders, Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and the rest of The Squad running on fighting the corporate Democratic establishment only to end up doing magazine covers with “mama bear” Nancy Pelosi and refusing to leverage their votes or play hardball.
You’re right to be angry. You’re right to be frustrated. You’re right to be cynical. And although I try not to fall into hopelessness, I can’t blame you for feeling that way.
Many of you are the ones working multiple jobs; lacking healthcare or having healthcare you can’t afford; being priced out of the communities you love and were raised in due to gentrification (i.e. economic terrorism); and watching the inferno continuing to blaze all around you as the planet rapidly dies due to the fossil fuckers and the politicians they bought.
I know your anger, pain, and desperation because I have been traveling and reporting for six years. I’ve spoken with you. I’ve interviewed you. I’ve sat with you as you’ve cried. I’ve kept in contact with many of you as your situation grew more dire.
I say all of this to spell out clearly: I too share your anger, frustration, and cynicism—against politicians as well as corporate and “independent” media who are doing more to COVER UP the corruption and corporate capture of our country than actually cover and expose it.
I just choose to weaponize my anger and cynicism in a different way—a way I believe is more productive toward the goal of progressives seizing power, WINNING, and ultimately passing policies like Medicare For All, a jobs guarantee, a Green New Deal, and more.
I hope you will read the following with an open mind rather than through the default and reflexive “sell out” and “fraud” lens. Without further ado, here’s the factors that led to Turner’s six-point defeat—and other high-profile progressive defeats before her.
1) Progressives keep trying to will older and moderate suburban voters over to their political ideology rather than meeting them where they are
First, it should be stated: Nina Turner won the majority of Black, working-class districts (including the neighborhood Shontel Brown lived in).
On the whole, Turner won five of Cleveland’s nine black-majority wards and lost four (all of them narrowly, by less than two points). She won the city of Cleveland overall, as well as the black-majority city of Akron.
In Ohio-11, the key difference came in the more affluent suburbs. In wealthy communities like Pepper Pike — 84 percent white, with a median income of $190,000 a year — Brown beat Turner by over fifty points. There are simply far fewer of these kinds of communities in Cori Bush’s Missouri district.
Yes, Brown also did well in black working-class suburbs near her home base of Warrensville Heights, which she has represented as a city and county council member for over a decade. But by far the heaviest blow against Turner came in the richer burbs. In just six suburban towns — Pepper Pike, Beachwood, Orange, Broadview Heights, University Heights, and Shaker Heights — Brown netted 4,390 votes over Turner, more than her total margin of victory.
This is a big victory for progressives who, let’s face it, lost most of these areas in Bernie Sanders two presidential campaigns.
Similar to Bernie 2020 and Biden cleaning up in wealthier suburbs, Brown demolished Turner in wealthy white suburbs.
Make no mistake, the tsunami of big money Super Pac ads—across local Cleveland and Akron television and on big billboards throughout Cleveland—led to significant voter turnout from those wealthy burbs to vote against Turner and drastically turned the tide in Shontel Brown’s favor in the final weeks before the election.
Although Turner outspent Brown overall $6.9 million to $5.3 million, Turner’s campaign made the flawed decision to spend a lot of that money early on in the spring and early summer; this led Turner to be badly outspent in the final weeks before the election as the Democratic Majority for Israel Super Pac as well as the Wall-Street front group Third Way carpet bombed TV with negative ads targeting Turner with the predictable attacks of not being a dutiful servant to the corporate Democratic Party; for her “bowl of shit” comments about voting for Joe Biden in the general election; distorting her support for Palestinian human rights as being “anti-Israel”; and even going so slimily far as to lie that Turner didn’t actually support universal healthcare or raising the minimum wage.
Any serious analysis of Turner’s defeat can’t ignore the onslaught of smears and coordinated attacks that the majority of voters—who, in my experience covering primary elections, most of whom don’t even know there is an election happening until the final week and days leading up to it—were bombarded with in the final stretch of the campaign.
But, ultimately, that isn’t the main reason Turner lost.
Just take this one tweet from IndependentLeftNews in response to a tweet thread from me pointing out that Nina Turner didn’t do anything during her campaign that should have caused progressives across the country to lose enthusiasm for her.
—and the response from an actual voter from Ohio’s 11th district.
I don’t include this tweet from our friends from IndependentLeft.news to attack them (follow them, they’re great!). I should also point out I don’t believe this was a claim by IndependentLeft.news suggesting The Squad’s refusal to fight establishment Democrats in Congress directly led to Turner’s loss.
