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In close Ohio special election, Jewish vote could determine outcome

If you are Jewish and live in Cleveland’s Beachwood and University Heights neighborhoods, you have almost certainly been made aware that your vote could be the determining factor in a close and critical House primary on Tuesday.

Jews in Ohio’s 11th Congressional District have been flooded with campaign mailers. They can’t look at their phones without seeing a targeted ad. Then there are the TV attack ads, the Facebook banners and the op-eds in the local newspapers.

The primary pits Nina Turner, a former top Bernie Sanders presidential campaign surrogate, against Shontel Brown, a councilwoman from Cuyahoga County, and has been described as a showdown between mainstream and progressive Democrats. And both campaigns are looking at Jews as a key source of votes. The winner in this overwhelmingly Democratic district is all but assured to win the general election in November.

“This election is going to be close, and Jewish voters — whose turnout numbers are relatively high — may determine the outcome of the race,” said Halie Soifer, chief executive of the Jewish Democratic Council of America.

Turner is supported by Sanders; Sen. Ed Markey of Massachusetts; progressive members of Congress known as The Squad; and the local chapter of the Democratic Socialists of America.

Brown is backed by former presidential nominee Hillary Clinton; Rep. Jim Clyburn of South Carolina, the House Majority Whip; Rep. Joyce Beatty from Ohio who chairs the Congressional Black Caucus; and a number of Jewish and pro-Israel groups including the Jewish Democratic Council of America, Democratic Majority for Israel, Pro Israel America and NORPAC.

Pro-Israel support for Brown

The 11th District has the largest population of Jewish residents in the state, which is estimated at 5% of the electorate. While both of the leading candidates are Black and domestic politics has largely dominated the race, their stances on Israel have become a contentious issue as the Brown campaign and groups supporting her try to mobilize the Jewish community.

“It is difficult to walk in my community, and talk to people I know and respect, about this race,” said Shana Wallenstein, a local fundraiser from Beachwood. “It has become so divisive and ugly. People are entrenched.”

DMFI PAC, which was created in 2019 to support congressional incumbents facing primary challenges in part for taking pro-Israel positions, has spent about $1.59 million in attack ads against Turner, a former Ohio state senator. The group is using the same tactic they used last year against Sanders in the Iowa and Nevada caucuses and in the Eliot Engel-Jamaal Bowman congressional race in New York’s 16th District: targeting her by highlighting to the general public her opposition to the Democratic National Convention’s 2020 platform.

“Turner voted against the entire 2020 Democratic Party platform despite its support for raising the minimum wage, universal health care and immigration reform,” one of the recent DMFI-sponsored mailers reads. Another mailer quotes one of Turner’s past tweets: “I’m voting Hell No on @DNC Platform.”

For Jewish voters, the DMFI is highlighting Turner’s opposition to the platform’s Israel plank, which called for a commitment to security funding for Israel and support for the two-state solution. At least a third of the group’s spending has gone for positive ads in support of Brown. Those include phone banks and yard signs in Jewish neighborhoods, and both digital and print ads in the local publications.

A yard sign sponsored by the Democratic Majority for Israel PAC in support of Shontel Brown in the Jewish neighborhoods of Ohio's 11th District.

A yard sign sponsored by the Democratic Majority for Israel PAC in support of Shontel Brown in the Jewish neighborhoods of Ohio’s 11th District. Image by Courtesy

Mark Mellman, DMFI’s president and chief executive, declined to say how much his group is going to spend in the final days of the campaign.

A recent poll, conducted by the Mellman Group for DMFI, showed that Brown, once trailing by 30-points, is now in a dead heat with Turner, who was once considered a heavy favorite to replace former Rep. Marcia Fudge, now housing secretary in the Biden administration.

Brown told the Forward that the help from outside groups was the only way to make the race competitive given Turner’s high name recognition and progressive support. “I think we’ve done a good job, and now other folks are beginning to take notice,” she said.

DMFI’s record in the race they were heavily involved in is a mixed bag. In the presidential primary, they were able to help slow Sanders’ momentum coming out of the New Hampshire. But in the congressional race in New York, DMFI spent close to $2 million — and Engel lost by a significant margin. Overall, DMFI spent more than $6 million to support Joe Biden and help elect/re-elect 83 Democratic candidates to the House and the Senate.

Mellman said that DMFI is sticking to its two basic goals: “to advance the interests of the Democratic Party and to make sure it remains pro-Israel.”

