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Everything You Need To Know About Ohio’s Two Special Primary Elections

Whether you’re a Democrat or a Republican, there’s a major battle over the future of your party taking place today in Ohio. Voters in two Buckeye State congressional districts will go to the polls on Tuesday for a pair of special primary elections that will effectively decide their next congresspeople. In the deep-blue 11th District, Democrats will once again choose between a progressive icon or an establishment stalwart. And in the red 15th District, the power of former President Donald Trump’s endorsement in Republican primaries will be put to the test for the second consecutive week. Here’s what to expect in each contest.

Ohio’s 11th District

Former Ohio state Sen. Nina Turner has been a major figure in the progressive wing of the Democratic Party ever since she defected from former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s orbit to endorse Sen. Bernie Sanders in the 2016 Democratic presidential primary. She then became president of Our Revolution, a group devoted to electing progressive candidates, in 2017 and co-chair of Sanders’s presidential campaign in 2020. Turner, however, didn’t seek higher office herself until then-Rep. Marcia Fudge left Congress earlier this year to become President Biden’s secretary of housing and urban development.

Not long after Turner got into the race for Fudge’s Cleveland-based seat last December, she earned the backing of virtually the entire progressive apparatus: Our Revolution, Justice Democrats, the Working Families Party, Sanders and every member of “the Squad.” Her national profile — and access to national money — helped her jump out to a wide lead in the early days of the Democratic primary, too.

But the race is hardly entirely a done deal for Turner, who faces tough competition in Cuyahoga County Council Member Shontel Brown. Either Turner or Brown would be the third consecutive Black woman to represent the 11th District, but they represent very different wings of the party. As chair of the county Democratic Party, Brown has developed strong relationships with local power brokers — including Fudge. Though Fudge hasn’t issued a formal endorsement, a Brown campaign ad features none other than Fudge’s mother saying “Shontel Brown is Marcia’s protegee” and “we’re voting for Shontel Brown.” But perhaps more importantly, Brown has also become the candidate of choice for Turner’s nemeses in the national party establishment. In June, Clinton endorsed Brown, followed by House Majority Whip Jim Clyburn and the Congressional Black Caucus PAC. And the Democratic Majority for Israel PAC, a group that supports pro-Israel Democrats, has spent almost $2 million to help Brown with messaging that attacks Turner for criticizing Biden. (The DMFI PAC endorsed Brown in February partly in response to Turner’s Palestinian sympathies.) Brown herself has leaned into the establishment branding, airing ads emphasizing how closely she will work with Biden and trying to make the race a referendum on party loyalty.

To hear Brown and her allies tell it, this has helped Brown close the gap with Turner in the final month of the race. For instance, a July 13-17 poll from the Mellman Group on behalf of the DMFI PAC put Turner at 41 percent and Brown at 36 percent. However, that still suggests that Turner is the front-runner, especially when you consider that internal polls tend to overestimate the side that sponsors them. (There has been no independent polling of the race, unless you count a July 8-10 poll by TargetPoint Consulting for the conservative Washington Free Beacon — but the wording of some of that poll’s questions suggests they are rooting against Turner.)

Fundraising numbers tell a similar story: Brown has undeniably picked up the pace in recent months, raising $1.3 million from April 1 through July 14, bringing her total haul through July 14 to $2.1 million. But Turner has been a consistent financial powerhouse and raised more than twice as much for the cycle: $4.5 million. Eleven other candidates are also in the race, but both polling and fundraising suggest they are no threat to win; no other active candidate has polled higher than 4 percent or raised more than $65,000.

It’s easy to boil this race down to another progressive vs. establishment fight — and it is that — but if Turner wins, it will be important not to draw the wrong conclusions. The majority-Black 11th District is no progressive stronghold (it voted 68 percent to 32 percent for Clinton in the 2016 primary), and as such, Turner has run a correspondingly meat-and-potatoes campaign despite her national profile as an outspoken progressive. For instance, instead of touting her post-2016 career, she has emphasized her tenure in the state legislature, where she had a reputation as a productive team player. (Case in point: The first section on her endorsements page is “Ohio Elected Officials.”) 

