Analysis'Omar fits the mold of an endangered incumbent'

Celeb politician Ilhan Omar’s congressional seat may be in jeopardy. Here’s why

As the August 11 primary race heats up for Democratic candidate in a district so blue a job in Congress is almost a given, pro-Israel Anton Melton-Meaux is hot on Omar’s heels

Antone Melton-Meaux is challenging incumbent Ilhan Omar in the 5th District Democratic primaries on August 11. (Photo of Antone Melton-Meaux: AP/ Jim Mone; Photo of Ilhan Omar: (AP/ Marcio Jose Sanchez)
Antone Melton-Meaux is challenging incumbent Ilhan Omar in the 5th District Democratic primaries on August 11. (Photo of Antone Melton-Meaux: AP/ Jim Mone; Photo of Ilhan Omar: (AP/ Marcio Jose Sanchez)

TC Jewfolk — There has been a consistent theme through Minnesota’s 5th Congressional District’s Democratic-Farmer-Labor Party (DFL) primary for the last several months: The well-known incumbent and well-funded challenger trading barbs.

As the race comes down the home stretch to the August 11 primary election, Rep. Ilhan Omar is trying to fend off her main challenger, Antone Melton-Meaux.

Melton-Meaux, a lawyer and mediator, is a first-time candidate. He’s taking on the first-term Congresswoman for the seat that the non-partisan newsletter Cook Political Report, which analyzes political trends in the US, rates as one of the most Democratic-leaning districts in the country.

This means that the primary winner will likely go on to represent the district in Congress beginning January 3, 2021.

Melton-Meaux has called the congresswoman divisive, and has attacked her for missing votes in Congress, while Omar’s campaign has taken aim at her challenger’s positions and the amount of money coming from special interest groups — specifically pro-Israel groups.

Donations and support

The money became big news on July 16 after the second quarter fundraising filing to the Federal Election Commission. Filings showed that the almost $3.25 million Melton-Meaux raised is nearly seven times the $479,828 Congresswoman Ilhan Omar collected in the same quarter. However, FEC Form 3 that the Omar and Melton-Meaux campaigns filed on July 30 shows Omar with a slight cash-on-hand advantage, as well as an overall fundraising edge of $4.32 million to $4.15 million.

Fifth Congressional District candidate Democrat Antone Melton-Meaux answers questions during an interview in his Minneapolis office Wednesday, July 22, 2020. (AP Photo/Jim Mone)

“We’re proud of our support, and it’s a reflection that the donors at every level are supporting us, really for the same reason,” said Melton-Meaux. “Throughout this race our campaign has consistently raised more money locally than Congresswoman Omar, and to me, that’s one of the strongest indicators of our grassroots support.”

In the second quarter, FEC filings showed Melton-Meaux had a 2-to-1 cash-on-hand advantage going into the last several weeks of the campaign. However, he has spent the majority of that money between July 1 and July 22.

Over the course of the last couple of weeks, though, there have been local and national articles written that suggest that pro-Israel “hawks” are supporting Melton-Meaux and putting significant money behind him.

“We did get support from nonpartisan organizations like NORPAC and Pro-Israel America. And it’s important to note that these organizations contribute to members of both parties, including to our own Sen. Tina Smith, presidential candidate Joe Biden, and Democratic Majority Leader Steny Hoyer. I like being in the company of those great public servants,” Melton-Meaux said.

Congressional Progressive Caucus member Rep. Ilhan Omar, D-Minn., speaks during a news conference on Capitol Hill in Washington, January 8, 2020. (AP Photo/Jose Luis Magana, File)

Pro-Israel America, which was started by former AIPAC staffers, had donated nearly $400,000 to Melton-Meaux, while NORPAC has donated just over $100,000.

NORPAC has also contributed to Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), Sen John Cornyn (R-Texas), and Sen. Joni Ernst (R-Iowa), among others. Pro-Israel America has donated to Ernst and Sen. Cory Gardner (R-Colo.).

“I was running for months before the Jewish community-at-large took notice of my campaign,” Melton-Meaux said. “I was running, and have been running to represent everyone in this district — the Jewish community, as well as the Somali community, as well as the African American community, and hardworking union workers and small business owners. My focus is on the people and not particular constituencies.”