Brown has other Jewish backers. The Jewish Democratic Council of America launched in recent weeks a five-figure ad blitz highlighting Brown’s record. The digital ads targeting Jewish voters are operated through OpenWeb, an Israeli social engagement platform, and emerge when people open their electronic devices and use social media apps. They will appear before a voter as many as 100 times before Election Day on Aug. 3. The effort also includes print ads, text messages, and emails. Pro Israel America, a bipartisan group that supports pro-Israel candidates, has also spent on targeted texts, phone calls and educational billboards, and raised $800,000 from individual donors for Brown’s campaign.

On the county council, Brown currently represents the neighborhoods of Shaker Heights, Highland Hills and Orange, each of which includes a sizable Jewish population. She said she understands the issues that the Jewish community cares about. “This is not foreign territory for me,” she said.

J Street, a liberal, pro-Israel advocacy group, does not plan to endorse in the race.

A contrast on Israel

Both Turner and Brown have outlined their positions on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and the peace process.

During a JDCA-hosted candidate forum in March, Turner described herself as being “pro-Israel and pro-Palestinian” and said the U.S. should “be an evenhanded arbiter” in the Middle East. She said she opposes the Boycott, Sanctions and Divestment movement but also “the criminalization of people who are peacefully organizing for political change.”

Turner also said she would support continued U.S. security aid to Israel, but that U.S. dollars shouldn’t fund Israeli settlement expansion or annexation. In a questionnaire submitted to the Cleveland Heights Democratic club, ahead of their endorsement of her candidacy, Turner wrote that the U.S. “must condition aid to any of our allies, including Israel, in order to ensure our aid is used to further the human rights of all peoples across the globe, including the Palestinian people in this particular case.” During the recent violence between Israel and Hamas in Gaza, Turner expressed solidarity with the six Palestinians families facing eviction in the Sheikh Jarrah neighborhood in East Jerusalem and tweeted a raised-fist emoji to an attached photo of a protest to “end the apartheid.”

For Marty Gelfand, a former South Euclid Councilman and a supporter of Turner, that balance seems about right. “Yes, I want the U.S. government to be fair to Israel. I expect them to be fair to Israel,” he said. “But I also expect them to try to negotiate a fair peace and I don’t want to see them going so far over to any particular Israeli position that stifles other people either.”

Brown, who earned the backing of several pro-Israel House Democrats, including Rep. Ted Deutch of Florida and Brad Schneider of Illinois, has taken a stronger pro-Israel position.

She is opposed to any conditions on U.S. aid, has unequivocally backed Israel’s right to defend itself against terrorist groups, and criticized the Palestinian Authority’s payments to the families of Palestinian prisoners and financial support for claims against Israel in international bodies. She also visited Israel in 2018 on a trip sponsored by the AIPAC-affiliated American Israel Education Foundation.

“Our democracies are fragile, and we’ve seen that on our own soil here on January 6, Brown told the Forward. “And so, when you have an ally like Israel, it is important to protect and maintain that relationship.” She also said she’s comfortable with being a staunch supporter of Israel despite a growing divide within the Democratic Party over the Jewish state. “As a seemingly younger Black woman in leadership, I am confronted with people not being so receptive to me and just having to make sure that my voice is heard,” she said. “That is not a place or space that I am unfamiliar with.”

Running concerned

While some of the pro-Israel groups have privately acknowledged that a Turner win is more likely, her supporters are worried.

“If you’d asked me a month ago, I would have told you I wasn’t worried — Nina is going to win and we were going to move on. But now I am not sure I am hopeful,” said Wallenstein, the Beachwood fundraiser. “I am in a war zone, so to speak.”

Wallenstein, who voted for Hillary Clinton in the 2016 Democratic presidential primary, also worries that her candidate’s position on Israel has been mischaracterized by outside groups. “Somehow this has become this twisted falsehood that Nina is anti-Israel and I’m mystified,” she said.

Gelfand, a resident of Cleveland Heights, went further, and accused groups supporting Brown of attacking Turner with “Trumpian tactics” to scare voters.

“There are people out there who are trying to buy this election for whatever reasons,” but Turner has formed her own opinions on the Mideast conflict and is not following supporters on the left who criticize Israel and support BDS, he said.

Brown expressed confidence that she will pull off an upset on Tuesday, pointing to her first race for public office where she eked out a win by seven votes to become a Warrensville Heights city council member in 2012.

“We want to win by a landslide, that is definitely the goal,” she said. “But if it just so happens to work out that it’s the narrow margin, I’ll take the victory however we can get it.”

Turner told the Forward that her ties to the Jewish community are deep and long-standing.

“Those who know me and my record know it would be an honor to continue serving this community and to deliver on my vision of shared prosperity and social justice,” she said. “The attack ads I am seeing are not only untrue, they are a hurtful distraction to the progress so many working families of all backgrounds deserve.”


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