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Democrats upset over Omar seeking primary challenger

The Hill logo The Hill 3 days ago Reid Wilson

Ilhan Omar, Joseph Morelle are posing for a picture: Democrats upset over Omar seeking primary challenger © Greg Nash Democrats upset over Omar seeking primary challenger Some Minnesota Democrats, aghast at controversial comments made by Rep. Ilhan Omar (D), are taking initial steps to recruit a candidate to run against her in next year's primary election, seeking to buck history in one of the nation's most progressive legislative districts.

Several party leaders said they have had discussions about finding a candidate to take on Omar, just two months into her first term in Congress.

But even those who were deeply offended by Omar's comments about Israel concede they have not yet found anyone to challenge her.

"There's definitely some buzz going around about it, but it's more a buzz of is anyone talking about finding someone to run against her than it is anyone saying they're going to run against her or contemplate it. There's definitely talk about people wanting someone to run against her," said state Sen. Ron Latz (D), who represents a portion of Omar's district.

In her first weeks on the job, Omar sparked outrage for comments that critics said relied on anti-Semitic tropes - first for suggesting that politicians who support Israel do so for financial reasons and then for suggesting that lobbyist are pushing for "allegiance to a foreign country."

Those comments prompted two votes in the House condemning anti-Semitism, as well as other forms of hate speech. In Minnesota, Omar's constituents took note.

"Our community is exasperated by Rep. Omar's unfulfilled promises to listen and learn from Jewish constituents while seemingly simultaneously finding another opportunity to make an anti-Semitic remark and insult our community," Steve Hunegs, executive director of the Jewish Community Relations Council of Minnesota and the Dakotas, said in a statement.

Omar met with Hunegs last month, after her initial remarks received widespread condemnation. She has continued to meet with Jewish leaders both in Minneapolis and Washington, a spokesman said.

"Unfortunately, having the opportunity to speak with her about that point didn't dissuade her making that statement," Hunegs told The Hill in an interview Wednesday. "We were appalled."

Some Democrats are eyeing Bobby Joe Champion, a state senator who has served in the legislature for a decade. Others hope to entice Minneapolis City Councilwoman Andrea Jenkins, the first openly transgender African-American woman elected to public office in the United States.

"I'd be pretty uncomfortable supporting Rep. Omar right now, given what I've learned about her since the election and given her apparent inability to stop insulting Jews," said Latz, who represents the city of St. Louis Park, home to a large Jewish population, and who supported Omar's chief rival in the 2018 Democratic primary.

But finding a challenger to take on Omar is a difficult prospect.

No House Democrat from Minnesota has ever lost a bid for renomination, according to University of Minnesota political scientist Eric Ostermeier, author of the Smart Politics blog.

Only two House members from Minnesota have ever lost primaries, most recently more than a century ago.

"While she has created a significant amount of controversy for herself and said things that have offended many Americans, I'm not sure that one could make the case that she is in trouble yet," said Mike Erlandson, a former Democratic-Farmer-Labor Party (DFL) chairman and chief of staff to ex-Rep. Martin Sabo (D) who ran for the seat against Omar's predecessor, Keith Ellison (D), in 2006.

Jenkins told The Hill on Wednesday she is not interested in running for Congress, and she backs Omar for reelection.

"Support is really strong for Congresswoman Omar, but certainly there is some acrimony. I think people feel like she's being unfairly targeted," Jenkins said. "I love my job. I'm really close to the people I represent."

Champion did not respond to several requests for comment.

A part of the challenge in fielding a competitor, Minnesota Democrats said, is that Omar is likely to win the endorsement of the state DFL, which comes with access to voter lists and data that unendorsed candidates do not receive.

"The DFL endorsement is a huge advantage," said Corey Day, a former executive director of the Minnesota DFL. "The real fight is usually for the DFL endorsement or to block it."

Omar, 37, won the Democratic-Farmer-Labor Party's endorsement in 2018 over two other candidates. She won the DFL primary with 48 percent of the vote, well ahead of former state House Speaker Margaret Anderson Kelliher - who did not seek the endorsement - and state Sen. Patricia Torres Ray.

Omar's win underscored a deep geographic and racial divide in one of the most liberal congressional districts in the country. The district includes the entire city of Minneapolis and its whiter, wealthier western suburbs; about 67 percent of its residents are white, compared with about 84 percent of the state as a whole.

Omar, a Somali-American and one of the first two Muslim women to serve in Congress, won big in Minneapolis itself. Kelliher, who is white, won the suburbs west of Minneapolis by wide margins.

Omar's base inside the city is another challenge any rival would have to overcome.

"The core of Minneapolis outvotes the suburbs, even though the population may be relatively similar," Erlandson said.

Several potential candidates have already taken themselves out of the running. Latz said he considered a bid "for all of a half a second" before opting against it.

Kelliher, appointed in December to take over the state Department of Transportation, is "entirely focused" on her new job, a department spokesman said.

Meanwhile, Jenkins noted that "I do not want to spend all my time fundraising."

A representative for Omar's campaign said they do not fear a primary challenge.

"Ilhan entered a 10 week six-way primary and she believes you get what you organize for. She organized her district to win and she's really excited to do that again over the next two years," a campaign spokesman told The Hill.

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