eye on ohio

Inside Nina Turner’s last-ditch efforts to salvage the Jewish vote

The former state senator and Bernie Sanders surrogate hired a dedicated Jewish outreach director and targeted Jewish voters

Gage Skidmore

Former State Senator Nina Turner speaking with supporters of U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT) at a house party in Des Moines, Iowa.

CLEVELAND — Even as Jewish voters overwhelmingly coalesced around Rep. Shontel Brown (D-OH) during her first congressional bid just under a year ago, Nina Turner, the well-known progressive champion, is actively engaged in an effort to peel away at least a portion of that support as she seeks to defeat Brown in a primary rematch on Tuesday.

In recent weeks, Turner has met with rabbis, attended synagogue services, held town halls and directly targeted Jewish voters through phone banking and canvassing initiatives in Ohio’s newly drawn 11th Congressional District, which includes all of Cleveland and some surrounding suburbs.

The former Ohio state senator has also hired a dedicated Jewish outreach director, Sam Klein, an 18-year-old rising sophomore at The Ohio State University who describes himself as a “sixth-generation congregant” of a synagogue that sits in the district. More to the point, Klein argues, Turner’s Middle East foreign policy views were distorted by outside political groups that have continued to “smear” her not only as anti-Israel but antisemitic. The job — a promotion over his previous role as a field intern — includes countering those attacks, not least among Jewish voters persuaded by what he describes as false advertising. 

“The goal,” Klein said in an interview with Jewish Insider on the eve of the election, “is to show these people that she’s more than just an ad.”

Such efforts aren’t entirely new, insisted Angelo Greco, a Turner spokesperson who says her campaign had engaged in Jewish “constituency organizing” over the course of the previous cycle. But Turner’s current level of “outreach and intentionality,” he said, has been “more robust” than her previous efforts.

In a statement to JI, Greco added that Turner’s work has paid off in the lead-up to the election, even amid fierce opposition from Democratic Majority for Israel and AIPAC, the political arms of which are spending heavily to boost Brown’s campaign.

“We are very proud of our outreach to the Jewish community,” Greco said. “Both Nina Turner and her campaign staff and volunteers have had wonderful interactions and found tremendous support. We are, of course, aware that groups from outside the district are flooding voters with dishonest misinformation and have been for a year. What we are hearing at the doors is that voters are rejecting those tactics this time.”

Despite those claims, Greco did not provide any hard evidence to suggest that Turner, 54, has gained meaningful traction, particularly within Cleveland’s heavily Jewish eastern suburbs — including Shaker Heights and Beachwood — that saw some of the highest turnout in the race. Brown, 46, had outperformed Turner in those neighborhoods, where she built close connections with Jewish community members that seem largely intact as she seeks her first full term in the House.

Turner’s campaign did not make her available for an interview.

The 11th District is home to an estimated 22,000 Jewish voters who make up about 5% of the electorate — a sizable minority, especially given Jews’ propensity to turn out and vote. Last cycle, Jewish voters were credited, in part, with tipping the scales for Brown in her come-from-behind victory over Turner, a former presidential campaign surrogate for Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT) who had cast herself as a future member of the Squad.

Turner’s affiliation with a range of far-left House members who endorsed her campaign was off-putting to Jewish voters who associate the Squad with hostility to Israel. For some, her support for conditioning aid to Israel — and her initial resistance to clarifying her own personal position on the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement, among other things — confirmed that suspicion. 

To the consternation of many Jewish voters, Turner has also enthusiastically aligned herself with Jeremy Corbyn, the controversial former U.K. Labor Party leader whose membership was suspended amid rampant antisemitism within his own ranks. On Monday night, just hours before polls opened in Ohio, Turner shared a video in which she appeared alongside the British politician to discuss the labor movement. “Solidarity is a verb,” Turner captioned her tweet, using the same phrase she had employed while endorsing a social media post likening Israel to an apartheid state last year during the May conflict with Hamas.

“The oligarchs are trying hard so hard to stop us because we’re winning,” Turner wrote in a follow-up tweet, including a link to her fundraising page. “Donate now to get us across the finish line!”

This cycle, pro-Israel groups have released print and digital ads contrasting Turner’s past statements on Israel with those of Brown, a vocal supporter of the Jewish state.

