By David Wolfford
Political observers looked to Ohio a couple weeks ago during two separate congressional primary elections. Such special elections often serve as bellwethers, or political barometers, between the more comprehensive and telling mid-term or presidential elections. At one point, I thought the term was “bellweather,” as these elections serve as a weather forecast of sorts. I’ll never forget that moment in class years ago, when one of my ‘wiser’ students contradicted my definition with the example straight from the English class vocab book. “No, a bellwether is a that castrated sheep that leads the herd.” What?
Anyway, a quick examination of these two Ohio special congressional primaries reveals that Democrats support the Biden-moderate side of the party rather than progressive wing, and Donald Trump’s endorsement still matters in a midwestern GOP primary. ‘Affiliated’ voters in the two districts—OH-11, encompassing parts of Cleveland and Akron, and OH-15, which stretches across a rural patch south of Columbus—voted in this open primary on August 3. Democratic Congresswoman Marcia Fudge left her northern Ohio district to accept President Biden’s appointment as Secretary of Housing and Urban Development. Republican Steve Stivers left his House seat to head the state Chamber of Commerce.
The 11th is a safe Democrat district. In her recent general election in November 2020, Fudge won 80 percent of the vote. That’s why 13 Democrats entered this contest.
Two African-American women, Shontel Brown, a Cuyahoga County councilwoman, and Nina Turner, a former state senator and Bernie Sanders supporter, emerged as frontrunners this summer. Brown, the more polished and poised candidate brought the support of African Americans and establishment Democrats. Mississippi’s Bennie Thompson and South Carolina’s Jim Clyburn both showed up to campaign for her. Hillary Clinton endorsed her.
Her opponent Turner, a progressive firebrand and outspoken critic of Joe Biden, brought in both Sanders and Congresswoman Alexandria Ocosio-Cortez to stump for her. Turner’s famed 2020 comment about then-candidate Biden came back to haunt her. “It’s like saying to somebody,” Turner said of Biden, “You have a bowl of sh*t in front of you, and all you’ve got to do is eat half of it instead of the whole thing. It’s still sh*t.” The inartful comment was revived, reminding voters of the comment and drawing a sharp contrast between the two. A pro-Israel political action committee, Democratic Majority for Israel, spent nearly a million dollars (more filings to come) in an ad campaign against Turner. Brown is telegenic, a youthful 46 years old, and appeals to the younger set of voters, without the connection to the Sanders-AOC wing of the party
On election day, Brown and Turner shared 95 percent of the Democrat vote, with Brown defeating Turner 37,666 to 33,420. The distant-third-place candidate received only 1,349. Brown did better in the Suburban, whiter parts of the district. Turner did better in the more-urban precincts.
Farther south in the 15th district, which encompasses all or parts of 12 counties, 11 Republicans ran against each other. Much like the Cleveland-Akron district, the 15th is usually won during the primary. Retiring Congressman Stivers won his last pre-COVID primary unchallenged and he won the 2020 general with 63 percent.
Five men emerged as frontrunners, a field of known conservative entities from across the district. Endorsements and local support sustained them over the summer. Stivers tried to crown state representative Jeff LaRe as his successor. A Rand Paul—backed, libertarian PAC supported state Representative Ron Hood. Ohio Senator Bob Peterson touted his support from Ohio Right to Life, over 150 local Republican officials, and an organic group of farmers (not necessarily organic farmers).
These endorsements seemed to matter little after Donald Trump announced his support for coal lobbyist Mike Carey. Carey had first lobbied Trump in person for the endorsement and, after one hour and 20 minutes, Trump said—according to Carey—“I’m all in, and I am going to endorse you and do whatever it takes to get you over the finish line.” Trump did not actively stump for Carey in the district, but appeared with him at a Trump rally earlier in the summer in northern Ohio. None of the other Republicans ran against, or from, Trump, managing to praise the former president when given the opportunity. And Trump’s likeness conveniently appeared in other candidates’ campaign spots and mailers. “I don’t know them,” Trump said of the other candidates in a release. “But I know who Mike Carey is . . . Let there be no further doubt who I have endorsed.”
After a Trump-backed candidate lost a special election in Texas a week before, some wondered about the net gain of his endorsement.
On election day, Carey received about 37 percent of the vote, or 18,655 of the roughly 50,000 GOP votes cast. According to the Columbus Dispatch, Trump’s endorsement “paid off.” Carey’s support among the GOP electorate was widespread, as he won 11 of the 12 counties. Even in the more moderate Columbus suburbs in southern in Franklin County, Carey still won with 35 percent.
The next four Republicans received double-digit percentages, for a combined 24,764 votes, or 49 percent.
There’s no need to hold your breath for the no-nail biter this November in these districts. In the two-person GOP contest in OH-11, only 5,254 Republicans cast votes. In the farm-belt OH-15 Democrats cast 16,130 votes.
But there’s two takeaways in the Buckeye State: even in the bluest districts, Joe Biden Democrats are the Democrats, and in the Ohio heartland, the Trump-Republican-base still follows its leader.
David Wolfford teaches at Mariemont High School, Cincinnati and is the author of AMSCO’s AP US Government and Politics.