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Ilhan Omar faces a well-funded primary challenge in her first reelection bid

Minnesota’s primaries could have major repercussions for both poles of the Democratic Party.

Strike For Black Lives Held In Cities Across The Nation
Rep. Ilhan Omar (D-MN) participates in a “Strike for Black Lives” demonstration to advocate for the passage of the HEROES Act in the Senate outside of the U.S. Capitol on July 20, 2020 in Washington, DC.
Sarah Silbiger/Getty Images

When Minnesotans go to the polls on Tuesday, the political futures of one of the state’s most progressive Democrats — as well as its most conservative — will be on the ballot.

In Minnesota’s Fifth District, voters will decide whether they want to return Rep. Ilhan Omar — a former Somali refugee and one of the first Muslim women ever to serve in Congress — to Washington. And in the Seventh District, voters will pick a Republican challenger for Rep. Collin Peterson, a 15-term incumbent who has held on for term after term in an ever-reddening district in western Minnesota.

Elsewhere in Minnesota, general election matchups are already set — like in Minnesota’s Second Congressional District, where incumbent Rep. Angie Craig, who flipped the seat from GOP control in 2018, is up against Marine Corps veteran Tyler Kistner — or aren’t expected to be competitive.

In Minnesota’s Fourth District, longtime Democratic Rep. Betty McCollum will face a handful of challengers, including political strategist and first-time candidate Alberder Gillespie, who co-founded the organization Black Women Rising. McCollum won her 2018 primary with more than 80 percent of the vote in 2018.

The Minnesota Senate race is effectively locked in as well: Neither incumbent Sen. Tina Smith nor presumptive GOP challenger Jason Lewis, who previously represented Minnesota’s Second District in the House, have serious primaries to contend with on Tuesday, and their focus is on November.

Minnesota’s Fifth District: A progressive luminary in a harsh spotlight

The old Tip O’Neill aphorism holds that “all politics is local.” But in Minnesota’s Fifth District, which centers around Minneapolis, national politics has fueled a challenge to Rep. Ilhan Omar from lawyer Antone Melton-Meaux.

Melton-Meaux isn’t too far from Omar on the issues, and he brands himself as a “lifelong progressive.” But it’s not his position on Medicare-for-all or similar progressive policies that have buoyed his candidacy: Instead, it’s dislike of Omar, who serves as whip for the Congressional Progressive Caucus. On the back of an (arguably racist and sexist) anti-Omar backlash, Melton-Meaux raised a staggering $3.2 million in the second quarter of 2020 alone.

As BuzzFeed’s Molly Hensley-Clancy reported last month, much of that money has come from large donations and pro-Israel bundlers. And for both candidates, many of their donors are from out of state.

Melton-Meaux has criticized Omar on at least two fronts: One, her voting record — not what she’s voted for, but the number of votes she’s missed. (Omar missed about 6 percent of votes in 2019.)

“I was hopeful that she would use her platform to do great work for the district,” he told MinnPost. “But what I’ve seen since then is someone that doesn’t show up for votes and someone that doesn’t show up for voters.”

And two, Israel: Omar supports the Boycott, Divest, Sanction, or BDS, movement; Melton-Meaux, meanwhile, has the backing of several pro-Israel groups.

But for all the traction Melton-Meaux has gained in the race, it’s not too likely that Omar is going anywhere — a recent poll commissioned by her campaign found her with a 37-point lead over Melton-Meaux, with the other three challengers — journalist Les Lester, campaign strategist John Mason, and attorney Daniel McCarthy — relegated to single digits.

Omar has a long list of high-profile endorsements to her name, both in Minnesota and nationally. Sen. Tina Smith, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, and Minnesota Gov. Tim Walz have all backed her candidacy, though the Minneapolis Star-Tribune chose to endorse Melton-Meaux just last week.

Larry Jacobs, a professor of political science at the University of Minnesota, believes that Omar will win out on Tuesday — and go on to win the reliably blue district come November.

“Yes, she’s controversial,” he said. “Yes, she’s alienated some Democrats and angered the Jewish community. But she’s in a district where she’s progressive and voters are progressive. And so she’s likely to, I think, win the primary and go on to being reelected.”

Minnesota’s Seventh District: Third time’s the charm?

By some metrics, Rep. Collin Peterson is the most conservative member of the House Democrats’ 232-person majority — and he’s still more liberal than his district. First elected to the House in 1990, Peterson represents a district that went for Trump by 30 points in 2016, which means that the National Republican Congressional Committee is champing at the bit for a chance to flip his seat this cycle.

Before the Minnesota GOP gets around to Peterson though, there’s still a five-way primary coming up on Tuesday.

Air Force veteran Dave Hughes is something of a perennial candidate in Minnesota’s 7th District, where he has twice now won the Republican nomination and gone on to lose to Peterson. This year, former Minnesota Lieutenant Gov. Michelle Fischbach looks to be his main challenger on the way to the nomination, but three other candidates — Dr. Noel Collis, pastor Jayesun Sherman, and farmer William Louwagie — are also in the running.

Though Hughes was the anointed candidate in 2018, when he lost to Peterson by a bit more than 4 points, in 2020 Fischbach has won endorsements from President Donald Trump, the National Republican Congressional Committee, and the Minnesota Seventh District Republican Party.

It’s already been a contentious race: According to MinnPost, Fischbach’s former campaign manager pleaded guilty to harassing Hughes just last month. Nonetheless, most signs point to her being the favorite heading into Tuesday. Not only does she hold the edge in terms of big-name endorsements, but she has a more than 10:1 fundraising advantage — MinnPost reports that she had more than $900,000 in the bank last month compared to just $66,000 for Hughes.

If Fischbach wins on Tuesday, though, she likely won’t have an easy time come November, despite how much the district favored Trump in 2016. Peterson has at least one major advantage: He chairs the influential House Agriculture Committee, a plum position for someone representing a rural district.

“Donald Trump won by double digits in his district,” Jacobs said. “It’s by the sheer power of Peterson’s name that he held on, though it’s worth saying that his last few elections have been competitive. He used to win by large double digits.”

Currently, the Cook Political Report rates Minnesota’s Seventh District as a toss-up this November. Jacobs, though, believes that Peterson, 76, will pull off a win. “But,” he adds, “this could be his last election. I mean, it’s not fun for him anymore. This is like a fistfight.”

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