When Hillary Clinton endorsed Shontel Brown’s candidacy in the Ohio 11th congressional district’s special election last month, there was an obvious personal dimension and a noticeable amount of pettiness involved. Nina Turner, Brown’s primary opponent (and, by all appearances, the race’s front-runner), played a significant role as cochair of Bernie Sanders’s 2020 presidential campaign and was a vocal supporter during his 2016 challenge to Clinton. The narrative of a relitigation of the 2016 primaries spawned by Clinton’s intervention has predictably come to color national perceptions of the race. But this development risks obscuring the wider dynamic at play.
Last week, Brown secured another high-profile endorsement from none other than Jim Clyburn, the third-ranking Democrat in the House of Representatives, a development that is striking for a number of reasons. As the New York Times noted in its reporting on the race, the congressman rarely intervenes in primary contests. In publicly justifying the move, Clyburn invoked his by-now-familiar opposition to what he called the “sloganeering” of the Democratic Party’s left wing — citing as an example, among other things, the issue of Medicare for All.
As Julia Rock and David Sirota of the Daily Poster have observed, Clyburn actually cosponsored Medicare for All legislation when it was first introduced in 2017, before ultimately coming to vilify it a few years later. His stated reason was that the issue would hurt Democrats electorally, though it’s hard not to think that the more than $1 million he’s received in donations from Big Pharma — an amount that, as of last year, put him firmly ahead of other members of Congress — may have had something to do with it.
As Rock and Sirota have also pointed out, Medicare for All is incredibly popular in the district, which for almost thirty years has elected lawmakers supportive of single-payer legislation. It’s also become a hot-button issue in the election courtesy of Turner herself, who has campaigned vigorously on the idea and run television spots in support of M4A. For her part, Brown has been attending fundraisers put on by corporate interests, one of which was quite literally headlined by a registered lobbyist for the Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers of America, which is part of a powerful alliance of special interests pouring money into a national effort to defeat Medicare for All.
As was so often and frustratingly the case throughout the 2016 contest between Sanders and Clinton, a series of personal dynamics and meta-arguments about the political viability of particular policies is doing a lot of work to mask the underlying reality of the race. Just as solid majorities of rank-and-file Democrats nationwide have backed Medicare for All for years, Turner’s central campaign issue is by all appearances in sync with the preferences of the district. As in 2016, organized money and its tribunes among the party’s leadership and grandees have dedicated themselves to defending a less popular and more industry-friendly position — spurning a populist grassroots candidate fundraising on small donations.
Among other things, the Ohio 11th affair is a textbook case of what the duplicitous political narrative championed by establishment Democrats looks like in action. Progressive policies, or so the line goes, might be all well and good but will never attract the support or secure the votes in Congress necessary to become law. Ergo, it’s better to support smaller, more incremental reforms over big and ambitious ones — and, presumably, Democratic candidates synonymous with the former rather than the latter. There’s a remarkably circular logic at work here: progressive policies, we are ceaselessly told, will never pass because they lack the required support in Congress; a major reason they lack said support is that the Democratic establishment almost invariably defends right-leaning incumbents from progressive primary challenges and actively works to elect more conservative lawmakers, even in districts like Ohio’s 11th, among the most solidly blue in the entire country. As the American Prospect’s Alex Sammon rightly put it: “Democrats are almost certainly going to lose their House majority, their top legislative priority — lowering prescription drug prices, which they’ve run on for 6 years — is on life support, and [the] party leadership is busy trying to bigfoot a special election in deep blue Ohio’s 11th.”
Following Hillary Clinton’s endorsement of Shontel Brown, Turner’s campaign raised an astonishing $100,000 in twenty-four hours, its best single-day haul to date — and a figure it reportedly matched more recently after Clyburn’s intervention. It seems probable that Turner’s momentum will carry her to victory on August 3, in spite of the recent rearguard action undertaken by the Democratic establishment. That such an effort is even happening in the first place, however, says a great deal about what tends to preoccupy the minds of those in the party leadership, absolutely none of which is good.