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A primary in Ohio shows the strength of mainstream, moderate Democrats

CHEERS ERUPTED across the restaurant patio, the night air thick with cigar smoke. Young men in yarmulkes and African-American retirees clinked plastic cups of whisky. They were toasting the victory on August 3rd of Shontel Brown (pictured), Cuyahoga County’s Democratic Party chair, in the primary for the special congressional election in Ohio’s 11th district. The seat is reliably Democratic, so Ms Brown is set to become its congresswoman after the general election in November.

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Stretching from Cleveland to Akron, Ohio’s 11th district was an unlikely site for a vicious political fight. Ms Brown, an underdog in the polls who became the party establishment’s favourite, defeated 12 other candidates, notably Nina Turner, a left-wing former state senator and an outspoken critic of moderate Democrats. For Ms Brown, her triumph was a clear rebuke of Ms Turner’s confrontational stance: “When you demand all or nothing, usually you end up with nothing.”

The race to fill the seat, vacated by Marcia Fudge after her appointment as secretary of housing and urban development, was billed as a referendum on the ideological balance in the party. Like other recent progressive challengers, from Louisiana to New York City and Virginia, Ms Turner fell short. In this deep-blue district, policy differences were minor. A contest led by two African-American women took the issue of diversity off the table. Instead, the race turned on which candidate would work best with President Joe Biden and navigate local concerns. Ms Brown branded Ms Turner as insufficiently loyal to the president and the Democratic Party. Her victory suggests the mainstream of the Democratic Party remains firmly in control.

Left-wing candidates have struggled since the election of Mr Biden. The president’s ambitious proposals, including vast spending on infrastructure and social programmes, have complicated the narrative for challengers to the party establishment such as Ms Turner. A prominent supporter of Senator Bernie Sanders (who returned the compliment by stumping for her in Akron on July 30th), Ms Turner courted controversy for her barbs aimed at the Democratic Party’s standard-bearers, including Mr Biden.

That left her vulnerable to attack. Ms Brown charged that Ms Turner would be ineffective in office. Support from Hillary Clinton and the Congressional Black Caucus reinforced the perception that Ms Brown would, in her own words, “walk in the door with good relationships”.

Antipathy for the left also drove well-funded advocacy groups including the centrist Third Way and Democratic Majority for Israel to jump into the fray. They spent heavily in support of Ms Brown and against Ms Turner. Though Ms Turner accumulated a $3.9m war chest, outside groups alone spent more than $2m on advertisements against her. This served to amplify Ms Brown’s message and sustain her momentum in the final weeks in the race, just as Ms Turner’s financing dried up and she struggled to stay on the air.

Yet for all the national attention and money, local factors also mattered—in particular the importance to Cleveland’s large Jewish community of America’s relationship with Israel. Although Ms Turner had been careful to moderate her position, her ties to Rashida Tlaib and Ilhan Omar, two high-profile left-wingers in Congress, suggested an affinity with critics of the Jewish state. Turnout in historically Jewish neighbourhoods including Shaker Heights and Beachwood was significantly higher than elsewhere. Ms Brown thanked Jewish voters in her victory speech. Minutes later, she was interrupted by a phone call from the president.

Nine months after his triumph in the presidential election, Mr Biden’s honeymoon with the Democratic Party appears to be far from over. Ms Brown is poised to join a slim Democratic majority in Congress, where she will probably prove to be a loyal foot-soldier in supporting Mr Biden’s agenda. Democrats may yet lose control of Congress in the 2022 mid-term elections, opening the door to recriminations and new challenges from the left. But for now, Ms Brown’s success suggests Mr Biden’s centre-left politics remains dominant among the party faithful.

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This article appeared in the United States section of the print edition under the headline “The party of Biden”