My focus is on the people and not particular constituencies

The district covers Minneapolis, St. Louis Park, Golden Valley, Edina, Hopkins, among other western suburbs. Melton-Meaux is one of four Democrats on the ballot challenging Omar. At the DFL’s 5th Congressional District virtual endorsement convention in May, Melton-Meaux had 30.9 percent support to Omar’s 65.5%. The other challengers on the ballot registered fewer than 1.5% support. They are John Mason, Les Lester, and Daniel Patrick McCarthy.

Fifth Congressional District candidate, Democrat Antone Melton-Meaux is giving Omar an unexpectedly strong, well-funded primary challenge in one of the country’s most heavily Democratic congressional districts, which includes Minneapolis and some suburbs. (AP Photo/Jim Mone)

Omar’s campaign turned down several requests to interview her or a spokesperson over the phone for this story.

Minnesota Attorney General Keith Ellison, who held this congressional seat from 2007 to 2019 and is a vocal supporter of Omar, questions the motivation behind the hefty donations to Melton-Meaux.

“Usually campaign donations are given because they believe people will either be against something or for something,” he said. “I wonder why Republican corporate donors think this guy’s so great? Or whether they really just want to get rid of her.”

The candidates and the Jewish community

Concerns some in the Jewish community have with Omar stem from a number of tweets — some of which dated back to 2012 and have been deleted — that were deemed anti-Semitic, stereotyping Jews with money and power. She has also been criticized for supporting the Boycott, Divest, and Sanctions (BDS) movement against Israel.

In a 2018 candidate forum at Beth El Synagogue, Omar was asked directly if she supported BDS, and Omar told a crowd of more than 1,000 people that the movement was “counteractive” because it wasn’t “helpful in getting a two-state solution.”

Less than a week after her election to Congress, Omar’s staff told the website Muslim Girl that “Ilhan believes in and supports the BDS movement, and has fought to make sure people’s right to support it isn’t criminalized. She does, however, have reservations on the effectiveness of the movement in accomplishing a lasting solution,” a position she reiterated in text messages to TC Jewfolk.

Many argued her latter statements were a contradiction to the stance she took at Beth El Synagogue.

When asked about his position on the BDS Movement, Melton-Meaux said: “I sit right in line with progressives on this issue, and my position is clear: I do not support BDS. I think it serves to undermine credibility, parties, stakeholders. Those third-party influences — as a mediator I have learned — don’t incentivize people to come to the table for constructive negotiations and creative solutions to get to outcomes.”

I am skeptical of BDS, but I also would be sure to protect people’s First Amendment rights

Omar had voted against an anti-BDS bill in the Minnesota Legislature when she was a member of the state’s House of Representatives, saying, in part: “I don’t want to be part of a vote that limits the ability of people to fight toward that justice and peace.” Melton-Meaux did go on to say that he wouldn’t want to see anyone’s First Amendment rights curtailed.

“I’ve also said, very consistently, that as a lawyer and someone that loves our Constitution, that I’ll look at BDS also just to ensure that if there’s any legislation that it takes into consideration people’s freedom of speech rights,” he said. “I am skeptical of BDS, but I also would be sure to protect people’s First Amendment rights.”

Illustrative: Palestinian and left-wing Jewish groups stage a rally walking from Times Square to the United Nations Building in New York, September 15, 2011, calling to end all US aid to Israel and support the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement against Israel. (AP Photo/David Karp)

Melton-Meaux has taken some heat for a frequently asked questions email his campaign sent to supporters. In one FAQ response regarding whether money from the Jewish community would influence his policy decisions, he said: “I disagree with a number of Benjamin Netenyahu’s [sic] actions, including the unilateral annexation of Palestinian territory. I have also made it clear that I support humanitarian aid to the Palestinians, and that I believe the U.S. must work towards strategic reforms of Israeli policy that will ease the pressure of the occupation of Palestinians.”

Omar was criticized for a 2019 statement where she said: “I want to talk about the political influence in this country that says it is OK for people to push for allegiance to a foreign country,” implying dual-loyalty of American Jews to Israel. But Joel Rubin, Sen. Bernie Sanders’s director of Jewish outreach during the 2020 presidential campaign, told the website Jewish Insider that a recent Melton-Meaux email to supporters played on those same tropes.

“[He] repeated the lie that American Jews only care about Israel… He compounded this dual-loyalty trope by stating that the American Jewish political money he received wouldn’t guide his policy choices. Yet to prove his point, he stated that he ‘disagrees’ with Bibi Netanyahu, implying that American Jewish donations are all about Israel,” Rubin said. “For someone who’s claiming to be a unifying figure that will bring people together on Jewish issues like these, he has a long way to go.”

