What the Ohio Special Election Actually Means

The Democratic primary became a proxy war between progressives and the establishment. But the outcome doesn’t tell us much about the party’s future.

Nina Turner speaks at a campaign event
Nina Turner speaks at a campaign event in Ohio (Michael M. Santiago / Getty)

Updated at 9:55 a.m. ET on August 4, 2021.

In the next few days and weeks, Americans will read headlines announcing all the lessons learned from Nina Turner’s primary loss to Shontel Brown in Ohio’s Eleventh Congressional District yesterday. Political writers might treat the race as a parable: a warning for progressives and an endorsement of the Democratic establishment’s approach to politics. Twitter pundits will publish threads about what Turner’s loss portends for the American left, and cable-news commentators might riff on the election as a harbinger of the 2022 midterms.

But in truth, this election does not tell us much. The outcome has no particularly useful implications for any brand of Democrat—or for the party’s broader electoral strategy. “Special elections are unusual occurrences, and this is a primary for a special election held in one district,” Justin Buchler, a political-science professor at Case Western Reserve University, told me yesterday. Any attempt to derive meaning from such an event “makes precisely zero sense.”

The special election in Ohio 11, a majority-Black district that stretches from Cleveland to Akron, was held to replace former Representative Marcia Fudge, President Joe Biden’s secretary of housing and urban development. Thirteen Democrats ran in the primary, but two women led the polls throughout: Turner, the thick-rimmed-glasses-wearing former co-chair for Bernie Sanders’s 2020 presidential campaign, and Brown, a Cuyahoga County Council member. Last night, Brown defeated Turner by six percentage points, or about 4,000 votes. The district is solid blue, which means that Brown will almost certainly win the general election and be sworn into Congress.

Because American politics appears to exist in a time loop, the dynamics of the race in the past few weeks had started to feel a lot like the 2016 presidential-primary fight between Sanders and Hillary Clinton: a bitter brawl for power between two opposing factions within the Democratic Party. Turner and Brown become proxy warriors for those factions; Sanders and his allies stumped for Turner, while the establishment set, including Clinton and House Majority Whip Jim Clyburn, endorsed Brown. Progressive groups such as the Working Families Party and Justice Democrats backed Turner, while centrist organizations such as Third Way and the Democratic Majority for Israel supported Brown.

A Turner victory would have provided a welcome injection of optimism for the Sanders wing of the party, after recent losses for left-wing candidates in Louisiana and New York. Instead, Brown’s win indicates that the establishment was successful here, and that their late-in-the-game devotion of resources and manpower worked. But those are about the only reasonable extrapolations. In an off-year election like this one, turnout is generally low, unpredictable, and not necessarily representative of the district. (It’s August, not November! People are on vacation or enjoying summer break.) Plus, special elections, which are held randomly to fill vacancies in federal offices, are by definition unusual events. Experts warn against overinterpreting results to suggest that all progressives will be doomed in the Biden era, or that centrists will always win the day. There is no reason to expect that the race’s results “will be replicated in any other contest anywhere else,” Buchler said.

Dozens of articles have been written about the race between Turner and Brown and how to interpret its outcome. But one reason political reporters up and down the Eastern Seaboard paid such close attention to a special election in Ohio is that there aren’t many other races going on: Only a few elections are scheduled this summer. And reporters, like this one, have editors to appease. Something similar is true for many Democratic lawmakers and outside groups who have invested so heavily in the race. “In a closely divided House of Representatives, one seat matters, so [they were] focused on this district,” Buchler told me. But also, “They [had] nothing better to do with their time.”

People turn to journalism for help understanding what to make of political developments, and reporters and readers have a tendency to reach for the easy explanations—the clear-cut lessons that align most neatly with the wider national narrative. But the truth is that voters are complicated, primaries are messy, and individual districts are just that—individual.