Democratic U.S. Rep. Ilhan Omar began her pursuit of a second term Thursday, midway through a groundbreaking yet turbulent first term and with a long slate of opponents.
Her first run for Congress in 2018 was a five-month sprint that led her past more-established politicians. A convincing win made her the first Somali-born member of Congress and one of the first Muslim women to serve in such a high office.
Omar’s bid to remain there presents a different kind of test. She faces some uneasiness in the district’s heavily Democratic voting base and near-constant criticism over her record and personal life from the right.
Even beyond her Minneapolis-centered district, Omar figures into other campaigns, either by lending her personal support or being used by political foes to portray Democrats as ideologically extreme. Her face has appeared in TV ads and billboards in other states already.
Omar’s launch of the 2020 campaign had her before ardent backers in an event space in downtown Minneapolis’ North Loop. The evening’s invite urged people to “send her back to Congress,” a clear reference to the chants of “send her back” at one of President Trump’s campaign rallies as he talked about Omar. Volunteers handed out campaign signs and T-shirts with the slogan to several hundred supporters.
“I’m running for reelection because I understand what it means to get in the ring and fight for everyday people, working-class people, poor people and every single person who lives in the margins of our society,” Omar said.
Omar has some big-name defenders in her corner, including Democratic Attorney General Keith Ellison and several but not all of the district’s state legislators. Ellison preceded Omar as the 5th District’s representative.
“Ilhan Omar is a living, walking, breathing example of anti-Trump. That’s why he comes down here and talks smack about her,” Ellison said at Omar’s reelection kickoff rally. “He attacks her because he’s scared of her.”
Omar’s rise has been swift — from a single term in the Minnesota House to a recognizable face around the world.
Lately, Omar has spent time campaigning to make Democratic socialist Bernie Sanders her party’s presidential nominee. At a big Minneapolis rally late last year, she introduced the white-haired senator from the East Coast as someone with whom she could “build a mass movement of the working class that transcends faith, age, gender and background.”
In Congress, Omar counts herself as part of “the squad” — a group of four first-term women from the left flank of the Democratic Party who haven’t been shy about making noise.
But that’s also landed her in sticky spots.
Early on, she apologized for a tweet that drew accusations of anti-Semitism; some Jewish community leaders have demanded she do more to atone for that and other comments and are taking a wait-and-see attitude.
She also caused a stir with a vote against a resolution condemning the Armenian genocide, which Omar says should have encompassed other atrocities, too. Questions surrounding her personal life have also attracted considerable attention.
Antone Melton-Meaux, one of a few Democratic challengers to Omar’s reelection, said all of it has been an unfortunate distraction.
“For me, it’s not about being a star — it’s about serving the people,” he said.
Melton-Meaux, 47, is a professional mediator and a first-time candidate. But Melton-Meaux has worked for Democratic officials in Congress and elsewhere. He’s been introducing himself at DFL events across the district and gearing up for a likely August primary.
“I think people are hungry for servant leaders who just want to do the work and not be focused on a Twitter handle or an Instagram follower number,” he said. “It’s about very basic things, showing up, listening, engaging the people, putting in the hard, detailed work and getting things done.”
Omar's office points to dozens of bills or amendments bearing her name and more than 47,000 constituent letters answered as signs she is working hard.
Waiting in the wings are a third-party candidate — the Independence Party’s Chris Kelley — and a handful of Republicans vying for that party nomination.
One of those Republicans is Lacy Johnson, who has deep roots in the district covering Minneapolis and nearby suburbs that he believes will give him a leg up.
“Some of the people that’s running, they don’t even live in the district,” Johnson said. “Some of them don’t even live in the state."
Johnson is 65 with a technology and business background. He said poverty, crime and social disparities fester in the fifth, so it's time for a new approach. But he knows it’s a tall order to take out an incumbent in one of the nation’s most reliably Democratic districts.
“Of course when you are an African American gentleman running as a Republican in the age of Trump, that’s going to stir up some things,” Johnson said. “If you’re confident that you know what you’re doing and know where you’re going, you can put up with that. And you know what’s in your heart.”
One thing is clear: Omar’s high profile is good for fundraising.
She’s already scooped up more than $2.5 million in campaign donations, and through September had more than half of that in reserve.
But Omar has also been a money magnet for the opposition, with a few of her rivals well into six figures, too.
Johnson is tops among the Republicans and has raised just shy of $500,000 so far. That total is more than the past four Republican candidates to run for the seat took in for their races combined.
Kelley, the Independence Party candidate, has also raised hundreds of thousands of dollars.
In just two months as a candidate, Melton-Meaux said he’s taken in about $200,000 and has an upcoming fundraiser hosted by some well-established DFL donors.
On Thursday, Golden Valley Mayor Shep Harris endorsed Melton-Meaux. Harris told MPR News that his high hopes for Omar “were quickly dashed by divisive rhetoric” by the incumbent and their meetings haven’t demonstrated that she’s an effective leader.
Omar told supporters at her rally that she’ll be relying on their passion to propel her forward.
“I believe that it is going to take all of us to make sure that we have homes for all, that we have ‘Medicare for All,’ that we have universal school meals, that we cut the welfare system to the fossil fuel industry, that we fight for a Green New Deal,” Omar said.