‘We don’t need someone distracted with Twitter’: Ilhan Omar fights off tough primary challenge
The Minnesota freshman and "Squad" member faces criticism that she’s too divisive to effectively represent her district.
Although her opponent's substantial fundraising numbers catapulted him into contention, Rep. Ilhan Omar is still viewed as the favorite in the Aug. 11 primary. | Scott Heins/Getty Images
Rep. Ilhan Omar is one of the best-known Democrats from the class of 2018, a lightning-rod member of the Squad whose outspoken liberal politics have made her an enemy of Donald Trump.
Back home in Minneapolis, however, her polarizing national profile is complicating her bid to win a second term.
Facing a political newcomer who raised a jaw-dropping $3.2 million last quarter — much of it from pro-Israel donors who oppose Omar’s foreign policy stances — Omar suddenly finds herself on the defensive against claims that she’s too divisive to effectively represent the solidly Democratic district.
“We don't need someone distracted with Twitter fights,” said primary challenger Antone Melton-Meaux, who pledges to focus on local issues and avoid the spotlight. “I don't want to be a celebrity. I want to serve the people, and people are tired of the politics of division and distraction.”
The first Black Muslim woman to serve in Congress, Omar has built an image as a progressive champion who isn’t afraid to stand up to Trump. The president, in turn, has frequently singled out the freshman lawmaker, disparaging her as an anti-Semite, an “America-hating socialist” and falsely claiming that she publicly supports al Qaeda.
A Somali refugee who is the first member of Congress to wear a hijab, Omar was attacked in xenophobic terms by Trump in 2019 when he encouraged her and other members of the Squad to “go back” to where they came from. As a result, supporters rallied around Omar in the district, which is the most strongly Democratic in the state.
Yet many constituents have been alienated by her comments about Israel. Omar has been accused of anti-Semitism after suggesting support for Israel was popular due to campaign donations, that pro-Israel lawmakers had dual allegiance to both the U. S. and Israel and Israel had “hypnotized the world.”
“Rep. Omar's past comments invoked age-old anti-Semitic tropes and rhetoric that echoed and brought about the nightmares of persecution,” said Rabbi Avi Olitzky, who leads a congregation in the district.
Olitzky threw his support behind Melton-Meaux, who has spoken out about Omar’s comments about Israel, and said the challenger brings desperately needed conflict resolution skills to the political climate.
University of Minnesota political scientist Larry Jacobs said Omar’s comments have infuriated the district’s small but influential Jewish community.
“You've got an opponent who is playing on these divisions with resources to build his name recognition and take the fight to Omar,” Jacobs said. “Can she counter that with less money and with political skills that have not been impressive to this point?”
A significant swath of the Fifth District’s Jewish community has an uneasy relationship with Omar, according to Steve Hunegs, the executive director of the Jewish Community Relations Council for Minnesota and the Dakotas. But Hunegs added the community is not monolithic and some progressive Jews are behind the incumbent.
Omar voter Liz Loeb said as a Jewish person, she was hurt by Omar’s rhetoric, but does not think the lawmaker is anti-Semitic.
“I need a representative that advocates for, and cares about and understands the experiences of people who are marginalized within communities,” Loeb said.
Allies of the first-term lawmaker say Omar has reached out to the Jewish community and point to her apology in 2019. In a sign of her support from the national party establishment, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi endorsed Omar earlier this month — a year removed from Pelosi’s rebuke of the congresswoman.
Omar is also backed by former Rep. Keith El... (Read more)
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