Rep. Ilhan Omar Narrowly Survives Democratic Primary Challenge

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Rep. Ilhan Omar of Minnesota, whose outspoken, progressive governing style inspires both deep loyalty and impassioned opposition, narrowly won her Democratic primary race on Tuesday.

Omar defeated former Minneapolis City Councilman Don Samuels for the Democratic nomination in Minnesota’s 5th Congressional District.

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Samuels exceeded expectations by holding Omar to a razor-thin margin of victory. Omar defeated her challenger in 2020 by a much wider margin of nearly 20 percentage points.

Although Omar spent more than $2 million as of late July, she chose not to air a single television advertisement. The strategy prompted some nervousness among her progressive supporters as an influx of election results showed a close race on Tuesday.

But by the end of the evening, Omar had prevailed.

“She has an incredibly good get-out-the-vote campaign, heavily driven by social media, and she is yet again able to use that to her advantage,” said David Schultz, a political science professor at Hamline University in St. Paul.

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Since Samuels ran as a champion of public safety, his defeat takes some steam out of the narrative that rising crime in Minneapolis has prompted a backlash against the city’s community of left-wing activists and politicians.

“It’s still a relatively liberal district,” Schultz added. “It’s a relatively young district.”

But Samuels’ strong showing suggests that plenty of Democratic voters in and around Minneapolis still have an appetite for a more moderate approach to policing.

Since the Minneapolis-centered seat is heavily Democratic, Omar’s primary win all but assures her a return to Congress after the November general election. She is due to face Republican nominee Cicely Davis, a conservative activist.

Omar’s victory is a show of strength for the left-wing bloc of House Democrats known as the “Squad,” of which Omar is one of the original four members. The three other original “Squad” members, Reps. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (N.Y.), Ayanna Pressley (Mass.) and Rashida Tlaib (Minn.), held a rally for Omar in Minneapolis on Saturday.

“The progressive agenda ― whether it’s on issues surrounding Israel or police behavior ― is still alive,” Schultz said.

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Samuels ran as a Democrat who would “make a difference,” rather than simply “make a point.” Samuels’ turn of phrase implied that Omar’s penchant for controversial statements about foreign policy in particular has hampered her ability to deliver for the district.

He and his allies also focused heavily on his support for traditional policing and opposition to Question 2, the 2021 ballot initiative that would have abolished the Minneapolis police department and replaced it with a new agency charged with treating crime as a holistic public health problem. Samuels, who unsuccessfully sued to block Question 2 from getting on the ballot, opposed the initiative’s passage. Omar supported it.

The defeat of Question 2 and the reelection of Minneapolis Mayor Jacob Frey, despite Omar’s support for two candidates running against him, inspired leading figures in the city’s Democratic establishment to coalesce behind Samuels. Frey, former Minneapolis Police Chief Medaria Arradondo and a number of labor unions endorsed Samuels’ bid, giving him an official imprimatur that attorney Antone Melton-Meaux, Omar’s 2020 challenger, had lacked. Frey’s former campaign manager, Joe Radinovich, ran Samuels’ campaign.

Samuels also benefited from the last-minute support of a super PAC called Make a Difference MN05, which spent $420,000 on a TV ad touting Samuels’ opposition to restructuring police department funding.

But while the ad raised Samuels’ visibility, it failed to explicitly critique Omar.

The spot also opened Samuels up to questions about his liberal credentials. Former Cargill Chairman Gregory Page, who has donated to many Republican candidates, was one of the pro-Samuels super PAC’s main funders.

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This is a developing story. Please check back for updates.

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