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All Eyes On Ohio: People, Money And Energy Are Flooding Into A Cleveland Area Primary

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

It's an election off-year. November is still months away, but people, money and energy are flooding from across the country into one Democratic House primary in the Cleveland area. NPR's Danielle Kurtzleben reports.

(CROSSTALK)

DANIELLE KURTZLEBEN, BYLINE: Last Saturday, Nina Turner was out in the rain at a Cleveland gas station fist-bumping a young man.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: Rock it out, girl.

NINA TURNER: Rock it out. All right, B (ph). Thank you.

KURTZLEBEN: A local religious group is giving away gasoline, and Dewayne Williams was there for the fill-up - but also there to see the former state senator.

DEWAYNE WILLIAMS: Definitely got my vote, you know, my family vote - you know, like I said, my mom, you know, my - a couple of older people have, you know, supported her throughout the years.

KURTZLEBEN: Just down the sidewalk, a van decorated with a cutout of Turner's head was blasting funk music. The owner, David Crowe, said he's originally from Seattle and is a big fan of Bernie Sanders.

DAVID CROWE: I've actually worked my way up to where I'm actually a full-time activist at the moment. What I call myself is the road crew for the revolution.

KURTZLEBEN: He was trying to bring the revolution to Ohio's 11th Congressional District, represented by Marcia Fudge until she became Joe Biden's HUD secretary this year. Turner came into the race to replace Fudge with plenty of local name recognition, and she was known nationally as a Sanders campaign co-chair who sharply criticized Joe Biden. All of this has helped set up the race as a microcosm of the National Democratic Party. Turner was the early front-runner in the 13-person race, but the local Democratic Party chairwoman, Shontel Brown, has made it very much a two-person contest. And in this solidly blue district, the primary winner will likely hold the seat. Turner's liberal politics attract people like John Newman, who spoke just after he voted early.

JOHN NEWMAN: Medicare for All is a real big one for me because I just don't believe that we can just watch people just die. I just don't understand.

KURTZLEBEN: He also associated Brown with the Democratic establishment, something he referred to as corrupt. However, many voters have flocked to Brown. Iris Johnston saw her speak at a candidate forum and liked what she heard about local issues.

IRIS JOHNSTON: Yeah, I think that the policing and safety is very important, especially in our district.

KURTZLEBEN: Brown also has outside supporters coming to her aid. I met Mike Insel as he drove up to the county election site with two other young men, all of them from Maryland. They had been out canvassing for Brown.

MIKE INSEL: I like that she's pro-Israel. I like that she's not trying to be a member of the squad.

KURTZLEBEN: Outside groups have been fueling this race. One PAC, the Democratic Majority for Israel, has bought ads supporting Brown and opposing Turner, who has tweeted in support of Palestinians and criticized Israel. The Congressional Black Caucus PAC has also backed Brown. Meanwhile, progressive PACs like the Working Families Party have supported Turner. A slate of progressive politicians are also backing Turner - Sanders, of course, as well as members of the House's squad. Brown has an array of establishment endorsements - House Majority Whip James Clyburn and Hillary Clinton, not to mention Fudge's mom. All of this is reflected in the swipes the candidates take at each other, like Turner's remarks while taping a podcast with a local businesswoman.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

TURNER: OK, I'm going to write the rules; I'm not going to play by your rules. And these are the same people who don't understand that unless you bump up, change does not happen.

KURTZLEBEN: Brown, meanwhile, digs at Turner for her past outspokenness.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

SHONTEL BROWN: If you're looking at someone who has been more focused on headway than headlines, then yes, I think those are the - again, the things that make me different from the other candidate.

KURTZLEBEN: For all the national attention, this could be a low-turnout race - a special election in early August during a pandemic. Not that it's going to quiet down. Sanders and New York Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez are scheduled to campaign for Turner. Clyburn will be going to town this weekend for Brown.

Danielle Kurtzleben, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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