Turner campaigned as a conventional Democrat who supported Barack Obama, and she had support from well-known local figures like longtime Cleveland Mayor Frank Jackson. But Brown’s side, including the well-funded group Democratic Majority for Israel, worked hard to remind voters of Turner’s past criticisms of Hillary Clinton and Joe Biden. One quote that constantly made the rounds was Turner’s declaration last year that encouraging voters to back Biden in the general election was “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.’ It’s still shit.”
Brown’s side also had plenty of resources to circulate that message. While Turner outspent Brown throughout the race, pro-Brown outside groups deployed $2.6 million compared to $870,000 for Turner’s allies.
Brown, who also serves as chair of the county Democratic Party, made sure to position herself as a dependable Biden ally. The councilwoman had the backing of both Clinton—who decisively won this seat in the 2016 primary—and House Majority Whip Jim Clyburn, who is the most powerful African American member of the chamber. And while Fudge herself remained neutral, the secretary’s mother, Marian Saffold, appeared in ads for Brown.
Turner, who campaigned in a van emblazoned with the slogan “corporate Democrat want a puppet,” fired back by portraying her opponent as someone who was being propped up by special interests. Turner also aired a commercial during the final days that asserted, without evidence, that Brown was “facing investigation by the Ohio Ethics Commission” and “could face … jail time,” a risky message that indicated that Turner knew her campaign was in trouble.
However, while observers were quick to frame the primary between the two veteran Cleveland-area politicians as the latest national skirmish between the party establishment and progressive outsiders, or even another round of the 2016 presidential primary, there were plenty of local factors that contributed to the result.
As NBC’s Henry Gomez notes, Turner angered the Cleveland Black political establishment all the way back in 2009 when she backed a successful ballot measure to reform the Cuyahoga County government after several high-profile corruption scandals, and she even waged a 2012 primary campaign against Fudge. Turner, Gomez writes, “dropped the primary challenge idea pretty quickly, as Fudge had the Black establishment firmly in her corner, and that definitely matters in” this seat. Turner, with Fudge’s support, was the party’s 2014 nominee for secretary of state, but any rapprochement with local power players ended the next year when Turner switched from being a Clinton supporter to being a Sanders backer.
Brown, by contrast, won a 2014 race for the county council—an election that took place, as Gomez notes, thanks to the 2009 ballot measure Turner championed. Brown later became chair of the county party with the support of Fudge, and the two remained close allies. “Regardless of whether Nina Turner spent five years as a top Bernie surrogate,” Gomez writes, “the establishment back home in Cleveland was always going to be an obstacle for her. While some have forgiven her for the county reform push, she was not among the party insiders like Brown was.”