Rep. Ilhan Omar is about to learn whether voters in her Minneapolis-area congressional district support the mix of confrontational, anti-Trump progressivism and celebrity that she brings to the job.
Omar, the first Somali American and one of the first two Muslim women elected to Congress, is facing a well-funded challenger in Minnesota’s Democratic primaries on Tuesday. Antone Melton-Meaux, a lawyer and mediator, raised millions of anti-Omar dollars to fill mailboxes and flood the airwaves. His “Focused on the Fifth” message has portrayed Omar, a member of “The Squad” of four progressive female lawmakers, as out of touch with the 5th District.
Omar rejected Melton-Meaux’s attacks, saying they were funded by interests that wanted to get her out of Congress because she’s effective. She also downplayed Melton-Meaux’s money and played up her ground game before the vote, saying, “Organized people will always beat organized money.”
Omar was leading in early returns. Absentee voting was heavy, and officials must count mail-in ballots that arrive as late as Thursday under safety rules imposed due to the coronavirus pandemic.
Democratic U.S. Sen. Tina Smith and Republican challenger Jason Lewis easily won their primaries in the only statewide races on the ballot. Elsewhere, in western Minnesota’s conservative 7th District, former state Sen. Michelle Fischbach was the endorsed Republican in a three-way race for the right to challenge Democratic Rep. Collin Peterson. Peterson, chairman of the House Agriculture Committee, is one of the GOP’s top targets to flip a House seat in November.
After entering Congress with fanfare, Omar hurt herself early with comments about Israel and money that even some fellow Democrats called anti-Semitic, and found herself apologizing. She also came under scrutiny when her marriage fell apart and she married her political consultant months after denying they were having an affair.
Republicans also raised questions about continuing payments to her new husband’s firm, though experts said they aren’t necessarily improper.
In the wake of George Floyd’s death in Minneapolis, police reform also emerged as an issue. Omar supported a push by a majority of the Minneapolis City Council to replace the city’s police department with something new. Melton-Meaux did not support that but did support shifting some funding away from police to more social service-oriented programs. Both touched on the issue in personal ways, with Omar saying she wanted her son to grow up safely. Melton-Meaux, who is also Black, told a personal story of being detained while at the University of Virginia by police seeking an assault suspect reported to have run into his apartment building.
Progressive Democrats gained confidence in Omar’s reelection chances after primary victories last week by fellow “Squad” member Rashida Tlaib in Michigan and by Cori Bush, a Black Lives Matter activist, in a St. Louis-area congressional primary. Progressives also claimed momentum from the renewed focus on racial and economic justice after Floyd’s death.
Catherine Thornton, 36, a General Mills researcher who lives in southwest Minneapolis, said Tuesday that she voted for Melton-Meaux.
“I have a lot of respect for Ms. Omar, but I personally don’t align with just her focus on the progressive agenda. And I felt like Mr. Melton-Meaux would have more focus on our district and the people of our district’s needs.”
Wendy Helgeson, 57, a consultant, backed Omar two years ago, even installing a lawn sign in her yard, and said she was “awfully proud of her being the first Black Muslim woman that we elected.” But she said she was concerned about campaign payments to Omar’s husband’s firm as well as her national presence, and found it easy to vote for Melton-Meaux, whom she said has been her friend for 12 years.
“I admire her as a woman,” Helgeson said of Omar. “As a candidate, ehhh … I have some reservations.”
John Hildebrand, a 47-year-old teacher in Minneapolis who voted for Omar, said her national profile is an advantage.
“I think just her presence encourages other Muslims and Somalis to run for office and to seek to be represented,” he said. “I think she just engages people in the political system more and more.”
Blake Smith, 23, a parks worker who is Black and described himself as a leftist, also backed Omar. He’s concerned about climate change, Medicare for all and getting money out of politics, and he sees her as an ally.
“It’s more time for radical change than like small — I don’t think we have time for incremental change anymore,” Smith said.
Doug Glass contributed. Ibrahim is a corps member for the Associated Press/Report for America Statehouse News Initiative. Report for America is a nonprofit national service program that places journalists in local newsrooms to report on undercovered issues.