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Omar rallies to fight back against primary challenge

The Hill logo The Hill 7/17/2020 Jonathan Easley
a person holding a child: Omar rallies to fight back against primary challenge © Greg Nash Omar rallies to fight back against primary challenge

Rep. Ilhan Omar (D-Minn.) and a network of liberal groups are rallying to beat back a Democratic primary challenge from Antone Melton-Meaux, whose blockbuster second quarter fundraising numbers have Minnesota Democrats wondering if a major upset is possible.

Omar is viewed as the heavy favorite to win reelection in Minnesota's 5th District, which encompasses most of Minneapolis and has been at the heart of protests and demands for police reform since George Floyd was killed by police there in late May.

In Omar's short time in Congress, the first-term lawmaker has risen to national stardom as part of the influential group of progressive women of color known as "the squad." She has the backing of top national and local liberal activist groups, as well as endorsements from Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) and Minnesota House Speaker Melissa Hortman (D). Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) endorsed her reelection campaign on Thursday night.

But Omar's propensity for controversy has also made her a target, which has in part fueled donations to Melton-Meaux, a lawyer and mediator who has emerged as her top challenger in the primary.

The political newcomer raised an astonishing $3.2 million in the second quarter, compared to $471,600 for Omar. Melton-Meaux has $2 million in cash on hand for the final sprint to the primary on Aug. 11. Omar has $1.1 million in the bank.

Omar's campaign released the results of an internal poll on Thursday that showed her leading Melton-Meaux by 37 points. Former Minnesota Democratic-Farmer-Labor (DFL) Party Chairman Mike Erlandson told The Hill he's seen two private polls that show Melton-Meaux is "within striking distance."

"I've been watching this stuff over three decades and we just don't usually see congressional incumbents get significant challenges like this here," said Todd Rapp, a veteran Democratic campaign operative in Minneapolis.

"Congresswoman Omar will have unions and liberal groups putting their ground game into this. The DFL party supporting her here is always very good at turning out a strong primary vote, which is why incumbents don't get beat much on our side. But $3 million, that's enough to wake anybody up."

In an interview with The Hill, Melton-Meaux unloaded on Omar, pointing to controversies that have swirled around her to explain why he decided to run for office.

Melton-Meaux said that Omar had "lost the trust of the Jewish community by her insensitive and harmful tropes." The Democratic-controlled House voted on a broad resolution condemning hate and bigotry last year after Omar came under fire for remarks about the influence of Israel.

Melton-Meaux criticized Omar for breaking with Democrats when she declined to support bills recognizing the Armenian genocide or implementing sanctions on Turkey. Omar was also one of 38 Democrats who voted against the United States-Mexico-Canada Agreement, which had union support.

And Melton-Meaux criticized Omar for missing about 40 votes, saying she had prioritized her national status ahead of the concerns of her constituents.

"I don't want to be a celebrity, I just want to support the people," he said.

The Omar campaign blasted back, calling Melton-Meaux's criticisms "nonsense designed to divide the Jewish community."

Omar has held regular roundtable discussions with members of the Minneapolis Jewish community and voted in favor of House resolutions condemning anti-Semitism after the Poway synagogue shooting in 2019.

Omar missed some votes in 2019 due to the death of a family member and during the Muslim holiday of Eid. But her campaign says that she leads the entire Minnesota delegation in amendments passed and in total number of bills and amendments introduced.

In a statement, Omar campaign spokesman Jeremy Slevin took a shot at the big money rolling into Melton-Meaux's campaign.

"The 5th District believes in the power of organizing," Slevin said. "Time and time again, we've elected grassroots leaders like Keith Ellison and Ilhan Omar because we believe organized people are stronger than organized money. Our campaign is fueled by tens of thousands of grassroots donors giving an average of less than $15 last quarter - and we're proud of that."

Ellison formerly represented the district and is now Minnesota's attorney general.

The congressional race has attracted national attention, and both campaigns have raised more money outside of Minnesota than they have within the state.

There have been reports of Republicans contributing to Melton-Meaux's campaign. President Trump has attacked Omar and cast her as an extremist, which has whipped up right-wing anger at her and the other members of the squad.

"While right-wing interests funneling millions into her opponent's campaign are willing to do anything and say anything to stop her, we're confident that voters in Minnesota's 5th district will stand with Rep. Ilhan Omar in this primary just as she's always stood with them," said Neil Sroka, a strategist with the progressive group Democracy for America, which is working to get Omar reelected.

Melton-Meaux says that the national donations have been driven by fundraisers from groups like Pro-Israel America and NorPAC that support members of both parties.

He has been endorsed by a handful of key Democrats in Minnesota, including civil rights activist Josie Johnson, Golden Valley Mayor Shep Harris, former U.S. Attorney Andy Luger and former Minneapolis NAACP President Nekima Levy Armstrong, among others.

Still, all of the institutional support and biggest names in Minnesota and in national politics are behind Omar.

The state party is backing Omar and has a reputation for vigorously defending incumbent lawmakers.

The Minnesota DFL Party plans to run direct mail and digital ads on Omar's behalf. The state party will also use its organizing program to reach voters over the phone and text to ensure they turn out for her and their other endorsed candidates on Election Day.

"Rep. Omar is the only progressive in this race and she's running for reelection in one of the most progressive Congressional Districts in the country," said DFL Party Chairman Ken Martin.

"She's spent her entire political career fighting for the structural change our country and our District need to dismantle systems of oppression in the economy, education, healthcare, and the environment - and she's done it while fighting right beside the people of the 5th District. They know her. They trust her. That's why the overwhelming majority of them approve of her job performance, and that's why she leads by almost 40 points despite the millions of dollars being spent to unseat her."

State-affiliated unions and activist groups have also begun ramping up efforts to mobilize voters on Omar's behalf. The political arm of the Minnesota environmental group MN350 blasted text messages out to its sizable contact list on Wednesday night urging its supporters to volunteer and donate to her campaign before the primary.

Several Democrats pointed to Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez's (D-N.Y.) resounding victory against a well-funded primary challenger earlier this month as evidence the party's brightest young stars will have no problem dispatching up-and-coming rivals.

In addition to Omar and Melton-Meaux, there will be three other Democrats on the primary ballot, making it more difficult for any of the challengers to break through.

It's unclear what impact the protests around Floyd might have on the race.

Elected officials in Minneapolis have been aggressive in implementing new police reforms. But the city has also been ravaged by destructive protests that have alarmed some Democrats.

Omar was an early supporter of the Black Lives Matter movement and has been a vocal proponent for police reforms, which her campaign believes puts her in line with the city's liberal constituency. Melton-Meaux, an African American descendant of slaves, says he supports Black Lives Matter, but he was critical of some aspects of the movement in 2015.

Erlandson, the former state party chairman, said the question on primary day will be whether voters in the district have grown tired of the controversies around Omar - she recently attracted scrutiny for marrying a political consultant whose firm has received hundreds of thousands of dollars from her campaign - or if they have come to view the Somali refugee as a symbol of their principles in the age of Trump.

"The controversies do resonate out here," Erlandson said. "But there is also a lot of pride in having sent an African American woman, one of the few Muslim women and an immigrant, to Congress. That's very powerful and the question voters will face is whether that outweighs some of the ethical questions that have surrounded her."

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