OH11 and Truthiness

This is mostly a post for myself, simply to record the reality which is already being widely replaced by a “truthiness” alternative.

The Democratic primary fight for a special election to represent Ohio’s 11th Congressional District for a little over a year was a cluster-fucking fiasco for which all of the major participants share responsibility.

I write this mainly because so much of the left seems to be circling the wagons in defense of a Nina Turner campaign which not only lost the primary but—contrary to the exculpatory myth emerging—presided over the immolation and waste of enormous resources in doing so.

Before I dig further into that, though, a review of the wasteful shambles found everywhere you look in this shit show:

In a lot of ways, this whole special election was and is a great exposition of the rot and pointlessness all over American politics at this point. It’s for a thirteen-month partial term, to represent a district which should not and can not exist in its current form after 2022, with an electorate so overwhelmingly Democratic that it will result in zero movement of the partisan power needle, and all of this in the context of the US House of Representatives which is barely more than a vestigial organ of a failing state at this point.

Reality check: the US House is basically beside the point these days. The control of appointments is reserved for the Senate. House-passed legislation does not receive a vote in the Senate. Congress itself is nearly broken as a lawmaking institution, but any changes to the nation’s laws which do squeeze through hardened arteries depend on affluent, white, elderly, conservative senators. The House can hardly even perform a real oversight role without the permission of the executive and judicial branches. Aside from performative hearings, about the most positive achievement available to a House majority is shifting spending bills a little bit more in the direction of the needy.

Spending millions of dollars to contest just one primary election to this mock-legislature is derangement.

It did not need to happen, of course. The establishment Democratic politicians who went to such outrageous extremes to maintain control of this district for its final 13 months of existence could have just left the reliable incumbent in place. Instead, they appointed Marcia Fudge to a cabinet job which she had recently disparaged in public. (While we’re handing around awards for cleverness, let’s not leave out how Ohio’s Republican Governor Mike DeWine scheduled the special election for November, leaving the Democratic 11th District without representation for most of this year for no reason other than to stick it to Dems. A political “owning” which was reversed after just a week or so when one of Ohio’s Republican Congressmen resigned, leaving DeWine with no defensible option other than putting that special election on the same calendar, and shorting his own party by a House vote for just as long as Democrats.)

The establishment Democrats’ preference for Shontel Brown in the House is, actually, reasonable enough. House Democrats’ margin is very modest; Brown basically bragged that she will be a compliant puppet aligning herself with whatever Democratic leadership wants; I can’t actually condemn the preference for a guaranteed safe vote.

For a variety of other reasons owing mainly to Brown’s awful, awful record in county politics, I preferred that Nina Turner (the only other candidate who ever attained substantial support in the crowded primary) be nominated. I don’t live in the 11th, and didn’t get very involved in the campaign despite its nationalization. But I was not alone in preferring Turner. Confounding the stereotype of a leftwing firebrand, Turner assembled a broad, diverse coalition of endorsements, and at one point a large lead in polling.

The preference of establishment Democrats for an appalling, revolting, obscenely expensive scorched-earth teardown campaign over just writing off a trivial L—or even having the maturity to claim Turner’s moderate-inclusive coalition as a W!—is not reasonable.

The conservative establishment’s win-at-any-cost desperation reached such an extreme that they even dishonestly attacked Turner from the left. Logically, in a world where anything counts, this should disqualify OH11 as an establishment > progressive victory.

Of course, we are instead in this broken, deteriorating failed state, and the real problem with establishment Democrats’ toxic teardown campaign is the way it eagerly reinforced the failing politics of division, disgust and alienation.

The thing about that, though, is this is a thing they do, very regularly. The Democratic Party establishment in Northeast Ohio—of which outgoing county party chair Shontel Brown is a front and center example—is very obviously entirely comfortable with this. Whatever they may say, their actions consistently reveal a preference for sustained control of the declining blue dots which are Democratic “strongholds” in Ohio’s sea of red, rather than engaging growing coalitions which could actually win statewide.

Here’s the problem: what did the Turner campaign do to demonstrate more effectiveness?

