Six Thoughts after the Ohio Special Election Primaries

by Jacob Rubashkin August 4, 2021 · 11:08 AM EDT

Voters in two Ohio congressional districts went to the polls Tuesday to select the Democratic and Republican nominees, who are now significant favorites in the special general elections on November 2. 

In Ohio’s 11th, the Cleveland-based seat most recently held by HUD Secretary Marcia Fudge, Cuyahoga County Councilwoman Shontel Brown defeated Bernie Sanders campaign co-chairwoman/former state Sen. Nina Turner in the Democratic primary. In Ohio’s 15th, a Columbus-anchored district left vacant by the resignation of GOP Rep. Steve Stivers, coal lobbyist Mike Carey won a crowded race for the GOP nomination, while state Rep. Allison Russo defeated nominal opposition to win the Democratic primary.

Here are six things I think after the results in Ohio.

Endorsements matter. Former President Donald Trump’s chosen candidate in the Ohio 15 GOP primary was Carey, a lobbyist whose only previous foray into electoral politics was a failed bid for state House in 1998. But Carey easily outpaced a wide field of challengers that included several current and former state legislators. And in the Ohio 11 Democratic primary, Brown started out as a relatively unknown local politician. But the initial underdog rode a wave of endorsements from Hillary Clinton, House Majority Whip Jim Clyburn, and much of the Congressional Black Caucus all the way to victory.

Trump matters. After Susan Wright, the Trump-endorsed candidate in the Texas 6 runoff, lost to fellow Republican Jake Ellzey last week, some people began to wonder if Trump had lost some juice among the party’s primary voters. But Tuesday’s results will quiet that chatter, with none of the non-Carey candidates coming close to winning. While this was a low-turnout special election, and Carey received 36 percent, it will still put some pep back into Trump-world after last week’s embarrassment.

Congressional races remain national affairs. Nina Turner leaned heavily on her local ties, with her campaign highlighting endorsements from longtime Cleveland Mayor Frank Jackson and the Cleveland Plain Dealer editorial board. Turner didn’t really lean into her ties with Sanders until the final weeks of the race when she brought him and Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez to help with getting out the vote. But from the outset, Brown’s campaign was intent on nationalizing the race through a “Biden vs. Bernie” lens, with Brown as the Biden candidate. In the end, they were able to do just that, and came away with the win.

It’s not a great idea to compare voting for your party’s standard bearer to eating a bowl of feces. Nor is it a great look to refuse to say if you voted for your party’s nominee against Trump in one of the closest elections in recent history. While Democratic base voters aren’t always as vocally effusive about their party’s leader as Republicans are about theirs, Turner’s profane comments about voting for Biden — and the longstanding questions about whether she voted for Hillary Clinton in 2016 — clearly rubbed people the wrong way and were the basis for effective attacks by Brown and her allies. The comments certainly made it an easier decision for many party luminaries to publicly oppose Turner.

Voters just aren’t interested. Both primaries saw pedestrian levels of turnout, continuing a trend from previous special House elections this year in Texas, New Mexico, and Louisiana. Even with millions of dollars spent on TV in both races, voters are not nearly as engaged as they were during the Trump presidency, when special election turnout rates rivaled those of regular elections.

The next special election to watch is still in Ohio 15. The matchup is now set between Carey and Russo, a state legislator. While the 15th is currently rated Solid Republican, it is not overwhelmingly so; in 2020 Trump carried it by 14 points, 56-42 percent, and Democratic Sen. Sherrod Brown actually carried the district in 2018. Carey vs. Russo will be only the second Democrat vs. Republican special election of 2021, after June’s New Mexico 1 special. So the margin of victory in the Ohio 15 race could offer more clues as to the national environment a year before the midterms.