Nina Turner sees an opportunity. The aggressive, ambitious state senator thinks she can defy the odds against congressional challengers and unseat U.S. Rep. Marcia Fudge. Why is she so confident?
Visibility and personality, to start with. Turner gets way more attention than your average state senator. She's become a regular on Ed Shultz's MSNBC show as the Ohio liberal who bashes Gov. Kasich and argues that the swing state is swinging the Democrats' way. Take a look at her feisty call for Kasich to apologize to Ohioans for Issue 2 (at the 1:00 mark).
Political commentator Jason Johnson writes that Turner's "passionate, rough-around-the-edges style" resembles the late Rep. Stephanie Tubbs Jones' personality more than Fudge's does. That surely sounds like sacrilege to Fudge supporters, who know Fudge was Tubbs Jones' friend, card-playing buddy and anointed successor. But Johnson is on to something. Fudge has a quiet personality for a politician. Compare her MSNBC appearance to Turner's here.
"We are in dire need of leadership with a purpose, and I'm not seeing that," Turner told The Plain Dealer's Henry Gomez. We'll see how well she backs up that argument. But Turner must feel Fudge (right) hasn't been in Congress long enough to acquire an incumbent's usual clout and advantages. With only three years seniority, Fudge isn't the first congressperson local officials turn to when they need help in Washington -- Steve LaTourette is.
Besides, the tentative redistricting map gives Fudge a lot of new territory to cover, from Garfield Heights all the way down the I-77 corridor to Akron. Turner may find it easier to win over voters there, since they haven't voted for Fudge before.
Turner is betting that established politicians in Cleveland and Washington don't have as much clout as they seem. The Cuyahoga County Democrats are sure to endorse the incumbent. So will the old black political network in town -- Arnold Pinkney, George Forbes, etc.
But the local Democrats got beaten badly when they united against county reform two years ago. Almost every black elected official except Turner came out against Issue 6, but about half of black voters supported it. Turner is probably counting on a similar split in the black vote in this campaign. Plenty of Issue 6 supporters, from wealthy businesspeople to civic leaders to maverick Democrats, stand ready to back Turner now because of her risky stance then. Likewise, the infamous race-baiting attack against her for supporting reform could even rebound in her favor. Cleveland voters tend to admire politicians who stand up to bullies.
The case for re-electing Fudge, or betting on her re-election, is simpler and less dramatic. Fudge is the incumbent, she has a bigger political network, her views on the issues fit the district, and Turner hasn't yet made the case for replacing her. Jason Johnson says the Congressional Black Caucus has tried to boost Fudge's visibility lately. They could easily back that up with national fund-raising on her behalf.
But Turner may also be confident because her backup plan is self-evident. She has a safe seat in the state senate -- her term doesn't end until 2014. So if she loses to Fudge but runs a competitive race, she'll still increase her name recognition and her fund-raising base. That could help her take a shot at another higher office in the future. Even by losing, she could win.
Update, 12/5: Fudge announced her re-election campaign today, touting a long list of endorsements from local elected officials, black ministers, and others. An anonymous Fudge supporter serves up a punchy quote to Mike McIntyre for his Tipoff column today: "We're going to beat Nina Turner like she stole something."
12/6: Good PD coverage of Fudge's campaign announcement from Joe Frolik and Henry Gomez. Frolik says Turner faces "very long odds" and that Fudge pledged to run a clean campaign and "disown" (his words) mud-slinging supporters. He offers this diplomatically couched take on Fudge's personality: "If Fudge sometimes comes across as cold or even imperious -- especially in contrast to her gregarious predecessor -- it may be because she's never had to learn to be a good candidate. Now she will."
12/30: Turner has decided not to run against Fudge in the primary, citing the short campaign season now that the vote will be March 6. Her statement leaves open the possibility of running as an independent in November.