Yesterday’s endorsement of Rep. Shontel Brown (D-OH) over rival Nina Turner by the Congressional Progressive Caucus PAC didn’t just spark a progressive uproar, it may have come without Turner even getting a chance to make her case.
It’s also raising questions about the CPC’s strategy, leadership, and commitment to progressive fighters. Brown’s incumbency appears to have been the determining factor in the endorsement. Turner’s allies, however, now argue that this approach threatens to damage CPC’s progressive image, influence, and credibility.
Turner isn’t just a progressive with a national profile — a former state senator, she co-chaired the 2020 presidential campaign of Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT). She also received hearty CPC PAC backing less than a year ago, when she lost to Brown in a special election for an open seat.
But if the Turner campaign thought her bona fides and the CPC’s own past support merited at least letting her make a case for the endorsement, a source says Turner was mistaken. In fact, Turner attempted multiple times to contact CPC leadership, including CPC Chair Rep. Pramila Jayapal (D-WA) starting even before Turner entered the race in January, said the source, who is close to the campaign but not authorized to speak on its behalf.
In a statement, Turner Campaign Manager Kara Turrentine touted Turner’s progressive support but did not respond to specific questions about the CPC PAC endorsement or internal details about Turner’s pursuit of it.
CPC PAC Executive Director Evan Brown told The Lever’s Julia Rock in a story published this morning that, “Endorsements are put to the PAC for consideration when the incumbent CPC member requests it, and the CPC PAC regularly endorses members who ask.”
The source said they had heard that Brown’s CPC membership was decided by secret vote back in January, just days after Turner entered the race. The names of congressional members seeking caucus membership are simply put on a slate and given an up-or-down vote, the source said.
Rep. Shontel Brown’s name was not added to the CPC PAC’s membership page until sometime between March 25 and March 29, according to the internet archive. But CPC PAC’s Evan Brown confirmed that Rep. Brown joined in January. “She joined the Caucus in January after completing the Caucus application process,” he said, “including a vote of the Caucus membership on her candidacy.”
That membership vote appears to have sealed the deal for her subsequent endorsement, as well. But the endorsement, too, was decided by a vote of CPC PAC members, said Brown, the executive director. He also suggested that Jayapal and the other co-chairs weren’t driving the decision-making.
“There was a vote by the CPC PAC members to approve the latest incumbent endorsement round,” he said. “The CPC PAC is co-chaired by three members — Reps. Jayapal, [Mark] Pocan [D-WI], and [Jamie] Raskin [D-MD]. There is no special role that the three Co-Chairs play in the incumbent endorsement process — a process that was formalized and approved by all members. When incumbents request to be endorsed, all members of the CPC PAC vote on the endorsement.”
But the source says there should have been more to the process than just caucus membership and a secret vote. And Turner wanted to make a case that the PAC should do more than just endorse its members by rote.
“Nina Turner contacted Japayal directly, before the endorsement, before she even decided to run. She contacted everybody who had supported her before,” the source said. “There was no response.”
The people who supported Turner last year included Jayapal individually, as well as the two co-chairs, Pocan and Raskin. In a joint statement yesterday, the three said that Brown and other endorsees are “working every day to take on corporate special interests, fight for economic and social justice, universal health care, climate action, and bold solutions to the urgent crises facing our country.”
They didn’t say, however, whether the incumbents they endorsed are more progressive than their rivals. While individual caucus members may have weighed each candidate on the merits, CPC PAC’s statement suggests the organization itself doesn’t look at primary challengers or conduct any assessments of how progressive all the candidates are in each race.
And other names on its endorsement slate suggest it’s opening its doors to less-progressive representatives who might be more interested in progressive labels than progressive policies. Reps. Donald Norcross (D-NJ) and Jimmy Panetta (D-CA), for instance, were featured in a report last year on PINOs, Progressives In Name Only. Rep. Juan Vargas (D-CA) has been an active Democratic presence within the Fellowship Foundation, the secretive Christian group that uses the National Prayer Breakfast to build networks of right-wing, anti-LGBTQ leaders around the world.
And some of the “corporate special interests” that CPC PAC says it wants to take on seem to be on the same side as CPC PAC in the Ohio race. As The Lever has reported, Brown belongs to the business-friendly New Democrat Coalition and pharmaceutical lobbyists last year rallied behind Brown just as Turner was pushing Medicare for All.
If CPC PAC prioritized progressive issues over incumbency, there’s reason to think Japayal, Pocan, and Raskin might have gone with Turner this time, too. All three were vocal in their praise of Turner when she faced Brown less than a year ago.