But in comparison with Turner’s previous campaign, the congressional hopeful now seems — at least aside from the last-minute Corbyn post — to have more carefully calibrated her messaging as she tries to dispel accusations of anti-Israel prejudice.

“I believe that Israel has a right to exist as a democratic nation in the Middle East,” Turner said  in public remarks to Cleveland’s City Club a few weeks ago. “I believe in justice and security for Israel, and justice and security for Palestinians.”

In another attempt to clarify her positions, Turner published an ad in Cleveland’s Jewish News affirming her opposition to the BDS movement and rejecting calls to “eliminate” Israel. “Just as I would not support sanctions on us because of the actions of our government,” she wrote, “it is not appropriate in this circumstance to place sanctions on Israelis for their government’s actions.”

“A lot of folks that I’ve heard from that were swayed by ads last year said they really appreciated not only her open letter in the Jewish News but maybe receiving a call from the campaign or her showing up to synagogue and attending a service,” Klein told JI. “I’m confident that our efforts will have some impact in moving some voters.”

Pro-Israel advocates, however, have cast suspicion on the sincerity if not the efficacy of her outreach. “I think she felt the political heat from her anti-Israel positions and she’s trying to obfuscate,” Mark Mellman, the president of DMFI PAC — which has spent more than $1 million in the primary — alleged in a recent interview with JI.

AIPAC, for its part, said last week that Turner was engaging in “pro-Israel virtue signaling.”

If there are some uncertainties regarding Turner’s actual Middle East foreign policy positions, that is partly because she herself has not always been clear about where she stands.

While Turner has broadly pushed back against suggestions that she is anti-Israel, her public statements on more substantive foreign policy matters applicable to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict have been lacking, seemingly at her own expense.

Turner’s campaign declined to share her Israel position paper when JI asked for details on a few issues that she has not yet addressed as a candidate, at least on the record. That includes supplemental aid for Israel’s Iron Dome missile-defense system, which a number of Squad members have opposed.

But Greco, her spokesperson, said Turner supports Iron Dome funding, along with legislation aimed at strengthening and expanding the Abraham Accords, a series of diplomatic agreements that normalized relations between Israel and a number of Arab nations. He also said Turner would have voted in favor of the $1.5 trillion omnibus spending package that passed the House last month, including billions of dollars in U.S. assistance for Israel guaranteed in a memorandum of understanding between the two countries.

He offered no explanation, however, for her reasoning.

Several Cleveland voters who spoke with JI remain convinced that Turner is out of touch with the Jewish community’s concerns. Anita Gray, a retired regional director of the Anti-Defamation League and a resident of Lyndhurst, said she had received a message from Turner’s Jewish outreach arm and decided to ignore the call rather than pursue a meeting — not least because she has long supported the Brown campaign. “I’m not interested in getting together with Nina Turner,” she told JI. “For anything.”

“She knows that losing the Jewish vote last time hurt her and therefore, of course, as a politician, you’re going to reach out,” said Pinchas Landis, an Orthodox Jewish rabbi from University Heights who is also backing Brown. “Of course she’s going to look at a crew that she lost and try and repave the narrative, but we just feel the narrative has not changed at all. It’s the same narrative. It’s the same associations, the same reasons for concern.”

Turner’s relationship with the organized Jewish community in Cleveland had, in many ways, already soured when she was defeated last summer in an unusually hostile special House election that had become something of a national staging ground for intra-party dog fights, including over Israel.

In her concession speech last August, Turner expressed disdain for what she described as the “evil money” that had poured into the district from outside pro-Israel groups and other big spenders, almost immediately drawing accusations of antisemitism that have followed her into the current primary.

Turner’s detractors note that she has demonstrated no apparent remorse for the fiery speech in which, unconsciously or not, she had invoked an antisemitic trope. Turner, on the other hand, says the allegations have been hurtful, not least because she views herself as a Jewish community ally who, as a former state senator, built strong relationships with Orthodox voters in suburban Cleveland.

“People can call me many things, but what you cannot call me is anti-Israel” or an “antisemite,” Turner said recently at a virtual Jewish town hall event. “That hurt me so very much.”

Before the event last week, Turner had been criticized as insensitive for scheduling her meet-and-greet on Yom Hashoah, or Holocaust Remembrance Day — in conflict with a separate Jewish community event, hosted by the Jewish Federation of Cleveland, that was already on the calendar.

