Omar seeks to fend off late surge from primary challenger

Rep. Ilhan Omar (D-Minn.) is locked in a bitter primary battle against Antone Melton-Meaux as voters head to the polls in Minnesota’s 5th Congressional District on Tuesday to decide whether the progressive lawmaker will serve a second term in office.

The biggest names in progressive and Democratic politics, from Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) to Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), are backing Omar. The state Democratic Party is pulling out all the stops to support her, and Omar’s progressive allies are marshaling their resources to ensure she’s reelected.

Omar, who rose to national fame as part of the influential group of progressive women of color known as “the squad,” has emerged as a polarizing figure during her short time in Congress. That’s helped Melton-Meaux lock down some endorsements and fueled his astonishing fundraising numbers.

Melton-Meaux brought in more than $3.2 million last quarter, compared to $470,000 for Omar. Minnesota Democrats say he’s been blanketing the airwaves with ads and that their mailboxes have been stuffed with literature promoting his candidacy.

Those developments have forced Omar to go on offense against Melton-Meaux and defend herself against his attacks, pulling her into a primary fight that she would have preferred to avoid.

Minnesota Democrats interviewed by The Hill said it’s extremely difficult to unseat an incumbent in a primary — particularly one with an incumbent like Omar who has universal name recognition and a national profile.

But they note Melton-Meaux is in the running and could potentially pull off a primary day upset. He’ll just need everything to break his way.

“No question it’s a race, and it’s been a hard fought one,” said former Minnesota Democratic–Farmer–Labor (DFL) Party Chairman Mike Erlandson, who is backing Melton-Meaux.

The race has gotten nasty and personal in the final stretch. Omar ran an attack ad against Melton-Meaux, a lawyer and mediator, alleging the legal firm he once worked for was “one of the worst union-busting law firms in the country.” The ad accuses Melton-Meaux of defending corporations “accused of mistreating workers and firing pregnant employees.”

Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.) has been sending out mailers alleging that Melton-Meaux is “being propped up by Republican super PACs and GOP mega-donors who are threatened by our Squad’s collective power.”

Omar’s allies have pointed to reports that some of Melton-Meaux’s money has come from out-of-state Republicans eager to see her chased from office.

A majority of the money raised by both candidates has come from outside Minnesota, underscoring the national focus on the race.

Melton-Meaux says the national donations he’s received came from fundraisers conducted by groups like Pro-Israel America and NorPAC that support candidates in both parties.

The state DFL Party, which has a reputation for vigorously defending incumbents, has also sought to draw attention to Melton-Meaux’s fundraising, filing a complaint with the Federal Election Commission alleging that he tried to hide the names of the political vendors working with his campaign. The nonpartisan Campaign Legal Center also filed a complaint.

Melton-Meaux said that was the only way the vendors would work with him after the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee threatened to punish companies that work with candidates challenging incumbents.

To return fire, Melton-Meaux went after Omar for sending more than $1 million through the political firm run by her husband, a political consultant.

Melton-Meaux has also criticized Omar’s anti-Israel remarks, which at one point led the Democratic-controlled House to approve a broad resolution condemning bigotry. 

He’s repeatedly attacked Omar for missing votes and accused her of caring more about her national political ambitions than about voters in the 5th District.

“We don’t need celebrities seeking the limelight,” Melton-Meaux said at a rally last week. “We need people that are willing to serve you.”

The Omar campaign says she missed votes early on due to a death in the family and because the House holds votes during the Muslim holiday of Eid. They say she leads the Minnesota delegation in amendments passed and in bills and amendments introduced.

The battle between two people of color in the city where George Floyd was killed has at times confounded Minnesota Democrats. 

Melton-Meaux, a descendant of slaves, has sought to cast himself as a traditional African American man who found success through a system that promotes upward mobility. Omar, a Somali refugee, is more closely associated with the intersectional racial politics of the progressive left.

“There has been a weird racial element,” said one Democratic strategist. “There’s an odd divide within the liberal community here right now.” 

Omar has unquestionably won the endorsements game.

Sanders, Pelosi, the squad members, Sen. Tina Smith (D-Minn.), Minnesota Gov. Tim Walz (D), Minnesota House Speaker Melissa Hortman (D), the state DFL Party, and most of the liberal activist or union groups in the state are backing Omar.

Minnesota Attorney General Keith Ellison (D), who held the House seat before Omar, is also supporting her reelection bid.

Melton-Meaux won the endorsement of the Minneapolis Star Tribune’s editorial board. He also has support from former Minneapolis NAACP head and Black Lives Matter co-founder Nekima Levy Armstrong, Richfield City Council member Edwina Garcia, former U.S. Attorney Andy Luger, Golden Valley Mayor Shep Harris and longtime civil rights activist Josie Johnson.

There are a couple of wild cards awaiting on primary day.

Minnesota has experienced a surge in mail ballot requests.The campaigns are racing to ensure that their voters return the mail ballots amid the coronavirus pandemic, which has wreaked havoc on in-person voting.

And there is a hotly contested city council race in Ward 6, which has a large East African population. Heavy turnout from those precincts could benefit Omar, who began her political career in the state legislature in northeast Minneapolis. 

Early voting has been going on for a while, so a big question is whether Omar was able to run up the score before Melton-Meaux made the race competitive.

“We’re confident,” said Jeremy Slevin, as spokesperson for Omar.

“We campaign hard because elections are about more than just winning — they’re an opportunity to organize your community behind progressive change and get people more involved in our Democratic process. In the 5th District we believe in having marginalized voices be prioritized. We believe everyone should have health care, a roof over their head, and a livable planet. And we believe that this congressional seat is one that belongs to the people and will remain with the people.”

Tags Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez Bernie Sanders Democratic primary House race Ilhan Omar Keith Ellison Minneapolis Minnesota Nancy Pelosi the squad Tim Walz Tina Smith

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