Last April, Jayapal said Turner’s commitment on a range of progressive issues “represent[s] the kind of leadership we need in Congress to create the tipping point at which real change becomes possible. I’ve seen Nina’s work up close and I am proud to endorse her.”
In July 2021, Raskin explained why he was endorsing Turner. “I see two kinds of politicians in Washington — justice politicians and power politicians,” Raskin said. “Nina Turner is the consummate justice politician.”
That same month, Pocan even took a sideways swipe at Brown, referring to her support from Democratic Majority for Israel. Pocan Tweeted, “If you can help @ninaturner in these final weeks, you will beat back at ugly dark money and more conservative groups like @DemMaj4Israel who, last I looked, [just put] $1.2 million in this race against Nina. Don’t let the special interests win.”
Two months ago, Brown was endorsed by a Democratic group created specifically to protect incumbents from primary challenges–including those from the left. Rep. Hakeem Jeffries (D-NY), chair of the House Democratic Caucus, said the new Team Blue PAC would “support effective legislators for delivering for the American people in partnership with the Biden administration,” Rolling Stone reported.
Team Blue PAC co-founder Rep. Josh Gottheimer (D-NJ) is a long-time foe of Democratic progressives, consistently undermining their agenda in Congress and in the media. He said of their new PAC, “We want to support common-sense members.”
Nevertheless, the Turner campaign may be holding out hope that some CPC leaders will break ranks and endorse her individually. “The campaign doesn’t want to create a sense that this is irreparable,” the source said.
And such endorsements aren’t inconceivable. Just last month, CPC members split between two candidates in an Illinois House race. That scenario could occur in Ohio, too, the source said. “There are members of the CPC that do support [Turner] and are considering endorsing her, anyway.”
“This isn’t just any race,” the source said. “This is Nina Turner. The Nina Turner who was the co-chair for Senator Bernie Sanders. And remember this [endorsement] falls the day after he endorses Nina Turner. The timing of it is off. The progressive movement is encapsulated in the spark that Bernie Sanders started in 2016.”
The source said, “It’s not like Nina Turner did something wrong, except now incumbency is more important than courage.”
Other progressive groups have stayed staunchly in Turner’s camp.
Cenk Uygur, who has given Turner a platform on TYT, where he’s both a host and CEO, is also the founder of Rebellion PAC, which endorsed Turner. Uygur said, “Would anyone like to debate whether Nina Turner or Shontel Brown is more progressive? Of course not, because Nina would win that 100-0.”
Rebellion PAC Executive Director Brianna Wu said, “Our research shows that $15 minimum wage is by far the most salient issue in the district. So, if you look at Brown’s public statements on the issue and then Turner’s public statements, the endorsement truly leaves me scratching my head.”
Nevertheless, with Brown now an incumbent, Turner was frozen out by her former supporters at the CPC. According to the source, the CPC didn’t even tell her in advance what was happening. “It did not become clear that [Turner] wouldn’t get it until they endorsed [Brown],” the source said.
In her statement to TYT, Turrentine, the Turner campaign manager, sounded an optimistic note about their chances. “This campaign is focused on strengthening the foundations of what progressives started in 2016,” she said, “lifting candidates who refuse corporate money, fighting for Medicare For All, strengthening unions and championing a Green New Deal.”
In addition to the CPC PAC’s impact on the Ohio race, however, there are also questions about the endorsement’s impact on the CPC itself.
David Sirota, founder of The Lever and a past advisor of Sanders, called the endorsement, “A total betrayal on every level.” Sirota Tweeted that, “This is very likely [Jayapal] selling out the entire movement because of her unbridled ambitions to get a fancy-but-meaningless leadership title among a House Dem Caucus that will be obliterated in the midterm elections.”
“If Joe Manchin joined the Progressive Caucus, would they endorse him?” Uygur asked. “The answer is very likely yes, because they don’t care about progressive values. They just care about protecting the powerful.”
And the CPC PAC endorsement isn’t necessarily limited to a rhetorical blurb. Last year, the PAC spent $50,000 in the Turner-Brown race, paying for a Turner digital ad.
But the source said they don’t expect Turner’s campaign to take too much of a hit from the CPC PAC endorsement. The race has been scrambled by a messy redistricting process and with less than a month until the May primary, voters may be unengaged or lack the time to dig into the candidates too deeply.
Instead, the source said, the CPC itself might take a hit. National progressives are paying attention to the CPC, the source said, and “win or lose [in Ohio], their credibility is shot.”