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Is Ilhan Omar one and done? Why she could lose the August primary

Greg Nash

Minnesota’s rookie congresswoman, Rep. Ilhan Omar, may be one of the most famous first-term members of the House of Representatives, but there is a real possibility that she could be defeated in the state’s Aug. 11 Democratic primary.  If she were to lose, it would not be entirely surprising. Omar’s rapid rise to prominence as a far-left member of Congress was marked by luck and opportunity.      

In 2018, Omar became the first Somali-American Muslim woman elected to Congress. She and Reps. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.), Rashida Tlaib (D-Mich.) and Ayanna Pressley (D-Mass.), also elected in 2018, were dubbed “The Squad” by President Trump, representing a new generation of progressive Democrats. The women have been harshly critical of the president but also — especially Omar — of U.S.-Israel policy and Israel’s treatment of Palestinians.    

Omar’s rise was a product of two factors. First, Minneapolis, the center of Minnesota’s 5th Congressional District, constitutes 60 percent of the district’s population and is overwhelmingly Democratic; the Cook Political Index ranks it +26. The last time a Republican held Omar’s seat was 1963. Winning a Democratic Party primary in Minneapolis or the 5th District is tantamount to winning the general election. Second, the demographics of the district, and especially Minneapolis, are rapidly changing. Minneapolis is home to one of the largest Somali populations in the U.S. and in the past few years, they have come of political age, electing numerous members to local offices.       

Omar’s political career began in 2016 when she defeated 22-term Minnesota state House Rep. Phyllis Kahn in a three-way Democratic Party primary, winning 41 percent of the vote. Her district, located near the University of Minnesota, traditionally was predominantly white and homogeneous, and Kahn had represented its demographic well. But by 2016, the district had changed significantly, especially the area called Cedar-Riverside, and a heavy concentration of Somalians mobilized in large numbers for Omar.      

Then in June 2018, Rep. Keith Ellison, then the incumbent congressman for the 5th District, announced that he would not run for reelection and instead would seek the Democratic endorsement for Minnesota attorney general. This produced a vacancy in the 5th District with the primary for the party nomination barely two months away. Omar declared her candidacy for Congress and won the party endorsement in a snap convention. A few weeks later, in the August primary, she won with 48 percent of the Democratic vote in a six-way race. She then went on to victory in the general election.      

But her tenure in Congress has been rocky. To many in the left wing of the Democratic Party —  especially progressives who backed Sen. Bernie Sanders’ (I-Vt.) failed presidential campaign — Omar has been a hero. She has sharply attacked President Trump, and he has returned the favor, making her the face of Minnesota politics as he sought to build his political base and possibly flip Minnesota in the 2020 presidential race. But Omar’s outspoken views on Israel earned her criticism of being an anti-Semite and alienated her from many American Jews and other supporters of Israel, including in her congressional district. These voters carry significant political clout. 

Omar’s tenure in Congress also has been marred by a many missed votes, criticism that she is weak on constituent service, and personal matters that range from alleged marital infidelity with a campaign staffer, her divorce, a dubious claim that she wed her brother for immigration purposes, and campaign finance violations resulting in an order to repay money she had misspent. There are continuing concerns that much of Omar’s campaign fundraising is going to a campaign consulting firm headed by her new husband

Despite criticisms and these allegations, Omar has continued to raise money. Her 2020 primary race reportedly has attracted $10 million. Going into this year, Omar looked like a solid bet for reelection. There were rumors of the Democratic Party seeking challengers to run against her, but none appeared willing to come forward — especially given that Omar had raised nearly $2 million by the end of 2019 for her reelection. 

But then Democrats found Antone Melton-Meaux, a political newcomer who could be described as a more conventional candidate pleasing to the Joe Biden centrist wing of the party. In the second quarter of 2020, he outraised Omar, $3.2 million to $472 thousand, and he has $2 million cash on hand compared to Omar’s $1.1 million. Melton-Meaux also has picked  up many critical endorsements.

As the Aug. 11 primary approaches, Omar faces a political battle like none she has experienced before. Unlike in 2016 when she ran for the Minnesota House, or  in 2018 for the U.S. House, she faces a single challenger, not the divided races that before enabled her to benefit. Her personal matters and stances on issues have alienated many voters, both within the city that constitutes 60 percent of her district and in the more affluent suburbs where she did not do well in the 2018 primary. Although her attacks on President Trump — and his attacks on her — may help her win over some voters, the death of George Floyd in Minneapolis and the damage from resulting riots are variables that are hard to calculate, as is how the coronavirus might impact voting. And this time, Omar no longer is the rising challenger but is an incumbent who must run on her record.        

Political scientists Morris Fiorina and Gary Jacobson point to House reelection rates of  generally 95 to 98 percent. Incumbents rarely lose, but when they do, the best chance of unseating them is when they first run for reelection, well before the full power of incumbency kicks in.  Incumbency advantage, in part, comes from money and name recognition. But in Omar’s case, she does not have the cash advantage and her name recognition cuts both ways, helping and hurting her. She could well be one of the few Democratic incumbents who lose in a year that looks good for other members of the party.

David Schultz is a professor of political science at Hamline University in St. Paul, Minn. Follow him on Twitter @ProfDSchultz.

Tags Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez American Muslims Ayanna Pressley Bernie Sanders Donald Trump Ilhan Omar Joe Biden Keith Ellison Politics of Minnesota progressives Rashida Tlaib the squad

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