Ben Becker, one of Turner’s Jewish supporters in Shaker Heights, took issue with such complaints. “It just made me really sad about the state of discourse in the community, because that event was planned by a Jew,” he said, noting that Turner’s town hall was organized by a part-time campaign worker involved with Jewish outreach. 

Moreover, Becker, 34, expressed doubt that Turner would even “have been welcome” at the Holocaust event, due to lingering hostilities from the previous race. “They were dinging Nina Turner for doing this,” he charged, “but not acknowledging that.”

Becker, who describes himself as formerly aligned with AIPAC, now volunteers as a local J Street coordinator, where — somewhat comically, given his enthusiastic support for Turner — he is tasked with developing in-district ties with Brown. He has yet to request a meeting with the former county councilwoman and party chair, though he did recently help connect Turner’s team with J Street. He has also offered assistance with Klein’s broader Jewish outreach strategy — to varying levels of success. 

While Becker convinced some community members to attend the virtual town hall, for instance, he was otherwise unsuccessful, he said, in persuading a local rabbi who turned down a request to speak with the campaign. On occasion, Becker noted, resistance has also come from the Turner campaign itself. Becker said he had offered to connect her team with “some hostile folks” who have been skeptical of Turner’s approach. “They didn’t take me up on that.”

Since she announced her candidacy in January, Turner’s campaign has reached hundreds if not at least a thousand Jewish voters in the district, Klein estimates, including local religious leaders and nonprofit officials, among others.

Turner and Brown have occasionally overlapped in their respective outreach efforts. Last month, for example, Turner attended a Friday night commemorative Yom Hashoah ceremony at Temple-Tifereth Israel, a Reform synagogue in Beachwood, and, a few days later, returned to meet privately with congregants, according to Klein, whose family belongs to the temple. The following Friday, Brown made her own appearance at the synagogue for Shabbat services.

There is no publicly available polling on the two-way matchup, the winner of which is all but assured victory in the general election because the district is safely blue. A Democratic strategist who asked to remain anonymous said he had conducted more than one survey in the district. “We found out that, first of all, Shontel Brown had become more popular and better known, but that Turner has actually shed some of her negatives from the last race,” he told JI. 

The strategist declined to provide specific numbers but otherwise suggested that the district’s recently updated boundaries — approximately a third of which are new — have contributed to at least some volatility in the race. Voters, he told JI, “know less about Brown but not necessarily Turner.”

On Monday, Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-NY), who is among the most widely known progressives in Congress, issued a late endorsement of Turner’s campaign, describing her as a “powerful voice for policies that will make a meaningful difference in the lives of working people across this country.”

Ocasio-Cortez backed Turner last year as well, and appeared in the district in the final weeks of the race to gin up support for her candidacy. Other Squad members who previously backed Turner — including Reps. Ilhan Omar (D-MN) and Rashida Tlaib (D-MI) — have so far stayed out of the primary.

Sanders, for his part, endorsed Turner last month and in the special election nearly a year ago. In a Monday evening tweet, he directly criticized AIPAC and its “billionaire friends” as “pathetic” in their efforts to oppose Turner and a number of other high-profile progressive candidates who are seeking office this cycle. 

Brown has notched support from leading establishment Democrats such as Reps. Jim Clyburn (D-SC), the House majority whip, and Hakeem Jeffries (D-NY), the chairman of the House Democratic caucus. On Friday, President Joe Biden announced his support for her reelection.

During a campaign event at an Orthodox synagogue in Beachwood on Sunday, Brown called on the Jewish community to turn out for her as they did last cycle, touting her commitment to upholding support for the U.S.-Israel relationship in Congress.

“I think it’s been said that we can’t count on anyone else in this race, other than me, to continue to beat that drum and pound that message home and to bring some of our other colleagues along the way to ensure that we maintain that relationship,” she told attendees. “I want to keep doing it. But I cannot do it without your help.”

Marty Gelfand, a Jewish community activist in Cleveland Heights who supports Turner’s campaign, speculates that she is well poised for an upset, even as her own Jewish engagement efforts remain untested at the polls.

“Before she had the chance to look up, she was identified and falsely accused of antisemitism and being anti-Israel, neither of which she is,” he said of the previous cycle. “This time, she had a chance to step out in front of that.”