I included it because this was one of many tweets I came across connecting frustration with The Squad to Turner’s defeat. Other, in my view, wrong takeaways from progressives online included:
-“She lost because she ran as a Democrat” (disregarding that the Green Party and MPP don’t have ballot access in Ohio and Turner couldn’t run as an independent in the OH-11 Democratic Primary)
-”She didn’t run scorched earth” against the Democratic Party and Biden, thus deflating excitement and enthusiasm among progressives nationally.
All of these takes are coming from well-intentioned and understandably fed up progressives tired or supporting progressive candidates only to see them fold like cheap tents to the Democratic establishment once in office (i.e. The Squad).
But, to be direct, they’re missing the forrest for the trees. Here’s one person offering the reality of the voters in Ohio’s 11th district.
And another from a voter in Ohio’s 11th district.
Drilling in more to the makeup of Ohio’s 11th district, here are the results from 2016 election.
Despite Trump winning Ohio by eight points, Hillary Clinton won Cuyahoga County (Cleveland) by 35 points and Summit County (Akron) by eight points.
Fast forward to 2020, President Trump again won Ohio by eight points again. But Biden won Cuyahoga County (Cleveland) by 34 points and Summit County (Akron) by 10 points.
Bottomline: 2016 and 2020’s margins were essentially the same with Ohio’s 11th district—Cleveland and Akron—going overwhelmingly to the Democrats.
OK, but Jordan you might say: of course this blue district would go overwhelmingly to the Democratic general election candidate.
I give you the 2020 OH-11 Democratic Primary and general election results showing then- Democratic congresswoman Marcia Fudge (now HUD Secretary) demolishing all challengers.
Interestingly enough, in this majority Black, vote-blue-no-matter-who district, Fudge—a fairly standard, establishment Democrat—SUPPORTED Medicare For All and half-heartedly supported the Green New Deal.
Why did she support them? Because there’s a basic truth that a large swath of progressives across the country don’t want to hear or accept.
Voters, even in more moderate-to-conservative Democrat areas, agree with us on policy but don’t hate the Democratic Party or believe it’s inherently corrupt.
Once again, here’s the truth from someone who knows the area.
“You obviously don't know OH11. They loved Hillary & they blame Bernie & Nina for making Hillary lose & Trump win. That's how the PAC helped Brown win. They got white Karen's upset about Nina hating on Hillary & Biden. Those white Karen's showed up to stop Nina. Black vote was MIA.”
Now, that we’ve established this is an area that historically has supported establishment Democrats—and has no interest in burning down the Democratic Party—we ultimately reach a crossroads and a time for choosing.
Do hardcore progressives across the country, especially ones who live online, want to continue to try and will voters—who’ve been successfully conditioned over decades via a steady diet of corporate media and Democratic Party propaganda to think in terms of team blue versus team red—over to our side that demands revolutionary change and burning down the two-party duopoly or:
Gasp, swallow hard!…meet them where they are and attempt to strategically persuade them on why candidates like Turner can improve their lives without going as far as burning down the Democratic Party.
To be clear, this doesn’t mean progressives need to Dem enter or Dem exit or whatever other variation comes about. It also doesn’t mean progressives need to abandon organizing and building a third-party.
But, the cold-hard reality is: a vibrant third party with ballot access across the country—and a strategy to break through permanent media blackouts—is a long-term play. Anyone who tells you differently is either good-heartedly naive or deliberately misleading you.
So, today, the choice is simple: forget the letter next to the candidate and focus on the actual track record and values of the individual running or preemptively cancel them because they’re:
-Running as a Democrat—despite, in Nina Turner’s case, not having the option to run as a Green Party, MPP, or independent candidate in the OH-11 Democratic Primary. This pre-emptive cancellation of Turner happened in bulk by many popular YouTube hosts and, as a result, their viewers, simply because she was running as a Democrat (which, again, was her only option in the primary).
-Because The Squad has let us down so progressives preemptively projected their anger and frustration against them onto candidates like Nina Turner—who have a track record of fighting—and choose not to support her.
-Candidates like Turner weren’t ranting and raving against President Biden and the Democratic Party in a district where the voters Turner needed to convince support Biden and the Democratic Party.
This is a tough pill to swallow for many progressives. Frankly, I’m sure I’ll be cancelled in many corners for simply spelling out the political realities rather than pounding my chest like many others and trying to convince progressives the problem is candidates aren’t running scorched earth enough.
