Bidenizing the Democrats

In a special election for an open House seat in Ohio, the president scores a victory against his party’s Sanders wing.

Donald Trump’s effort to maintain his grip on the Republican Party is so transfixingly weird that it obscures a more ordinary and perhaps more politically relevant one about whether Joe Biden can consolidate his control over the Democrats.

The Trump cult shows extraordinary staying power, but it suffered a couple of notable blows last week. In a special election for Congress in Texas, the candidate endorsed by the former president lost a runoff between two Republicans. Meanwhile, the Senate brought to the floor a bipartisan infrastructure bill that Trump has loudly opposed.

Progress on the infrastructure bill advanced Biden’s political interests not only by showing he could, at least in this instance, secure cooperation from Republicans, but also by demonstrating that, at least so far, this bipartisanship isn’t costing him support from the party’s left flank. Meanwhile, in an August 3 House primary that divides the Democrats’ Sanders and Biden wings, Biden appears to be gaining the advantage.

Former Bernie Sanders campaign surrogate Nina Turner was initially considered the favorite in Ohio’s 11th congressional district, a majority black seat encompassing much of the city of Cleveland that became vacant in March when Congresswoman Marcia Fudge resigned to become Biden’s secretary of housing and urban development. Turner is a former Ohio state senator and Cleveland city councilperson. She locked up sufficient early support both locally and nationally that victory seemed assured. In April, she made a television ad buy in April to cement her hold.

But Turner’s campaign fell flat. The limited polling that’s publicly available shows the race is a tossup between Turner and Cuyahoga County Councilperson Shontel Brown. Brown’s pitch is focused on one issue; Nina Turner is not showing enough support for Joe Biden.

Although Turner was initially a leader in the Ready for Hillary movement to draw the former secretary of state into the 2016 race, she endorsed Bernie Sanders. His campaign used Turner—who’d lost a statewide race in Ohio in 2014 by 25 points—as a key surrogate and gave her a national profile.

After Sanders lost the primary, Turner declined to back Clinton in the general election against Trump. She even flirted with becoming Jill Stein’s running mate. Four years later, Turner voted for Joe Biden in the general only after telling the Atlantic, “It’s like saying to somebody, ‘You have a bowl of shit in front of you, and all you’ve got to do is eat half of it instead of the whole thing.’ It’s still shit.”

That isn’t a quote one can easily shake, and Brown made it a mainstay of her campaign. So did outside groups that emphasized Brown’s support for Biden. Brown’s brought  in surrogates with strong ties to Biden like House Whip Jim Clyburn, a Democrat from South Carolina, whose endorsement helped make Biden the Democratic nominee. Clyburn lent his services to the Brown campaign after the rapper Killer Mike, a Turner supporter, said Clyburn was  “incredibly stupid” to endorse Biden without extracting any political favors in return. Turner, who was sitting next to Killer Mike at the time, agreed.

In the campaign, Turner soft-pedals her support for Sanders, who got clobbered in last year’s Ohio primary. Instead, she emphasizes her past as a DNC delegate for Obama and likens herself ideologically to Franklin Roosevelt and Shirley Chisholm. But her collapse in the polls prompted more desperate steps. In recent days, Turner’s campaign aired an ad suggesting Brown will end up in jail.

Turner’s electoral liabilities are less about taking more left policy positions than they are about her past attacks on Democratic Party leaders. Biden may not hold big rallies or inspire the sort of fanatical following that Trump does, but he’s a very popular figure in his party, especially among African American voters.

“For all the talk that you see of Trump of being so in control of GOP,” Sean McElwee, who runs the progressive organization Data for Progress, told me, “Joe Biden is more popular with the Democratic base than Trump is with the Republican base.” A recent Economist/YouGov poll found that 91 percent of Democrats had a favorable view of Biden while only 82 percent of Republicans had a favorable view of Trump.

McElwee said it baffles him that “progressives haven’t been very quick to embrace Joe Biden” because Biden has been governing largely as a progressive.  “What progressives should be championing,” he said, “is doing the Biden agenda.” If they don’t, McElwee said, it “will hurt us in primaries.”

Turner may still pull out a victory, but the fact that the race turned into a tight one demonstrates Democratic voters’ loyalty to Biden. In competitive races so far this year, Democratic primary voters are favoring candidates who wrap themselves in in Biden’s mantle.

The anti-establishment fervor among Democrats that pushed the party leftward in 2018 and 2020 isn’t going away, but with Trump finally out of office and progressive policies being enacted in Washington, it doesn’t seem to succeed when it turns against Biden. This year’s low-turnout off-year Democratic primary elections will likely continue to favor candidates loyal to the president. It’s Biden’s party for now.

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Ben Jacobs

Ben Jacobs is a journalist based in Washington, D.C. His work has been published in New York, The Atlantic, The Guardian, and numerous other publications.