Differences on issues

Melton-Meaux has been on the attack over the number of votes that Omar has missed. In 2019, Omar’s 5.7% missed vote rate, according to GovTrack, is 55th among the 435 members of the House — but isn’t the most among the Minnesota delegation; 6th district Rep. Tim Emmer missed more.

Illustrative: In this July 15, 2019, file photo, US Rep. Ilhan Omar, a Minnesota Democrat, right, speaks as US Rep. Rashida Tlaib, a Michigan Democrat, listens during a news conference at the Capitol in Washington. (AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite, File)

However, like many in her district, Melton-Meaux was perplexed about two votes on the same day in October 2019: one where she voted “present” on a resolution that recognized the Armenian genocide at the hands of Turkey, and then voted not to sanction Turkey for its actions against US-aligned Kurdish forces in Northern Syria. Both of those issues passed with massive bipartisan support and had more than 400 yes votes on each.

Omar had not supported the Turkish sanctions vote because, she said, sanctions were from a “failed foreign-policy playbook.”

In a statement after the Armenian Genocide resolution vote, Omar said “[A]ccountability and recognition of genocide should not be used as a cudgel in a political fight. It should be done based on academic consensus outside the push and pull of geopolitics.”

“Is there a right or wrong time to … stand up for justice that she claims to be a champion for,” Rev. Tadeos Barseghyan, the pastor at the St. Sahag Armenian Church in St. Paul — the only Armenian church between Seattle and Milwaukee — told the Star Tribune.

Both are examples, Melton-Meaux said, of times where Omar is voting out of step with her district.

Illustrative: Huge crowds of Armenian Americans march during an annual commemoration of the deaths of 1.5 million Armenians under the Ottoman Empire in Los Angeles Wednesday, April 24, 2019. (AP Photo/Damian Dovarganes)

“That was a clear message of support for the Armenian community, a community that lives in this district, a community that is fighting hard to protect its cultural heritage, and she said ‘no,’” said Melton-Meaux. “I just don’t understand how she could not understand the harm of those votes on the Armenian community.”

Domestically, while claiming to be a progressive, Melton-Meaux is less progressive than Omar in respect to two key policy areas: environmental policy and health care. Omar is in favor of the Green New Deal and Medicare For All (she’s the co-chair of the Medicare For All Caucus). Melton-Meaux would like to start with a carbon tax so that corporations would be responsible for their environmental footprint, and those dollars collected would then go toward what he is calling a “clean-energy economy.”

With health care, Melton-Meaux prefers a play he is calling “primary care for all.” He said that Medicare For All, while a great concept, doesn’t allocate enough resources to primary care.

“I’d like for us to have a public option focused on a ‘primary care for all’ platform where we invest significant dollars and resources into building our primary care infrastructure, both from a payment side for paying more for quality, not quantity,” he said.

Ellison said that Omar’s positions on key legislation is reflective of what the district wants.

Fifth Congressional District candidate, Democrat Antone Melton-Meaux listens as Leila Shukri Adan, right, a consultant to Antone’s campaign, interprets during an interview of a shopkeeper, left, at a mall that caters to the city’s large Somali American community Wednesday, July 22, 2020. (AP Photo/Jim Mone)

“How would the housing crisis poll in terms of importance? Probably pretty high, and she’s on top of that,” he said. “With the health care crisis given that people are losing their jobs because of the pandemic, she’s right there on Medicare For All.”

Melton-Meaux picked up the endorsement from former congressional candidate Laila Shukri Adan, a Somali immigrant who ran a protest campaign against Omar, but withdrew after the district DFL nominating convention.

“We’re a small minority community. We’re refugees. Most are poor. [Omar] came with a hopeful message, but worked exclusively on a progressive agenda that hasn’t focused on what was happening in the district,” Adan said. “She didn’t represent our [district’s] issues at all. I’m getting the same message from a lot of people. I wasn’t able to get to the primary, but people weren’t questioning why I was running.”

Melton-Meaux has also picked up endorsements from former US Attorney for Minnesota Andy Luger, former NAACP Minnesota president Nekima Levy-Armstrong, Minnesota Sen. Ron Latz, and civil rights icon Josie Johnson.

Omar has the backing of Minnesota Gov. Tim Walz, Lt. Gov. Peggy Flanagan, Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi, Sen. Bernie Sanders and Ellison.

