Battleground Ohio

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Shontel Brown and Nina Turner
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1. Why should you care about the Ohio-11 special elections?

Ohio’s 11th congressional district isn’t usually a political arena that draws much attention. As a safe blue seat, it hardly ever attracts big names and media headlines, and definitely doesn’t see millions of dollars poured into a primary race.

But this year’s special election in the district—triggered by the resignation of incumbent Marcia Fudge after being appointed to Biden’s cabinet as housing secretary—broke the mold.

The Democratic primary race, which ended last week, featured two top candidates seeking Fudge’s seat: On the left, progressive activist Nina Turner, and from the center, county council member Shontel Brown. Turner entered the race as the favorite to win, with significant name recognition and with the backing of progressive icons Bernie Sanders and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. Brown came as the establishment candidate, endorsed by Hillary Clinton and Representative James Clyburn.

The primary race shaped up to be a battle over the face of the party, one that could provide an answer to the question currently vexing Democrats: Is the party in the midst of a progressive surge, or is it Joe Biden’s Democratic Party, led, as always by centrists with liberals remaining on the sidelines.

And, if you hadn’t guessed it by now, there was a Jewish-American element to this race, or, to be more precise, an Israel issue.

Turner, the progressive who vowed to join the “Squad” if elected, was seen as a harsh critic of Israeli policies. Brown, on the other hand, declared her strong pro-Israel sentiment and her support for mainstream Democratic policies toward Israel. This drew a whole lot of out-of-state Jewish interest in the race (the district itself is about 5 percent Jewish) and more than $2 million raised for Brown’s campaign by pro-Israel Democratic groups. The Democratic Majority for Israel PAC ran ads in Ohio which did not mention Israel, but praised Brown’s record and positioned her as the only candidate who can deliver on President Biden’s agenda.

The results last Tuesday offered a surprise. Turner, who had significantly more cash in her campaign chest early in the race and who consistently led in polls, was defeated by Brown. In the district’s heavily Jewish areas, including Beachwood, Ohio, Brown swept a huge majority of the votes.

In her victory speech, Brown spoke about her visit to Israel and the importance of the U.S.-Israel relationship and thanked “our Jewish brothers and sisters” for their support. Turner, after learning of her loss, put the blame on “evil money” that “manipulated and maligned” the election.

2. Winners and losers in the OH-11 Democratic primary

Democratic Majority for Israel (DMFI) clearly emerged victorious this time around. 

“We left it all out in the field in Ohio, and we won!” the group wrote, in an email to supporters. DMFI noted that before getting involved in the race, Turner was leading by 30 percent, a gap that Brown was able to close after the group’s ads began to run.

The Jewish Democratic Council of America also patted itself on the back for endorsing Brown and reaching out to Jewish voters in her district.

But there’s a bigger question that begs an answer: Did pro-Israel centrist Democrats prove that there’s a price to pay for being critical of Israel? That aligning with the progressive view on Israel will make the road to Congress that much harder?

To a certain extent, the answer is yes.

DMFI played a key role in turning this race around by mobilizing donors against a candidate who was critical of Israel. Sanders and the progressives failed to come up with the resources and the ground operation to maintain their candidate’s lead.

But there is a caveat: DMFI’s successful campaign against Turner was driven by her positions on Israel, but did not focus on the Israel issue. In fact, most voters probably had no idea that there even was an issue regarding Israel, since the ads centered primarily on Turner’s criticism of Biden and did not mention foreign policy, the Middle East, or Israel.

The Ohio-11 Democratic primary validated the idea that running as a critic of Israel is difficult, and, in some cases, almost impossible. But it also highlighted the fact that for most voters, Israel is not an issue. Ohio voters couldn’t care less about Turner believing Israel is an apartheid state or about Brown’s emotional reaction to her visit to Jewish towns alongside the Gaza border. They cared about working with the Biden White House and the Democratic leadership and happened to have come across a pro-Israel body that reminded them where both candidates stand on this issue.

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3. But is it good for the Jews?

Yes and no.

The pro-Israel Jewish lobby flexed its muscle and proved to be effective and strategic. This is a good sign for those who care about the political abilities of the community, regardless of the specific issue at hand.

But it also opened the door to critics complaining about the oversized power of outside donors in local congressional races (remember Turner’s “evil money” comment?)

At times, this type of criticism borders on antisemitism and dabbles in conspiracy theories about Jews and money, but that’s not always the case. For some in the progressive camp, the Ohio-11 race was yet another example of how centrist pro-Israel activists are part of the “big lobby” world, where big donors and outside interests overpower local voters and their concerns. There’s nothing wrong with being a “big lobby,” but it’s always nicer to see your cause win thanks to local constituents and their $5 donations.

4. Envoys, liaisons and ambassadors

The Jewish community has been nagging the Biden administration for the past six months about filling two key positions: the State Department’s special envoy to monitor and combat anti-Semitism, and a White House liaison to the Jewish community.

Well, the wait is over. Biden filled these two positions in the past two weeks.

Deborah Lipstadt, a famed researcher of antisemitism and the Holocaust from Emory University, was chosen to serve as the State Department’s antisemitism envoy, and Chanan Weissman was tapped for Biden’s liaison to the Jewish community, a position he had held in the past in the Obama administration.

Both represent safe bets for the Biden administration: Well-known and highly regarded in the Jewish community, and, perhaps even more important, non-controversial in their views on the Jewish community, Israel and antisemitism. 

Lipstadt may not be the preferred choice for those on the progressive end of the Jewish community, but her international and academic stature make it hard to oppose the choice. The same is true with Weissman, who can offer something very few other candidates for the job can: an inside understanding of the position and firsthand acquaintance with Biden and his inner circle.

And while Biden is filling in these key posts in his administration, back in Jerusalem prime minister Naftali Bennett announced the nomination of Mike Herzog as Israel’s next ambassador to the United States.

Herzog, not unlike Lipstadt and Weissman, is also a safe bet: A former general, moderate in his views on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and well-known in Washington. A kind of ambassador that can work seamlessly with the Biden administration and is unlikely to stir the kind of friction with Democrats as did his predecessors Ron Dermer and Gilad Erdan.

5. Natan Sharansky’s message

After spending years in a Soviet prison and enduring hardship and isolation, there’s not much that can rattle Natan Sharansky, the former icon of the Soviet Jewry movement who went on to play a major role in Israeli politics and to lead the Jewish Agency.

But Sharansky probably did not expect to have to deal with a bad case of COVID-19 after being fully vaccinated in Israel.

Sharansky tested positive for the coronavirus upon landing in Israel after a two-day visit to Washington, in which he met with Secretary of State Antony Blinken and with a group of Jewish-American leaders. He reported severe symptoms and was hospitalized in Jerusalem and treated with an antibody cocktail. Sharansky is now recovering at home, alongside his wife who had also contracted the virus.

As he struggles to fully recuperate, Sharansky used his personal case to advocate for taking the pandemic seriously. “Both of us were vaccinated about eight months ago and learned from experience just how much the vaccine’s effects can decay over time. Please strengthen your body with a third shot, and may we beat this plague together,” he wrote.

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