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Omar’s primary victory affirms progressives’ control of Minnesota’s Fifth District

Omar’s decisive victory was driven by a progressive turnout machine built over the last decade.

Rep. Ilhan Omar with volunteers and campaign members in northeast Minneapolis for a "Get Out The Vote" event on August 11.
Rep. Ilhan Omar with volunteers and campaign members in northeast Minneapolis for a "Get Out The Vote" event on August 11.
REUTERS/Nicole Neri

Rep. Ilhan Omar’s victory over primary challenger Antone Melton-Meaux might have felt familiar to anyone paying close attention to the history of elections in Minnesota’s Fifth Congressional District.

Melton-Meaux, who ran more as a personality than policy foil to Omar, banked a considerable amount of campaign cash and won high-profile DFLers support. He waged a serious lawn sign and mailer campaign, and some speculated there could be an upset in the district.

In the end, the race wasn’t that close. Omar won 58 percent of the district’s vote, compared to Melton-Meaux’s 39 percent.

Looking closely at the returns, it’s clear how that happened: while Melton-Meaux won considerable support in parts of Minneapolis and some of its suburbs, it wasn’t enough to overcome Omar’s edge in the bulk of Minneapolis, the increasingly progressive voting bloc that dominates the district.

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Her win, thanks to Minneapolis, echoes the primary win of her predecessor and now Minnesota Attorney General Keith Ellison in 2006. Over time, activists have built a turnout machine that’s energized immigrant communities and the working class. These voters, sometimes seen as unlikely to go to the polls, have helped elect a succession of progressive officials across levels of government.

Ellison wins the Fifth

Ellison held the Fifth District seat for more than a decade before Omar won it. His decision to run in 2006 when Martin Sabo retired put him in what was effectively a three-way race. He was a two-term state representative who had the DFL endorsement and campaigned on turning out a large cross section of what were then termed unlikely voters, including “peace activists, gay and lesbian voters and minorities, especially Somalis,” the Star Tribune reported at the time. He ran against former Sabo staffer and DFL chair Mike Erlandson and state Sen. Ember Reichgott Junge, who campaigned on health care.

When Keith Ellison took the stage to accept the DFL endorsement in 2006, activists say you could feel the winds changing. With a unanimous endorsement on the third ballot, Ellison made his pitch. “We have to unify. We have to come together from the suburb and the city,” he told the crowd. “We have to come together.”

Ultimately, Ellison won the primary with 41 percent of the vote, compared to Erlandson’s 31 percent and Reichgott Junge’s 21 percent. Despite losing CD5 suburbs, Ellison racked up a wide margin in Minneapolis, where most of the district’s votes are located.

Votes in the 2006 DFL CD5 primary by city
Source: Minnesota Secretary of State

For Old Guard DFLers, Ellison’s 10-point victory in the primary was unexpected. Ellison’s predecessor, Martin Sabo, endorsed Erlandson. The Star Tribune’s Editorial Board endorsed Erlandson, too.

In Congress, Ellison was one of the most progressive members in the country. He was the Chairman of the House Progressive Caucus, then just a nascent political force. He was an early supporter of Medicare for All, a constant critic of the Iraq War and early endorser of Sen. Bernie Sanders’ political campaign in 2016.

Omar runs for office

Just over a decade later, Ellison retired from Congress to run for Minnesota attorney general. His departure resulted in another three-way DFL primary race between first-term state Rep. Ilhan Omar, who won the DFL endorsement in a hastily arranged convention after Ellison’s surprise retirement, former House Speaker Margaret Anderson Kelliher, popular among more moderate voters, and state Sen. Patricia Torres Ray.

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The conventional wisdom held that a candidate needed to win moderate votes in South Minneapolis and the suburbs to win the seat, said Joelle Stangler, who’s worked for several candidates and groups in the Twin Cities including Take Action Minnesota, State Rep. Raymond Dehn’s Mayoral Campaign, and Omar’s 2020 campaign.

“When I came into this work, everyone said that you need wealthy white homeowners to win any race,” Stangler said. She said that in Omar’s first race, people said there wasn’t a path forward because she wanted to win by turning out new immigrant communities and young people.

Many political observers expected it to be a tight race between Omar and Anderson Kelliher, with Torres Ray potentially attracting a significant number of votes.

In the end, it wasn’t that close: Omar captured 48 percent to Anderson Kelliher’s 30 percent and Torres Ray’s 13 percent. Though she ran in a district slightly changed from Ellison’s time due to redistricting, like Ellison, Omar’s decisive win in Minneapolis propelled her to victory.