Keith Ellison (R) talks to reporters as he leaves a House Democratic caucus meeting at the US Capitol, February 8, 2018. (Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images via JTA)

“I see a person who is sincere about making sure that people have a place to live, that people have health care,” Ellison said about Omar. “I see a person who cares a lot about people getting a livable wage. Having a voice in their job as a member of a union. A person who cares a lot about climate change, and immigration justice, and who’s been doing it for a long time, even though she’s pretty young. She has decades of history working on these issues that I’ve seen.”

Ellison said Omar has done the job that he would want her to do. According to the Center for Responsive Politics, she has introduced 33 pieces of legislation, and co-sponsored another 576, both far above the median for a member of Congress.

“She has introduced major legislation on homes for all, she’s supporting key legislation that is alleviating poverty, and she had the MEALS Act, which guaranteed meals for kids during the pandemic,” Ellison said.

The Trump effect?

Omar has been a frequent target of US President Donald Trump, from telling her and three other congresswomen of color to “go back where they came from” — despite all being American citizens — to calling her a “disgrace to our country.”

Omar was elected in the first midterm election of the Trump presidency and was already coming into Congress with a high profile. Ellison called her a “walking, talking anti-Trump.”

“He doesn’t like immigrants, she’s an immigrant. He says some people are from shithole countries, she’s from Somalia. He says mean things about Muslims, she’s Muslim. He says nasty things about women, she’s female,” Ellison said. “So in some ways, people voted for her because of that, which is fine, because people vote for folks for all kinds of reasons.”

Hamline University political science professor David Schultz agreed that what helped Omar was the “dysfunctional relationship” she had with the president — but that has changed recently.

“Part of why she was so popular last year was that he would go after her. People circled the wagon around her,” he said. “Once he stopped attacking, her profile went down.”

Part of why she was so popular last year was that Trump would go after her. People circled the wagon around her

One issue that caused a stir was an August 2019 tweet by Trump: “It would show great weakness if Israel allowed Rep. Omar and Rep. Tlaib to visit. They hate Israel & all Jewish people, & there is nothing that can be said or done to change their minds.” That day, Israel announced that it was banning the two congresswomen from entering the country. The ban was criticized by Palestinian, Israeli, and US politicians, as well as civil society groups — including the Jewish Community Relations Council of Minnesota and the Dakotas — and former diplomats.

Campaigning during COVID, post-George Floyd

“I am a uniter, and the Congresswoman is a divider,” said Melton-Meaux. “I ran for Congress certainly to represent the people, but I was dismayed and disillusioned as a resident who voted for her in 2018.”

Both candidates have done Zoom town halls in lieu of rallies and larger-scale, face-to-face events. But when it comes to the day-to-day, Schultz said that Melton-Meaux has been sticking to a more traditional campaign.

Antone Melton-Meaux, one of four challengers to Ilhan Omar in the August 11 Democratic primary, speaks on July 6, 2020. (Screen grab/YouTube)

“It looks like he’s mounting a traditional, old-fashioned campaign, which I think is inefficient,” Schultz said. “Her digital campaign is really good. But the ground game is going to be critical.”

Schultz said that the death of George Floyd and the protests that took place after may have tilted things towards Melton-Meaux.

“People are looking for someone who isn’t divisive,” he said, “In Minneapolis, he’s probably center-left, but I think he’ll do well in the suburbs — which is 40% of the district — and pick up disenchanted and uncomfortable Democrats in the city.”

People are looking for someone who isn’t divisive

Schultz, who said Omar’s anti-Israeli statements, ethical “lapses” with campaign spending, and money spent on her new husband Tim Mynett’s consulting firm, combined with a suburban voter base that is more disillusioned than ever, thinks Omar has a 50/50 shot of keeping her seat.

“If you’re going to beat an incumbent, the literature tells you to challenge in their first term, particularly if the challenger has enough money to have a credible challenge,” he said. “Omar fits the mold of an endangered incumbent.”

While many in the Jewish community are tuned in to the race, Schultz said that turnout could ultimately determine the winner.

“Generally, in the summer, people aren’t that focused on elections for all kinds of reasons and it becomes a question of how focused people are,” he said. “Given the virus, are they going to vote? Are they going to their polling place if they didn’t early vote? Looking at all the elements, this is the recipe for an upset. If it happens or not, we don’t know.”

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