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What to watch for in Ohio’s special election primaries

By Gregory Krieg and Eric Bradner, CNN

A pair of special election primaries in Ohio on Tuesday will put the spotlight on tough questions facing both parties ahead of next year’s midterm elections.

In the state’s heavily Democratic 11th Congressional District, centered in Cleveland, voters are poised to choose between a progressive champion with close ties to Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders and a moderate county party leader backed by the national establishment.

Down in the GOP-leaning 15th Congressional District, Republicans are looking at a possible replay of last week’s special election in Texas, where former President Donald Trump’s endorsement wasn’t enough to sway the race to his chosen candidate. Trump is, once again, facing a test of his influence — especially with suburban voters — and questions over his decision to wade into the race at all.

Neither result is expected to have much tangible influence on the doings of the current Congress — the 11th district is a sure bet to stay blue, while the 15th is almost as likely to remain red and the general election isn’t until November — but voters, as they sift through millions of dollars of outside ads, have the opportunity to send a message to leadership in both parties about the kind of candidates they might favor in 2022.

Polls close at 7:30 p.m ET.

Democratic progressives and moderates square off in Cleveland

Ohio’s 11th District race has turned into a proxy war, with the generational and ideological fissures that are simmering within the Democratic Party — but have remained largely hidden in the early months of Joe Biden’s presidency — bursting into full view.

High-profile surrogates have converged on the district, an overwhelmingly Democratic territory that stretches from Cleveland to Akron. Sanders and New York Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez campaigned for Nina Turner in the race’s closing days. South Carolina Rep. Jim Clyburn and other members of the Congressional Black Caucus fanned out across Cleveland for Shontel Brown.

Clyburn was a kingmaker in the 2020 Democratic presidential primary, when his endorsement catapulted Biden to an overwhelming win in the South Carolina primary — a victory that set Biden on course to deliver the knockout blow against Sanders days later on Super Tuesday.

And in Cleveland over the weekend, Clyburn made clear that his goal was to deliver Biden another ally in Congress and deprive the progressive “Squad” from adding another member and tilting the balance of power within the House Democratic Caucus.

“I don’t understand why people think that the entire agenda has got to be yours. That’s not the way the world works,” Clyburn told CNN. “We have to sit down, find common ground, reconcile the differences and move an agenda forward. That’s what this President is doing and that’s why he’s been so successful.”

What ‘Nina’ means

Progressives have zeroed in on districts like this — overwhelmingly Democratic, where the primary typically decides the general election winner — since 2018, when Ocasio-Cortez unseated then-Rep. Joe Crowley in New York. Over the last two election cycles, they have added to their congressional ranks with a series of successful primary challenges.

But victory for Turner, the former state senator and a leading Sanders supporter over two presidential election campaigns, would hit differently. Turner did not emerge from political obscurity to run this race — she is already a national figure and her fate will ripple out well beyond the district’s borders.

Though she has highlighted her past support for figures like former President Barack Obama during the campaign, Turner is beloved on the left. She is viewed as a true believer and, at a time when some progressives are uneasy about the progressives’ alliance with the Biden administration, someone who will not be cowed by pressure from the White House and congressional leadership.

Other lefty candidates have amassed endorsements from allied groups, but few have attracted the kind of in-person surge of surrogate support that has cycled through Cleveland over the past few weeks. Ocasio-Cortez visited two weekends ago, former NAACP president Ben Jealous has been on the ground, and Sanders, along with Minnesota Attorney General Keith Ellison and racial justice activist Cornel West, appeared for get-out-the-vote events over the last few days.

Ocasio-Cortez and Sanders delivered unusually personal pleas for Democrats to elevate Turner — and deliver them a trusted ally for the intra-party clashes ahead.

“We need Nina. I need Nina,” Ocasio-Cortez said during her visit. “Please send me Nina!”

Sanders on Saturday struck a similar note: “I would have come (to the district) because Nina is a close personal friend of mine and somebody I admire,” he said. “But the real reason I am here is that we desperately need her in the US Congress.”

Can Trump rebound from his stumble in Texas?

A week after a Trump-endorsed Republican lost a runoff for a congressional seat in Texas, the value of the former President’s endorsement will be put to another test in Ohio’s 15th District GOP primary.

Trump endorsed coal lobbyist Mike Carey in the race to replace former Rep. Steve Stivers, who resigned to take a job with the Ohio Chamber of Commerce. A pro-Trump super PAC has pumped $350,000 into adds backing Carey.

But Carey is facing a crowded field of competitors, including the Stivers-backed state Rep. Jeff LaRe, a former sheriff’s deputy. There are other outside players in the 15th District race, as well: Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul endorsed Ron Hood, a former state lawmaker who has taken up Paul’s criticism of Dr. Anthony Fauci, the nation’s leading infectious disease official. And Debbie Meadows, the wife of former Trump chief of staff Mark Meadows, and several other influential conservative activists are aligned with Ruth Edmonds, a former Columbus NAACP president.

Special elections are a volatile political atmosphere: Candidates have had only a few months to raise money and campaign. Turnout is likely to be only a small fraction of what the district would see in a midterm or presidential election year. And a crowded field can split even that small share of votes.

Polls show an overwhelming share of Republicans remain supportive of Trump. But, now that he is out of office, what’s less clear is whether the party’s voters are eager to purge their ranks of those who aren’t aligned with Trump — a clear goal of the former President in next year’s midterm elections. Ohio’s 15th District will provide the latest test of how closely Republican voters are willing to follow Trump.

Eyes on the Columbus suburbs

No matter the outcome on Tuesday, analysts will be quick to dig into the numbers and study how Carey fared in the Columbus suburbs, which include sections of Fairfield and Franklin counties, and are home to about half of the district’s registered voters.

Trump’s overall margin in the district improved during his second run, but a closer look shows — perhaps unsurprisingly — that the slight uptick was fueled by stronger numbers in its more rural communities.

The 2020 results out of Franklin County — home to Columbus and its suburbs — offer some insight into Trump’s soft spot.

The former President lost the county in both his elections, with similar shares voting for him, but support for the Democratic nominee jumped from Hillary Clinton’s 59.8% in 2016 to 64.9% for Biden last year.

It’s not an apples-to-apples indicator, because only parts of Columbus fall inside the congressional district’s boundaries, but if Carey does poorly in the suburbs, Republicans will have more reason to worry about candidates facing similar electorates — the exact kind they need to win over in order to claim a House majority in 2022.

Whether that kind of warning sign will be enough to convince some swing district Republican candidates to stray from Trump, even if only on his election lies, remains to be seen. But Carey’s performance among a very small set of voters within what’s anticipated to be a low turnout election could have an outsized impact on the big races to come.

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