Editor’s Note: Paul Sracic is a professor of politics and international relations at Youngstown State University and the coauthor of Ohio Politics and Government (Congressional Quarterly Press, 2015). Follow him on Twitter at @pasracic. The opinions expressed in this commentary are his own. View more opinion at CNN.
At first glance, it’s odd that Tuesday night’s two special primary elections in Ohio garnered so much national attention (and millions of dollars in campaign donations). Why all this hype for congressional districts that in November are sure to remain in the hands of the parties that controlled them after the last general election and which, because Ohio lost one seat in the new reapportionment, will fail to exist in their present form for the 2022 midterms?
The simple answer is that these primaries were both proxy elections. In other words, although Shontel Brown became the Democrat Party’s nominee in Ohio’s 11th District and Mike Carey captured the Republican nomination in the 15th District, the real winners were US Rep. James Clyburn of South Carolina and former President Donald Trump. The losers were progressive followers of Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont and those Republicans who want their party to move past Trump.
Of the two races, the contest in the 11th District attracted the most attention and the largest number of campaign dollars. The battle to fill the seat vacated by Marcia Fudge when she became the Housing and Urban Development Secretary involved 13 candidates but was seen as a contest mainly between and former Ohio state Sen. Nina Turner and Cuyahoga County, Ohio, Councilwoman Shontel Brown.
Prominent politicians such as Sanders, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Hillary Clinton all got involved in the race, alongside actor Danny Glover and celebrity academic Cornel West. Campaign contributions arrived from around the country. Even some noted Republican donors, including New England Patriots owner Robert Kraft, donated money to the race.
Defying the old adage that “all politics is local,” the 11th District battle seemed to be more about Turner’s tweets in support of the Palestinians and lack of support for President Joe Biden as it was about traditional themes such as securing money for the Cleveland-area district. The 11th District primary also became somewhat of a replay in microcosm of the battle between Biden and Sanders to secure the Democratic presidential nomination in 2020. Turner had been a national cochair for Sanders’ presidential run and often harshly criticized the eventual nominee, Biden. Brown, meanwhile, positioned herself as someone friendly to the Biden administration.
Recall that in February of 2020, it was Clyburn’s endorsement of Biden that helped the former Vice President crush Sanders in South Carolina, helping to relaunch Biden’s campaign, which had struggled in the early primary states. With the Vermont senator strongly backing Turner’s bid, Clyburn reprised his role as kingmaker when he endorsed Brown. Indeed, it might not be much of an exaggeration to say that Congressman Clyburn’s endorsement is now crucial for Democrats facing a primary challenge.
Of course, on the GOP side, that is a claim that has also been made regarding an endorsement from Trump. Last week’s special election primary in Texas’s 6th Congressional District, where a Trump-endorsed candidate was defeated, may have signaled this was no longer the case. Tuesday’s Republican primary in Ohio’s 15th Congressional District provided a second test of Trump’s clout. Incumbent GOP Congressman Steve Stivers created the vacancy in the 15th when he resigned to take over as president and CEO of the Ohio Chamber of Commerce.
Stivers had endorsed state Rep. Jeff LaRe to succeed him. LaRe was one of four state legislators seeking the Republican nomination in the 15th District. Normally, state legislators have an advantage when running to become their party’s nominee for a seat in Congress. Stivers, for example, had served in the Ohio Senate before running for Congress. On Tuesday, however, a political newcomer, energy lobbyist Mike Carey, defeated all four legislators to earn the GOP nomination. How did Carey accomplish this feat? He was endorsed by Trump.
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Whether we are discussing the two Ohio special elections or the recent election in Texas’s 6th Congressional District, it’s very important to keep in mind that, while these elections may provide data points, they are not necessarily strong data points. Turnout in primaries for special elections is notoriously low.
The 2022 primaries are still roughly half a year away, and we have no way of knowing whether the voters who turn out now are a valid sample of the expected much larger 2022 primary electorate. Still, after Tuesday night’s results, it is difficult to deny that both Clyburn and Trump are looked to by many voters in their respective parties for guidance when they go to polls.