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Primary challenge to Rep. Ilhan Omar attracts big money


Wednesday July 15, 2020
By Briana Bierschbach

The fundraising gap would be striking for any newcomer challenging an incumbent, but it's especially notable in this race.


Opposition to Rep. Ilhan Omar is fueling an unprecedented surge in donations to her top Democratic opponent, Antone Melton-Meaux. STAR TRIBUNE

Millions of dollars are pouring into the primary race for Minnesota’s Fifth Congressional District, where opposition to Minneapolis U.S. Rep. Ilhan Omar is fueling an unprecedented surge in donations to her top Democratic opponent, political newcomer Antone Melton-Meaux.

Melton-Meaux, a mediation lawyer who emerged on the DFL scene late last year to challenge Omar, told the Star Tribune he raised a staggering $3.2 million between April and the end of June, with $2 million cash left in the bank before the Aug. 11 primary. He dramatically outraised Omar, who took in $471,624 during the same time period. Omar’s campaign said she has $1,111,861 left on hand ahead of the primary election.

The fundraising gap would be striking for any newcomer challenging an incumbent, but it’s especially notable in a race against Omar, a freshman Democrat and member of “The Squad” who has risen to prominence as one of the first Muslim women elected to Congress. Omar herself is a prolific fundraiser, fueled in part by her national profile and her unabashed criticism of President Donald Trump.

But Omar’s policy positions and not infrequent Twitter flaps with the president have made her a popular target for conservatives, and she has faced criticism from Jewish leaders and some fellow Democrats for several past tweets and remarks about the political influence of Israel. Omar apologized after criticism that she was using anti-Semitic tropes in her comments, but she reaffirmed her criticism of the “problematic role of lobbyists in our politics.”

Rep. Omar challenger leaps ahead in fundraising

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Melton-Meaux, who entered the race in December, reported more than $3 million in campaign contributions in the last three months.

It’s a dramatic surge for Melton-Meaux, who reported raising nearly $400,000 between December and the end of March. The influx of money came, in part, from some conservative donors and pro-Israel groups like nonpartisan NORPAC, which held a virtual fundraiser for Melton-Meaux in May. According to data from ActBlue, an online fundraising tool, a number of individual donors outside of the district contributed the maximum amount allowed in May. He’s also received donations from prominent Minnesota Democratic fund­raisers such as Sam and Sylvia Kaplan.

“It’s about the residents who live there, but they’ve certainly invited in enough outside money that now it’s become more of a regional or national battle,” said Todd Rapp, a longtime veteran of DFL campaigns. He said he’s never seen so much money flood a single intraparty contest. “It’s kind of moved beyond our borders.”

Melton-Meaux said he’s gotten support from nonpartisan groups that have contributed to members of both parties. He said Omar’s past comments have diminished her trust with the Jewish community and fueled support for his campaign.

“We started at a time when people really believed we had no shot at this,” said Melton-Meaux. “We were told by most that we couldn’t do it. Our strategy has been really simple, being honest and transparent and going right to the public with a message that may be kind of cultural right now, and that is that people want leadership that shows up.”

In a statement, Omar’s campaign said an “overwhelming majority” of her constituents approve of the job she’s doing in Congress and her donations were a result of grassroots organizing, with her average contribution coming in at $18.

“Rep. Omar has been fighting for big structural changes to address systematic inequalities in education, health, environment, and the economy at home and across the nation. That’s why Wall Street and GOP donors are threatened by her,” said Deputy Communications Director Isi Kirsh­ner-Breen. “Our campaign is about organizing people. That’s what progressives do. And organized people will always beat organized money.”

Melton-Meaux has emerged as the most prominent of four DFL primary challengers to Omar, running on a message of focusing on the needs of the Fifth District, which includes Minneapolis, St. Louis Park, Richfield, Crystal, Robbinsdale, Golden Valley, New Hope, Fridley and parts of Edina.

The district is one of the safest Democratic seats in the nation, meaning the winner of the August primary is all but certain to head to Congress next year. Republicans have endorsed north Minneapolis businessman Lacy Johnson, who also has cashed in on donations from around the nation, raising more than $1.1 million by March.


Chart: C.J. Sinner, Star Tribune Source: Federal Elections Commission, Melton-Meaux campaign

Melton-Meaux has picked up prominent endorsements in the primary race from civil rights activists Josie Johnson and Nekima Levy Armstrong, Golden Valley Mayor Shep Harris, former U.S. Attorney Andy Luger and others.

But Omar secured the DFL Party’s endorsement in the race in May and the backing of prominent Democrats such as Attorney General Keith Ellison, who previously held the Fifth District seat in Congress, and unions like the AFL-CIO and Education Minnesota. On Monday, Omar’s campaign announced endorsements from Minnesota House Speaker Melissa Hortman, who served with Omar during her one term in the Legislature, and U.S. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi.

Despite a push from Pelosi last year for Omar to apologize after her comments about Israel, the two have been frequent allies in Washington.

Fellow Squad member and Democratic Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez also faced a well-financed Democratic primary challenger last month in former CNBC correspondent and anchor Michelle Caruso-Cabrera.

Ocasio-Cortez ultimately won by more than 50 percentage points in her New York congressional district, despite similar criticisms that she was more focused on her national profile than on her constituents.



 





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