Shontel Brown and the Triumph of a Pro-Israel Democrat
By a TIJ Contributor
Disclaimer: The author volunteered on Shontel Brown’s 2021 campaign. All positions belong to the author and not to TIJ at large or to the Brown Campaign.
It’s no secret the Democratic party has shifted to the left in recent years. Candidates like Bernie Sanders and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez have achieved national prominence by calling for a stronger social safety net, including government-funded healthcare, housing, and education. Despite much controversy, many progressive policies are, in my opinion, beneficial and well-intentioned. It is often the progressive wing of the party that leads the charge for bold action on systemic racism and economic inequality in America. However, many Democrats in the progressive wing have also staunchly opposed unconditional aid to Israel and have been accused of using antisemitic attacks and tropes. There is also clearly a divide within the Democratic party around Israel, as many traditionally moderate Democrats continue to support the Jewish State much more fervently. This divide was obvious in Ohio’s 11th district this summer, where Shontel Brown, a pro-Israel moderate, ran against Nina Turner, an anti-Israel progressive. Despite huge deficits in name recognition, early polling, and funding, Brown won the race. So what happened?
Meet the Candidates
After the chaotic 2020 election, voters could be forgiven for resting through the 2021 election cycle, especially with the upcoming battle for the legislative branch just 14 months away. However, Israel advocacy — like the complex and convoluted machine of American politics — never stops. In Ohio’s 11th congressional district, the ascension of longtime Democratic representative Marcia Fudge to President Biden’s cabinet left a heated primary between moderate Shontel Brown and progressive Nina Turner.
The candidates were similar in many ways. Both are black women who support anti-racist policies, strong recovery measures from COVID-19, and hold similar views on healthcare and education reform. However, to the pro-Israel community, the difference between them was as stark as day and night. Turner has a long history of anti-Israel positions; she expressed “solidarity” with IfNotNow, a group highly critical of Israel, supported conditioning U.S. aid to Israel, and called Israel an “apartheid” state. Shontel Brown, on the other hand, has been very clear in her support for Israel. Brown openly supported the recent Abraham Accords that strengthened Israel, opposed the Boycott Divest and Sanction (BDS) movement, and endorsed Israel’s right to self-defense. The answer for the pro-Israel community on the August 3rd special primary was clear.
Nina Turner was expected to win. As a high-level supporter of Bernie Sanders in both 2016 and 2020, Turner had the advantage of name recognition over Brown, a longtime local politician. Turner’s national profile (exemplified by her massive following on Twitter, which was 25 times larger than Brown’s) led to a 35-point polling advantage just two months before the election. Turner was also the better funded candidate, raising twice as much as her opponent. While much of Brown’s money came from groups rather than individuals, it only amounted to under $3 million, less than half of the $6 million Turner raised. So, how did the less famous candidate with fewer resources win the election?
Most importantly, voters rejected Turner’s message. Israel aside, one main issue dividing the candidates was their view on President Biden. Shontel Brown supported Biden enthusiastically: In these three advertisements, Brown mentions Biden repeatedly, and occasionally goes after Nina Turner for criticizing the president. Brown’s more moderate message was likely to resonate in her district, which had in 2016 given Hillary Clinton a victory over Bernie Sanders by a whopping 26 points. Turner’s relationship with President Biden was equally clear — as a passionate and unapologetic progressive, she vehemently opposed the administration. In 2020, Turner infamously expressed her distaste for both Donald Trump and Joe Biden, saying, “You have a bowl of shit in front of you, and all you’ve got to do is eat half of it instead of the whole thing. It’s still shit.” Turner did little to combat voters’ perception of her as anti-establishment. Turner’s first five advertisements did not include mentions of “Biden,” “Obama,” or “Democrat,” despite her running in a district that heavily supported all three.
That said, Israel was critically important in this election. Neither candidate mentioned Israel very much on the campaign trail, but don’t let that fool you. Shontel Brown benefitted tremendously from her strong pro-Israel positions. First comes the issue of financing. The majority of Brown’s budget came from one source, the Democratic Majority for Israel, or DMFI. DMFI describes itself as “Democrats working to maintain support for a strong U.S.-Israel relationship and a progressive policy agenda.” In the end, they contributed over $2 million to Shontel Brown. This contribution was key in closing the funding gap between the two candidates, especially as the Brown campaign looked to increase their ad output as the election drew closer. Brown’s pro-Israel stance also directly won her thousands of votes in the Jewish community. Ohio’s 11th district has a significant Orthodox Jewish population, and the issue of Israel mobilized those voters. Rabbi Pinchas Landis, an Orthodox Rabbi for whom Israel is a critical issue, claimed to have convinced 1,000 Orthodox Jews to vote, almost exclusively for Shontel Brown. Areas with dense Jewish populations had voting turnout numbers twice as high as the county-wide average. In a race decided by only 4,000 votes, Cuyahoga county’s 22,000 registered Jewish voters could very well have swung the election.
As always, there are caveats. This is just one race, and a close one at that. Brown won by only 6 percentage points, and a few thousand votes the other way could have completely changed this narrative. What’s more informative to me than the result itself, however, is Brown’s massive comeback. Going from a 35-point deficit to a 6-point advantage in only two months (with the help of pro-Israel positions) shows the importance of the Jewish homeland in the American political system.
Shontel Brown’s win was a victory for the pro-Israel community, but America’s relationship with Israel is not magically better. Brown’s pro-Israel stances will certainly help in a House of Representative that is as divided as it is, but anti-Israel sentiments still abound. In her concession speech, Turner was far from reconciliatory, saying she “…didn’t lose this race, [rather] evil money manipulated and maligned this election.” I myself volunteered for Shontel Brown, and hearing Turner’s speech made me confident I had chosen the right candidate. Brown still needs to win the general election later this fall, but seeing as Ohio’s 11th is an 80–20 Democratic district, Brown will be a heavy favorite. I am confident that Brown will help mend the relationship between Israel and America, and I am heartened that the pro-Israel community showed up when it mattered most.