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It turns out that comparing the Democratic Party’s nominee for president to half of “a bowl of shit” isn’t conducive to winning a Democratic primary.
Former Bernie Sanders presidential national co-chair Nina Turner lost her House primary in Ohio on Tuesday night, falling short in her hopes to rejoin the Democratic Party’s elected ranks after years of heaping abuse on them.
Turner lost her bitterly fought primary in the Cleveland-based House seat to Cuyahoga County Democratic Party Chair Shontel Brown, who beat Turner 50 percent to 45 percent in a proxy war between the establishment and Sanders wings of the party.
But in the deep-blue district, it wasn’t her progressive politics that hurt Turner so much as her long history of making enemies within the party. While Turner began the race as the clear favorite, raising huge sums of cash from the Sanders grassroots network she helped build, Brown quickly won endorsements from a who’s who of Democratic establishment figures with scores to settle against Turner.
That included allies of Joe Biden, whom Turner memorably compared to half “a bowl of shit” in July 2020, long after Biden and Sanders had made nice and united to defeat President Trump. (She eventually, grudgingly, endorsed Biden.)
“It’s like saying to somebody, ‘You have a bowl of shit in front of you, and all you’ve got to do is eat half of it instead of the whole thing,’” she told The Atlantic about the choice between Biden and Trump. “It’s still shit.”
House Majority Whip Jim Clyburn, one of Joe Biden’s most powerful allies, backed Brown, as did the Congressional Black Caucus. Brown also ran ads featuring the mother of Democratic Rep. Marcia Fudge, who’d held the seat until she became the Biden administration’s secretary of Housing and Urban Development.
But Brown’s most prominent national endorsement came from Hillary Clinton. Turner once supported Clinton—she’d been an early backer of the Ready for Hillary effort in 2015—before abandoning her for Sanders and becoming one of Clinton’s loudest detractors from the left, not only during the primary but through the fall of 2016.
Turner acted as sand in the gears as Democrats attempted to unite the party after Clinton and Sanders’ nasty primary: she refused to endorse Clinton at any point, while flirting with the idea of becoming running mate to Green Party nominee Jill Stein.
And during the 2020 general election, Turner’s harsh attitude toward Biden was in stark contrast to Sanders himself, who worked assiduously to help Biden and avoid a repeat of 2016, when his and his supporters’ hesitancy about Clinton helped elect Trump. She refused to come back into the fold all through the fall, and her refusal to endorse Clinton dragged on through the general election. While that didn’t hurt her relationship with Sanders, it privately frustrated some of his former staff.
On Tuesday night, Turner blamed “evil money” for her loss.
“I am going to work hard to ensure that something like this doesn’t happen to another progressive candidate again,” Turner said in her very on-brand concession speech. The Democratic Majority for Israel, a stalking-horse establishment group that has long tangled with Sanders, spent heavily to boost Brown. “We didn't lose this race; evil money manipulated and maligned this election.”
Turner, a former Ohio state senator, was once viewed as a rising star in Ohio Democratic politics, even after she’d bucked local party leaders on some issues. She had initially tried to run a more localized campaign, but embraced the progressive-vs.-establishment frame when it became clear she wouldn’t be able to avoid it. She campaigned with Sanders as well as with New York Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez.
One shouldn’t overread the results of a relatively close, sleepy summer primary. And this result says a lot less about the push-pull between progressive and establishment Democrats than, say, Biden’s capitulation to AOC, Missouri Rep. Cori Bush and progressives on extending the eviction moratorium.
But Biden remains deeply popular with his base—he has a 92% approval rating among Democrats in a recent AP-NORC poll—giving progressives little room to openly attack him and win.
It’s clear that the enemies Turner has made in her political career came back to bite her in this race—and that Democratic primary voters still like their party’s leadership.