None of the excuses being made to absolve the Turner campaign of any responsibility for failure stand up to realistic examination. The post-election claim by one progressive organization is pure truthiness: “Only a few years ago a race like this between a progressive champion and a corporate centrist opponent with well financed PAC backing would have been a landslide for the centrist. We are always heavy underdogs against the corporate oligarchy but we’re narrowing the gap.” That seems to resemble what people are used to, it feels accurate probably, unless you review what actually happened.

Turner’s campaign was hardly the underdog! Turner started out in an open primary with far more advantages than various successful progressives have had behind them when challenging incumbents. Turner had name-recognition. Turner had a national profile and ability to fundraise. Turner had celebrity figures going to bat for her. (It would probably surprise people to be reminded that Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez won her primary challenge against an incumbent, in 2018, with zero involvement from Bernie Sanders.) Turner had a field of undistinguished competing candidates.

Turner, it should be added, did very well with these resources at first. At the beginning of June, her campaign released the results of a poll showing a commanding lead. Many people would like to memoryhole this but it happened, and the collapse of that lead needs to be reckoned with.

Yes, obviously, the opposition responded with an expensive nonstop teardown campaign, and yes, obviously that’s corrosive and ultimately self-defeating from the perspective of any shared Democratic Party interest, in addition to petty and wasteful. But, again, that’s who they are. That’s what they do. Turner’s campaign should have anticipated this and been prepared for it. Instead, it failed to come up with a response which could even slow the rate of damage down enough for a trace of Turner’s once-massive lead to survive the August primary.

There is simply no excuse for that. If you can’t even hold onto a little bit of a commanding lead, in the face of entirely predictable attacks, why did you even get into this?

Blaming money doesn’t work. This was not, contrary to some takes, a uniquely egregious example of buying an election. If you add up all of the campaigns’ own funds and all of the “outside money,” there’s no way to claim that Turner was simply buried beneath a tsunami of cash. She had plenty of money. She had prominent individual and organizational allies. She had eager volunteers. She had a great big lead. If these resources are not enough to win, what would be?

Blaming “low turnout” doesn’t work, either. Ultimately, saying “there was no way to win with turnout that low” just amounts to saying “Turner didn’t lose to Brown, Turner lost to indifference.” How does that make things better? Running in a special election primary with nothing else on the ballot doesn’t obviously harm one candidate more than another. For a campaign with resources, it’s arguably an advantage, at least in terms of how much the individual campaign can control in comparison with typical elections where “the top of the ticket” can skew turnout this way or that and “downballot” candidates are largely powerless.

Again, Turner’s campaign had money, months, volunteers; there is no credible way to claim “we couldn’t get our message out.” The problem is that the campaign failed to craft, or at least to sustain, a compelling message for why normies should have cared much about this mostly pointless special election primary. I don’t know what that would have been. I’m not omniscient! But presumably it was possible. Someone won, after all. The fact that Turner was leading by a lot a couple of months ago strongly suggests that it could have been her. If one believes that it should have been her, that this would have mattered for ordinary folk at the barber shop, then there must have been some way to persuade more of them given the campaign’s resources.

If there are lessons to take from this, other than the disgust and discouragement (which clearly many voters were left with), I would say that people need to be less in love with their cherished myths.

The belief that the only real way to win is by grassroots canvassing and phonebanking, e.g., distracts lots of politically engaged people but especially progressives from the need for investment in professionalism and especially in narratives. Yes there are a lot of shitty parasitic consultants in politics, but if they were all rubbish, presumably Shontel Brown would have remained languishing in a distant second place.

Beliefs like “we are always the underdog,” meanwhile, reduce even the possibility of recognizing what and who are effective vs ineffective.

Plenty of leftists have spent years disparaging, with reason, the Hillary 2016 campaign, and the years of wagon-circling excuses from other Democrats. Here’s the latest opportunity to do better, though: when what should have been very favorable circumstances go completely pear-shaped, be honest about that, rather than retreating into myths that anything, anyone, everyone else must have been at fault except one’s own candidate.

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