In her first term in Congress, Omar’s tenure mirrored Ellison’s. She joined the Progressive Caucus, taking on a leadership role as whip; and she too has been an unabashed supporter of Sanders, endorsing him in 2020, as well as leading efforts to promote the Green New Deal, a progressive energy policy agenda; and Medicare-for-All.

She also quickly became one of the body’s most visible members; she was part of the “Squad,” a group of first-term women of color challenging the status quo in Congress. This brought her praise from progressives, but she was also singled out by the right with xenophobic and Islamophobic comments (including by President Donald Trump). Her high profile also earned her increased scrutiny when it came to missteps, like when she invoked anti-semitic tropes in comments on Twitter.

Melton-Meaux launched a primary challenge against her; presenting himself as a candidate who could “bring us together, not tear us apart,” as one mailer put it. He received an endorsement from two former Minnesota DFL Chairs (Brian Melendez and Erlandson) and raised a considerable amount of cash.

Of Omar’s second race, Stangler said there was again pressure to focus on more moderate parts of the city.

“When she ran a second time, people didn’t say there was no path, but there was a similar assertion that, ‘Oh, well you really need to make sure you’re spending all of your time in Southwest Minneapolis and in Wards 11, 12, and 13,’ to combat what, will inevitably be, a lack of support from the suburbs.”

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But many voters in the district weren’t interested in what they perceived to be a more centrist candidate. For Renae Steiner, 54, her impression that Melton-Meaux was the more moderate candidate convinced her to vote for Omar. Steiner, an attorney in Linden Hills, isn’t interested in more centrist congressional leadership.

“There aren’t, in my estimation, that many really progressive Democrat districts,” said Steiner. “So if we don’t elect progressives, where are they going to come from?”

Turnout in last week’s primary was massive. Across the Fifth Congressional District nearly 178,000 people cast votes, compared to 135,000 in 2018, a year when there was a contested gubernatorial primary on the ballot, too. While Omar amassed more than 65,000 votes in 2018, she won with more than 103,000 this time around.

Votes in the DFL CD5 primary by city
Source: Minnesota Secretary of State

More progressive challengers

Tuesday’s primary results shouldn’t come as a surprise, said Erlandson the former Sabo staffer who ran against Ellison in the DFL primary in 2006 and endorsed Melton-Meaux this time around. He said the district has become more progressive since his run in 2006.

“I think there is an expansion of the bloc of primary voters,” he said; more people seem to be highly engaged in politics.

“The primary voter tends to be the most liberal or progressive voter,” he said. “They tend to be voters that miss very few elections. The city tends to have more of those than the suburbs.”

Not only did Ilhan Omar win reelection in the primary through the strength of Minneapolis’ progressive bloc, but two long-term Minneapolis state legislators who were generally thought of as progressive stalwarts — Sen. Jeff Hayden and Rep. Ray Dehn, were knocked out by political newcomers, Omar Fateh and Esther Agbaje.

It’s not the first time in recent years Minneapolis voters have sought to replace a longstanding elected official with someone new: In 2017 City Council president Barb Johnson lost to Phillipe Cunningham. In 2018, longtime Hennepin County Commissioner Peter McLaughlin was defeated by political newcomer Angela Conley.

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Asma Nizami, a former field organizer for Sen. Al Franken in the Twin Cities, says politicians like Ellison and Omar represent views that are widely held by people of color in the Twin Cities. And she criticized white voters and the Star Tribune’s Editorial Board (which has never endorsed Omar or Ellison in a contentious race) who see Ellison and Omar as too radical.

“They want to turn on KARE-11 and hear about the weather. And they want to hear these happy stories about great white people donating food,” Nizami, who currently works as the Advocacy Director for Muslim women at Reviving Sisterhood, said. “They don’t want to hear about how terrible our city is to Black and Brown people.”

In a press call after her win, Omar said the shift to a new slate of candidates that happened in Tuesday’s primary makes complete sense. “I first went and challenged the 44-year incumbent — that was unheard of here in Minneapolis,” Omar said, referring to her defeat of longtime Rep. Phyllis Kahn. “And because of that, we have seen so many people take that leap and unseat so many people, and it’s not surprising that that progressive movement that we have built continues.”

Fateh’s campaign manager, Dawson Kimyon, characterized progressive wins on Tuesday not just as a reflection of the voters of Minneapolis, but also the moment they’re in.

“Coronavirus and the uprising surrounding the murder of George Floyd have definitely made people a lot more outraged at the system as it currently is,” Kimyon said. “I think that makes people more progressive and it also makes progressive people more willing to exercise their right to vote.”