By ARIELLE MITROPOULOS and DEENA ZARU, ABC News
(WASHINGTON) — Rep. Ilhan Omar, D-Minn., is set to defend her seat in Minnesota’s 5th Congressional District on Tuesday, in one of the most expensive primary campaigns in the state.
Antone Melton-Meaux, a Black lawyer and mediator, has emerged as Omar’s most serious challenger. He has capitalized on the several controversies that have marred the congresswoman’s first term, including Omar’s criticism pertaining to the influence of pro-Israel donors and accusations of potential campaign finance violations.
In an interview with ABC News, Melton-Meaux described himself as a progressive who wants to address the “underlying systemic issues of racism,” the inequities in education, housing, health care and the economy, as well as to move toward reducing the carbon footprint.
He asserted that his background uniquely positions him for the challenges of a polarized nation, depicting himself as a “bridge-builder.”
Omar, a Somali-American refugee, rose to the national spotlight when she became the first Muslim woman to be elected into Congress in 2018, along with Democratic Michigan Rep. Rashida Tlaib.
Omar’s national profile gained further prominence as a member of “the squad” — an informal name for a four-member group of progressive freshman congresswomen: Reps. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, D-N.Y., Ayanna Pressley, D-Mass., and Tlaib, who have been popular targets of President Donald Trump and his allies.
The catch-22 of celebrity
While her national profile has turned Omar into a progressive firebrand, her opponent has been weaponizing her celebrity status.
Melton-Meaux has repeatedly critiqued Omar as disengaged from her constituents, more focused on achieving personal fame and national celebrity than on resolving the district’s problems.
Omar has strongly rejected Melton-Meaux’s contentions, defending her record in Washington. The congresswoman told ABC News that “even in the face of death threats, I have made it my top priority to be in the community with Minnesotans and listen to them.”
Larry Jacobs, a professor of political science at the University of Minnesota, said that he expected Omar to face a tough fight, but he still expects her to “prevail” if turnout is in her favor because she is a progressive in a progressive district — who won by more than 70% in 2018 and has experience running campaigns, whereas Melton-Meaux is “new to politics.”
“All those things most of the time give you a win for the incumbent,” Jacobs told ABC News, but pointing to the controversies surrounding her campaign, added that the overarching storyline in this race is how did “someone who has all those things going in her favor end up in a dog fight?”
A representative from Omar’s campaign told ABC News on Monday that the team is “confident” ahead of the primary.
“We campaign hard because elections are about more than just winning: They’re an opportunity to organize your community behind progressive change and get people more involved in our Democratic process,” he said.
“In the 5th [Congressional] District we believe in having marginalized voices be prioritized,” he added. “We believe everyone should have health care, a roof over their head, and a livable planet. And we believe that this congressional seat is one that belongs to the people and will remain with the people.”
Jacobs said it is often difficult to “project” an opponent’s turnout and there’s a lot of “uncertainty” on both sides, but it is still “possible” for Melton-Meaux to win. ABC News has reached out to the Melton-Meaux campaign, but a request for comment was not returned.
Many will be voting by mail in Minnesota due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Jacobs said that if there’s a clear winner, he expects the results to be known “within a day or two,” but if it’s a very close race, “it could stretch on for weeks.”
Fundraising and endorsement battle
Both Omar and Melton-Meaux have each raised over $4 million in donations. The large majority of Omar’s fundraising comes from small individual donations.
Much of Melton-Meaux’s funds, however, have stemmed from large donors, and from pro-Israel political action committees, including $382,000 in donations bundled by the Pro-Israel America PAC. Another group, NORPAC, has raised over $105,000 for Omar’s challenger.
He has stated that he does not feel these donations from PACs, which he describes as “nonpartisan organizations that have given to both Democrats and Republicans,” will sway any policy decisions.
Melton-Meaux has used his influx in campaign donations to push his message across television airwaves, pledging in one of his advertisements that he would “be chasing cameras or selling books,” as he suggests Omar has.
Further, a pro-Israel super PAC called Americans for Tomorrow’s Future has spent nearly $450,000 in direct mail advertisements and anti-Omar media placements. The ads portray Omar as corrupt and putting herself first.
Omar, however, has hit back, stating in a new advertisement that Melton-Meaux is not a true progressive, and that “as a partner at one of the worst union-busting law firms in the country, Melton-Meaux defended corporations accused of mistreating workers and firing pregnant employees.”
Both candidates have gained a number of notable local and national endorsements. Last week, the Minneapolis Star Tribune put their support behind Melton-Meaux for his “strong progressive values,” and wrote that “while Omar wants to lead a movement, Melton-Meaux seeks to serve the 5th District.”
However, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., Sen. Bernie Sanders, D-Vt., Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., and Minnesota Gov. Tim Walz are just some of the few big names backing Omar’s re-election.
Minnesota has been the site of massive protests since the police killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis in May, and both Omar and Melton-Meaux have expressed support for the demonstrations.
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