The following article is reprinted from Smart Politics, the nonpartisan political news site founded and authored by Eric Ostermeier, Ph.D., at the University of Minnesota’s Humphrey School of Public Affairs.
DFLer Ilhan Omar got out of the gates quickly to begin her congressional career – notching the third largest percentage of the vote among the 140+ newly elected Minnesota U.S. representatives since statehood and the largest support ever recorded among those candidates facing another major party nominee on the ballot.
Multiple controversial public comments over the last few weeks have not prompted any official condemnation of the freshman lawmaker from House leadership or her removal from the House Foreign Affairs Committee, despite objections from some Democratic (and many Republican) lawmakers on the Hill.
While the Gopher State’s Fifth Congressional District is not in play for Republicans, the rocky start to Omar’s first term could generate increased interest in the seat from fellow Democrats in 2020 – a seat that was largely considered a no-fly zone for would-be (establishment) candidates after her resounding 2018 victory and massive public profile.
[National controversy was likewise no stranger to Omar’s predecessor, Keith Ellison, who never faced any top-tier DFL challenger during any of his five reelection bids].
To secure her seat last year, Omar outlasted five opponents in the August 2018 DFL primary with a plurality of the vote (48.2 percent), including former state House Speaker Margaret Anderson Kelliher, state Senator Patricia Torres Ray, and state Senator Bobby Joe Champion (who suspended his campaign prior to the election).
With Democratic leadership largely standing by her side, it is unlikely the path to unseating Omar in a primary will be easy.
Should such an attempt be made and were it successful, it would be a first in the annals of Minnesota Democratic politics.
Of the 128 true freshmen Minnesota U.S. Representatives to seek a second term since statehood, only four have failed to win their party’s nomination – and just two during the last century. All were Republicans.
Republican Morton Wilkinson, a former U.S. Senator (1859-1865), was elected to the state’s 1st CD in 1868 with 61.7 percent of the vote.
Two years later, the party nominated State Superintendent of Public Instruction Mark Dunnell, who carried the district by 13.6 points. [Wilkinson would later challenge Dunnell in 1872 to win back his old seat as the Democratic nominee with backing by Liberal Republicans, but lost by 30.6 points].
In 1916’s 5th CD race, Minneapolis attorney and state Representative Ernest Lundeen was one of four candidates in double digits in November’s general election, but prevailed with 42.4 percent of the vote.
Lundeen drew four GOP challengers in 1918 and placed second with 26.7 percent – 4.1 points behind Hennepin County assistant prosecuting attorney Walter Newton. [Newton held the seat for the party by 15.2 points in the autumn].
The third freshman lawmaker to lose his party’s nomination comes with an asterisk of sorts.
Republican Ray Chase was one of nine U.S. Representatives (and just three Republicans) elected to at-large seats in 1932. Chase received the seventh most votes statewide (4.1 percent).
After districts were finally drawn for the 1934 cycle, five Republicans challenged Chase for the 5th CD nod. Chase won only 26.2 percent and was defeated by 16.3 points by fellow Republican Congressman and former three-term Governor Theodore Christianson. [Christianson had the fifth most votes in the 1932 election].
The last freshman to come up short was Republican John Alexander, who narrowly won the 3rd CD race in 1938 – unseating Farmer-Laborite Henry Teigan by 2.5 points.
In 1940, Alexander drew two primary challengers and his 36.0 percent was 14.0-points shy of victor state Representative Richard Gale. [Gale won the seat in November by 9.1 points over former Congressman Teigan with Alexander running as an independent Republican and garnering only 3.1 percent].
Only one Minnesota U.S. representative has lost a primary since the DFL merger in 1944. After reapportionment (Minnesota lost a seat) and redistricting, 12-term Republican H. Carl Andersen lost the 6th CD primary to farmer and state Representative Robert Odegard by 27.4 points.
Other U.S. representatives to lose their party’s nomination from the Gopher State include Republicans Ignatius Donnelly in 1868, Clarence Buckman in 1906, J. Adam Bede in 1908, James Tawney in 1910, George Smith in 1916, Charles Davis in 1924, Oscar Keller in 1926, Allen Furlow in 1928, Godfrey Goodwin in 1932, and Oscar Youngdahl in 1942.
Overall, 15 U.S. House members from Minnesota lost their party’s nomination including 12 since the first congressional primaries in 1908.
No Democratic or DFL lawmaker has ever failed to win their party’s nomination of the more than 40 to serve the state over the last 160+ years:
- Two died in office: Carl Van Dyke (1919) and William Gallagher (1946, after winning the primary)
- One resigned mid-term: Bob Bergland (1977, to become U.S. Secretary of Agriculture)
- Sixteen retired or ran for another office: William Phelps (1859), Eugene Wilson (1870), John Lind (1904), Winfield Hammond (1914), Einar Hoidale (1934), Eugene McCarthy (1958), Fred Marshall (1962), John Blatnik (1974), Joseph Karth (1976), Don Fraser (1978), Rick Nolan (1980 and 2018), Tim Penny (1994), Bruce Vento (2000, who died before finishing his term), Martin Sabo (2006), Tim Walz (2018), and Keith Ellison (2018)
- Eighteen lost the general election: James Cavanaugh (1859), Henry Poehler (1880), Thomas Wilson (1888), John MacDonald (1888), Edmund Rice (1888), James Castle (1892), William Harries (1892), Osee Hall (1894), Melvin Baldwin (1894), Elmer Ryan (1940), Frank Starkey (1946), Coya Knutson (1958), Roy Wier (1960), Alec Olson (1966), Gerry Sikorski (1992), David Minge (2000), Bill Luther (2002), and Jim Oberstar (2010)
- Five are currently in office: Collin Peterson, Betty McCollum, Angie Craig, Dean Phillips, and Ilhan Omar
Democrats and DFLers have currently won 169 consecutive renomination bids.
Eric J. Ostermeier, Ph.D., J.D., is a research fellow at the Center for the Study of Politics and Governance, Humphrey School of Public Affairs, University of Minnesota.