Moderate rival nearly upsets Ilhan Omar in primary race pro-Israel groups sat out

After spending millions to defeat Squad member in last election only to lose in landslide, mainstream Jewish groups avoided endorsing Don Samuels, who is poised to lose by just 2%

Jacob Magid is The Times of Israel's US correspondent based in New York

U.S. Rep. Ilhan Omar waves to passersby for support during a voter engagement event on the corner of Broadway and Central Avenues in Minneapolis, on Tuesday, Aug. 9, 2022. (Elizabeth Flores/Star Tribune via AP)
U.S. Rep. Ilhan Omar waves to passersby for support during a voter engagement event on the corner of Broadway and Central Avenues in Minneapolis, on Tuesday, Aug. 9, 2022. (Elizabeth Flores/Star Tribune via AP)

Progressive Rep. Ilhan Omar narrowly maintained her Congressional seat after a moderate challenger nearly pulled off an upset in the Democratic primary election for Minnesota’s 5th District on Tuesday.

With nearly all the votes counted, Omar led Don Samuels 50.3% to 48.2%. Just under 2,500 votes separated the two candidates, enough of a margin to lead the Associated Press and major networks to call the race in Omar’s favor.

The results were sure to humble Omar though, as she had been expected to cruise to her third straight victory in the dark blue district. But Samuels, who insisted during the campaign that Omar had alienated large swaths of the public in Minneapolis and the surrounding suburbs with her hard-left stances, managed to keep the race surprisingly close.

Omar wrote on Twitter that her victory Tuesday “is a testament to how much our district believes in the collective values we are fighting for.”

Samuels said his narrow loss shows that Omar is beatable: “If this was the general election, no doubt that we would have won this race.”

Little polling was done ahead of time, but a June survey from Change Research showed Omar in a commanding lead with 60% of the vote compared to Samuels’s 21%.

Perhaps accordingly, pro-Israel groups such as AIPAC chose to stay out of her race. They poured millions into the campaign of Omar’s last challenger only to see the progressive Squad member win by 20 points. But their overall success in backing more moderate Democrats who defeated progressive candidates throughout the country indicates that they could’ve played a difference maker in Tuesday’s election as well.

A spokesperson for AIPAC’s Super PAC United Democracy Project told the Jewish Telegraphic Agency that the group was more focused on preventing critics of Israel from taking office than on unseating incumbents. In one notable outlier, the group spent more than $4 million in Michigan against Democratic Rep. Andy Levin, who lost last week — but he was one of two incumbents vying for a redistricted seat.

A 72-year-old former Minneapolis city councilman, Samuels received endorsements from the state’s largest newspaper, the Star Tribune, and from Minneapolis Mayor Jacob Frey.

In a recent interview with The Times of Israel, the 72-year-old Jamaica native pointed to a proposal rejected by 56% of Minneapolis voters last November that would have seen the city’s police department replaced with a “public-health oriented” Department of Public Safety. The initiative — rejected by 78% of Black voters — was backed by Omar, who became the first Somali-American elected to Congress in 2018.

“She was out of touch with the community she was claiming to protect, and she was out of touch with the voters in general,” Samuels said. “It’s reflective of a problem that she has, which caused me to run because she has alienated several groups.”

Undated photo of Minnesota Congressional candidate Don Samuels. (Neighbors for Samuels)

He said Omar alienated the African-American community by supporting efforts to defund the police, put off construction workers over her opposition to US President Joe Biden’s infrastructure bill, and alienated the Jewish community over her comments and record on Israel.

Omar has fought off accusations of antisemitism from pro-Israel organizations since entering Congress, particularly after she suggested that Jewish money was behind American officials’ support for Israel. The lawmaker subsequently apologized and said she was studying “the painful history of antisemitic tropes.”

Still, she became one of the first Congress members to publicly back the Boycott Divestment and Sanctions movement (BDS) targeting Israel.

The Associated Press and JTA contributed to this report.

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