A Turner victory would certainly represent a win for the national progressive movement, both in terms of the efficiency of its campaign apparatus and the addition of another prominent voice in Congress. But it wouldn’t necessarily be a sign that nonwhite voters, a traditionally moderate group, are warming to progressive ideas, although it might point toward a winning strategy for progressives in areas where nonwhite voters are the majority.

Ohio’s 15th District

Ohio’s other vacant congressional district is the conservative 15th, which takes in a wide swath of south-central Ohio from the Columbus suburbs to Appalachia. The race that matters here is on the Republican side, but the contest is just as unpredictable as in the 11th. Eleven candidates are running here, but there is no clear front-runner; instead, a case can be made that around a half-dozen are in the hunt.

Former Rep. Steve Stivers resigned from this seat in May to lead the Ohio Chamber of Commerce, and he quickly endorsed state Rep. Jeff LaRe to be his successor. But LaRe has struggled with fundraising (he took in only $239,299 from April 27 through July 14); luckily for him, though, Stivers put his money where his mouth is: In an unusual move, the former congressman spent $300,000 of his leftover campaign funds on ads urging people to vote for LaRe. 

But then came what is usually the coup de grâce in a GOP primary: On June 8, Trump endorsed coal lobbyist Mike Carey. And Make America Great Again Action, a super PAC run by former Trump campaign manager Corey Lewandowski, backed up the endorsement with over $400,000 in spending on Carey’s behalf. Carey has also raised $460,404.

Notably, Trump’s endorsement has not coalesced other conservative influencers around his pick, though. For example, Conservative Outsider PAC, which is funded partly by the anti-tax group the Club for Growth, has spent $232,000 against Carey. And Sen. Rand Paul has endorsed a third candidate, former state Rep. Ron Hood. Hood hasn’t raised much cash himself (just $153,801), but he’s benefited from $678,357 in spending from Paul’s allies at Protect Freedom PAC. 

Also in the race are state Sen. Bob Peterson, golf-course owner Tom Hwang and minister Ruth Edmonds. Peterson has a healthy number of local endorsers and has raised more money from individual contributions than any other candidate ($441,500; his total fundraising stands at $555,700). Hwang, though, has raised the most money overall ($578,560), thanks almost entirely to self-funding. For her part, Edmonds has raised little money ($162,327) but does boast the endorsement of Debbie Meadows, the wife of Trump’s former White House Chief of Staff Mark Meadows.

There have been no independent polls of the race; a Fabrizio, Lee & Associates poll released by the Carey campaign in late June did find Carey in the lead with 20 percent and no one else in double digits, but this survey tells us very little about who will win. First, of course, internal polls are to be taken with grains of salt; second, the poll is at least five weeks old and was conducted before most of the race’s campaigning and advertising took place. 

But after Susan Wright, the Trump-endorsed candidate, lost what was effectively a Republican primary in Texas’s 6th Congressional District last week, the political stakes are high for Trump in this race. If Carey loses, it will raise questions about whether Trump’s influence over the GOP has diminished since leaving office. It won’t answer those questions, though. Two Trump losses in a row would indeed be unusual, but it would not yet be proof that his endorsement has lost its predictive power.

And even if Trump’s influence is on the decline, it might not be for the reason you might assume. A Carey loss could signal that Republican voters are ready to move on from Trump — or it could mean simply that other Republican leaders have agency, too. Whether because Trump now lacks the awesome power of the presidency or simply the ability to angrily tweet, some Republican politicians and organizations clearly feel comfortable expressing a different preference from him in both Ohio and Texas. And since we know that elite cues can shape public opinion, this may give voters permission to break from Trump; more cynically, it might just be the case that when Republican financiers are willing to spend money against a Trump-endorsed candidate, he or she is likelier to lose. On the flip side, if Carey wins in the face of so much coordinated opposition, it would be a strong signal that Trump (who often endorses candidates who are shoo-ins in an apparent attempt to pad his record) is still top dog in the GOP. 

So our advice for following the primaries in both the Ohio 11th and Ohio 15th is not to read too much into the results. The 2022 election cycle is just barely underway, and there are dozens of Democratic and Republican primaries (both special and regular) that will give us a lot more data soon enough. It won’t be long until we know a lot more about the direction each party is headed.

Nathaniel Rakich is a senior elections analyst at FiveThirtyEight.

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