In parsing a disappointing political outcome, it’s tempting to seek out a redemptive conclusion or a silver lining. If neither is readily available, there may at least be valuable strategic lessons to be extracted for future fights. When it comes to last night’s special election in Ohio’s 11th congressional district, however, it’s difficult to see what might be drawn beyond the boringly bleak insight that organized money continues to dominate American politics — and is often terrifyingly capable of swatting down challenges to the status quo.
Coming from behind in a race that initially seemed like Nina Turner’s to lose, establishment favorite Shontel Brown last night secured a comfortable victory with a margin of more than 6 points — the result following a weekslong barrage of advertising that was less about boosting Brown’s campaign than tarring her opponents’.
Despite the district being among the most solidly blue in the country, it was clear from the outset that establishment Democrats wanted Turner defeated and, with a gracious assist from America’s cartoonishly corrupt campaign finance laws, they are now celebrating exactly that outcome. Though there may be a strategic debate to be had about decisions made by Turner’s campaign (Might it have gone negative against Brown sooner? Could it have developed a better defense against its rival’s attack ads?) — even a cursory survey of spending in the race underscores the extent to which what ultimately beat her was just sheer money, and lots of it.
As the American Prospect’s Alexander Sammon explains in a detailed report on the race, groups opposed to Turner quite literally flooded Ohio’s 11th district with millions in attack ads — the bombardment achieving full-spectrum dominance across TV, radio, YouTube, social media, household mailboxes, and local signage throughout June and July. Right-wing super PAC Democratic Majority For Israel (DMFI) alone spent over $2 million on ads mostly attacking Turner (and making no actual mention of Israel).
Combined with another $500,000 chipped in from corporate astroturf group Third Way, funds that poured in to crush Turner’s campaign closed in on $3 million — a breathtaking sum for a special election held in the doldrums of late summer. Adding to the quotient of pure sleaze at play, mailers were circulated that erroneously branded Turner an opponent of universal health care and a higher minimum wage. Thanks to absurd loopholes in campaign finance law, the Brown campaign didn’t have to own any of it — instead farming out its smears of Turner to super PACs by way of “redboxing” (a technique that essentially allows campaigns to coordinate with outside groups in spite of rules that prohibit it).
If there’s any lesson to be drawn from the Ohio 11th race, it’s about the lengths to which the Democratic machine will ultimately go to defeat its harshest critics — and the lows to which it is willing to stoop. With the aid of big donors (some of whom were quite literally Republicans), centrists and party grandees successfully prevented the election of a left-wing progressive in a safe blue district. While the Turner-Brown contest may be an extreme case, the basic template it represents is almost certain to play out again as long as the Democratic Party retains its indefensible addiction to corporate donors and organized money. Special interests and lobby organizations spend millions of dollars on elections because those dollars usually get them the desired result.
It’s an unsatisfying and bleak conclusion, to be sure. But, if nothing else, it’s at least a clarifying one.