So, you might ask-what’s the better option? Which brings us to…
2) Progressives can’t win without a MASSIVE ground-game that starts BEFORE the heart of an election campaign and has laser-focused messaging to voters on LOCAL issues that also breaks down down how progressive policies would materially improve their wallets and lives.
In a low-turnout OH-11 special election happening in the dead of summer, turnout is everything—and it was LOW with just 17 percent turnout (71,227 ballots cast out of 421,712 eligible voters).
It’s especially important to have a massive and well-organized field operation—with door-knockers, folks making calls and text messaging—in a district like OH-11 that spans 45 minutes between Cleveland and Akron.
Sure, the onslaught of Super Pac attack ads against Turner helped Brown close the polling gap, but a well-organized field operation beginning months before Election Day might have given Turner a fighting chance to overcome the attacks by speaking with residents to:
-Make sure they know there is a special election and when it is (from my experience covering primaries, most registered voters have no clue).
-Inform these voters of the poor data/statistics for Cleveland and Akron on poverty, healthcare, and education and how Turner’s policies—and track record of getting results working across party lines as a local city Councilmember and Ohio state senator— would specifically improve their wallets and lives rather than continuing to vote for more of the same politicians (Brown) and policies that have created and maintained these bad outcomes for residents.
NOTE: this is not telling them how bad the Democratic Party, Biden, and Brown are—but focusing on how the status quo and same old same ol candidates haven’t lifted this area out of poverty.
Notice this approach is not wasting time or resources trying to convince loyal Democratic Party voters in Ohio and Akron—particularly older Black voters generationally conditioned to support the Democratic Party over the Republicans complicit in voter suppression and white supremacy—on how corrupt the Democratic Party is, what a neoliberal warmonger Biden and and Brown are, and how we need to burn down the two-party duopoly.
Many will say—Jordan, stop tone policing! This isn’t about people’s tone—it’s about figuring out a message that will lead more cautious, moderate-to-conservative voters to pull the level in favor of the progressives for whom they mostly agree with on policy but don’t want to go into Congress, or the White House, as arsonists.
In an ideal world, we could run a scorched earth, burn-down-the-village campaign—locally and federally—and win. But, in reality, this just doesn’t work with a Baby Boomer Generation that simply don’t think the way we think, likely never will, and are the most reliable and consistent voters (think your Thanksgiving dinner with your crazy Republican uncle or clueless neoliberal aunt).
Want an example of this? Look no further than Bernie 2020. At the beginning of his second presidential bid, I said Sanders couldn’t win the primary if he did not pluck seven to 10 percent of “normie Democratic” Hillary 2016 voters over to him. The way for Bernie to do this was not to shift his policies but to tweak and shift his messaging to be more palatable/less revolutionary for older voters that have been fed a steady diet of incrementalism and low expectations for decades.
Sanders DID have the opportunity to reach these voters and even earn their vote. Unfortunately, he squandered it.
After sweeping Iowa (yes he won), New Hampshire, and Nevada, Sanders sat on 60 minutes as, for the first time, the clear Democratic Primary frontrunner. In front of him was Anderson Cooper and the largest news audience in the country. More importantly, a treasure trove of the older, “normie Democrats” voters who had alluded Sanders for years.
Instead of talking directly to them to debunk a lot of the smears and lies they’ve been fed—and why Medicare For All, Green New Deal, and other progressive policies would lift them AND their grandkids—he took the bait on Cuba.
“When Castro came into office, you know what he did? He had a massive literacy program,” Sanders told Cooper. “Is that a bad thing, even though Fidel Castro did it?”
Was Bernie right? Absolutely! Was he wrong to give the corporate media, and Biden, a massive weapon against him that would be covered on a loop for DAYS before South Carolina. Yes!
From Sanders to Turner, the story is the same. Whether running for president, congress, or dog catcher—progressives must go in expecting an all-out corporate money attack against them on TV, digital, and even on billboards around town.
Knowing this, they need to invest much much more on a vibrant ground game, creating an army of door-knockers armed with a winning message to counter the propaganda older and suburban voters have been fed.
And they must start knocking early—not weeks, but months before an election. In some cases, progressives must start door-knocking before the candidate has even declared or formed a campaign.
Ultimately, progressives must decide: do we want to win and seize power by meeting voters where they are or hold fidelity to progressive purity and scorched-earth politics (and lose).
Remember: the majority of us want the same thing—a better, less corrupt, and more just country and world. Now let’s stop fighting each other and join forces to make it happen.
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-By Jordan Chariton