Nonprofit, independent journalism. Supported by readers.


Ilhan Omar defeats longtime Rep. Phyllis Kahn in historic primary win

Omar’s upset in Minneapolis was just one of several Tuesday night. But if the election offered any lesson, it was that low-turnout primaries are unpredictable. 


Ilhan Omar celebrating her primary victory on Tuesday night.
MinnPost photo by Ibrahim Hirsi

Standing in front of hundreds of supporters crowded into the Kalsan Restaurant in Minneapolis, Ilhan Omar talked about history.

By totaling 41 percent of the vote, Omar had just triumphed in a DFL primary race for Minneapolis House District 60B, likely becoming the first Somali American elected to a state legislature in the nation. It was a hard-fought victory in the DFL stronghold, with Omar coalescing enough support behind her to beat fellow Somali-American candidate Mohamud Noor and the longtime incumbent in the district, Rep. Phyllis Kahn.

Omar’s three children, husband Ahmed Hirsi, sister Sahra and her father Nur watched on as she spoke, while tearful supporters waved her campaign signs alonside Somali, Oromo and United States flags. Some of her supporters traveled hours from St. Cloud and Rochester to be there.

“Tonight, we made history,” Omar, 33, said to cheers. “Alhamdulillah [praise be to God]. Tonight marks the beginning of the future of our district, a new era of representation. Tonight is about the power of you.”

Article continues after advertisement

Across the Mississippi River, at Mac’s Industrial sports bar, Kahn was also talking about history.

In 1972, she was part of a trailblazing group of women elected to the Minnesota Legislature. After 44 years at the Capitol, Kahn was calm as she reflected on her work on everything from the Clean Indoor Air Act and environmental issues to securing more funding for the state’s many parks and trails. But on Tuesday night, after spending hours looking at vote totals with supporters in a fifth-floor conference room in the Union Bank building, she finished third in the primary race. 

“When I was elected in ‘72 it was a historic event,” Kahn, 79, told a gathering of supporters crowded in the back of the bar. “This is a new historic event.”

Winners and losers 

Omar’s upset in Minneapolis was just one of several Tuesday night. In the Twin Cities suburbs, Rep. Tom Hackbarth and Sen. Sean Nienow both lost their primary races. And longtime DFL Rep. Joe Mullery was toppled in a primary in North Minneapolis by Fue Lee, a 24-year-old aide in the office of Secretary of State Steve Simon’s office. Lee was born in a refugee camp in Thailand.

“Ilhan Omar and Fue Lee won hard-earned victories today,” DFL House Minority Leader Paul Thissen said in a statement. “Both are bright young leaders in our party and I look forward to working with them in the coming years to make sure our state is responding to the needs of the communities they will soon represent.”

But other incumbents fended off challengers. Republican House Speaker Kurt Daudt faced off against Alan Duff, a Tea Party-backed county commissioner who attacked the speaker’s conservative credentials. In the end, it wasn’t close: Daudt triumphed with 72 percent of the vote in the Isanti County district.

MinnPost photo by Ibrahim Hirsi
A supporter congratulates Ilhan Omar, left, during Tuesday night’s victory party.

“I am grateful for the strong support from my neighbors, friends and constituents in House District 31A,” Daudt said in a statement. “It is an honor to represent them in the Minnesota House and I am committed to bringing our shared values to St. Paul.” 

In two Minneapolis Senate districts, meanwhile, incumbent Democrats Jeff Hayden and Bobby Joe Champion easily won primary challenges from candidates challenging their work to bridge equity and racial divides in the state, as did DFL Rep. Rena Moran in St. Paul, who was challenged by Black Lives Matter Leader Rashad Turner. 

Low turnout, with an exception

If the election offered any lessons to candidates and voters, it’s that low-turnout primaries are volatile and unpredictable. 

This year, about 280,000 people voted early or showed up to polls for the primary. That’s down from more than 400,000 voters in the 2014 primary, when candidates for governor and state auditor were both on the ballot. This cycle, there was no major statewide primary race bringing voters out.

Article continues after advertisement

The House District 60B race was the exception, and it saw a major bump in turnout from 2014. That year, about 4,300 voters showed up to cast their ballot in the race against Kahn and Noor. Kahn ultimately won that contest by about 400 votes.

But this year, turnout in the district surpassed 5,800 votes, with Omar turning out voters on the University of Minnesota campus and cutting into Kahn-friendly territories in Seward and Prospect Park. “Ilhan obviously ran a very good campaign and mobilized a lot of people that we didn’t see before in previous elections,” Kahn said.

Both Noor and Omar also turned out votes in Cedar Riverside, where the Somali community showed its organizing prowess in toppling a longtime incumbent.

MinnPost photo by Briana Bierschbach
State Rep. Phyllis Kahn speaking to reporters at her primary party.

“This is historic, a milestone for all of us, especially immigrant communities,” said Abdi Daisane, an Omar supporter who traveled from St. Cloud to attend her election night event. “This is something to be proud of as a community.”

Omar fled civil war-torn Somalia as a child and lived for four years in a Kenyan refugee camp before ultimately moving to Minneapolis. She got involved in politics at the city council level, working as an aide and staffer. She is currently director of policy initiatives at Women Organizing Women.

She admitted there were times during the months-long primary campaign when she felt like victory was out of reach. 

“I want to remind you all that what we did tonight, no one thought was possible,” Omar told supporters. “In the earlier conversations of this campaign, everybody said, ‘Ilhan, there is no real path to your winning.’ At some point, I started to believe that. But [we won] because all of you in this room who said, ‘It can be done.’ ”