Election 2020

Minnesota's August primary: A closer look at the 5th, 7th District races

U.S. Rep. Ilhan Omar smiles at a podium on stage.
U.S. Rep. Ilhan Omar speaks at a town hall at Sabathani Community Center in south Minneapolis on July 18, 2019. Several Democrats are challenging Omar in the 5th Congressional District race.
Caroline Yang for MPR News 2019

Updated: July 7, 2:56 p.m. | Posted: July 6, 6:51 a.m.

Minnesota’s 7th District covers the western third of the state from Canada to just north of Iowa. It’s Trump country — the president won there by more than 30 percentage points even though Democrat Collin Peterson has represented the 7th for 30 years.

Before Republicans can take on Peterson once again, they need to settle a primary contest. Former State Sen. and Lt. Gov. Michelle Fischbach won the Republican endorsement.

But retired Air Force Maj. Dave Hughes says he’s “better for the people in western Minnesota in every conceivable way.” Hughes, who twice lost to Peterson, wants Republican primary voters to back him for another rematch. 

From gun rights and abortion issues to government spending, Hughes, a drone flight instructor, said he’s more conservative than Fischbach.

“She is a career politician,” Hughes said. “She was in the state Senate for 21 years and the conservative folks in western Minnesota don’t want a career politician.”

Republican candidate Dave Hughe
Republican candidate Dave Hughes sits at the MPR office in Moorhead, Minn., for a debate with his Democratic opponent Rep. Collin Peterson in the race for Minnesota's 7th Congressional District in 2018.
Matt Mikus | MPR News 2018

Hughes lost the Republican endorsement to Fischbach. He blames her former campaign manager, saying the campaign worker repeatedly jammed his phone line as he tried to participate in virtual Republican county conventions.

Fischbach will say little about the allegations other than the employee is no longer with her campaign.

“It is now a legal matter,” she said.

Hughes had Trump’s endorsement in 2018, but the president is now backing Fischbach. She hopes he will campaign for her in Minnesota.

Republican Lt. Governor Michelle Fischbach.
Then-Lt. Gov. Michelle Fischbach takes questions from reporters during a press conference inside the State Office Building in St. Paul in May 2018.
Evan Frost | MPR News 2018

“We would love to have him,” Fischbach said. “We would make him feel very welcome, but we don’t know what his schedule looks like.”

Fischbach dismisses Hughes’ primary challenge.

“Our focus has always been on Peterson,” she said.

Another candidate running for the Republican nomination in the 7th is Albany physician Noel Collis. Like Hughes, Collis calls himself a political outsider and refers to Fishbach as a “career” politician. On the issues, Collis says he’s concerned about the scope of the federal government.

“We're at a critical point in our history because the radical element of the Democratic Party believes in Washington-based control of American life,” Collis says. “I believe in restoring freedom by transferring control back to the states and putting power back to the local level with the people."

Far from 7th District farmland, several Democrats are toe-to-toe in the 5th Congressional District race in the Minneapolis area. They are challenging incumbent Ilhan Omar, who's been in Congress less than two years but has built a national following.

“It’s been really the honor of my life to represent my district, to be a voice for those that have been told they are too loud and that their, you know, presence isn’t supposed to be in the halls of power,” Omar said.

Antone Melton-Meaux, who works as a mediator, had raised nearly a half-million dollars for his campaign through March, much more than Omar's other primary challengers combined. He's also assembled an impressive list of endorsements — including veteran civil rights leader Josie Johnson and former Minneapolis City Council member Don Samuels. Melton-Meaux accuses Omar of neglecting her constituents.

Antone Melton-Meaux
Antone Melton-Meaux is running for the 5th Congressional District in Minneapolis against U.S. Rep. Ilhan Omar in the DFL primary.
Courtesy of Antone For Congress

“She gets into fights Twitter fights, social media fights with the president, even with the DFL Party, and I’m not interested in celebrity or Twitter, I simply want to serve the people,” Melton-Meaux said. “We need someone who’s going to unite us. We don’t need any more dividers.”

But Omar said 5th District Democrats appreciate the national voice she gives to their concerns about racial, social and economic justice.

“To have somebody who expects me to not be able to fight for the millions of people in this country who have been told to go back to where they came from and stand up for many of the refugees and immigrants in our state really is disappointing,” said Omar.

But Melton-Meaux counters that Omar is often absent from the debate.

“She has one of the worst voter attendance records in the U.S. House of Representatives,” Meaux said. “For me whenever you choose not to vote, you have effectively disenfranchised your residents.”

Omar said Melton-Meaux is misrepresenting her voting record.

According to the voting tracking organization GovTrack, in roughly her first year-and-a-half in Congress, Omar missed 5 percent of the roll call votes. GovTrack says that’s a lot more than many members of Congress — more than twice the median of members of the House of Representatives.

In addition to incumbency, Omar has a major fundraising advantage over Melton-Meaux. Through March she had raised more than seven times what he had.

Regardless of whether it’s the primary or November general election, Minnesota Secretary of State Steve Simon said that like everything else,  voting will be different this year because of the pandemic.

“They’re going to notice masks for election judges and made available for themselves as voters, they’re going to notice hand sanitizers, wipes and protocols for making the polling place clean,” Simon said. “The thing that they won’t see is that we’ve seen a predictable surge in request for absentee ballots and the numbers are really chart-topping.”

Simon said requests for mail-in ballots are running at more than 20 times the rates they were at this time during the 2018 and 2016 elections. Simon is asking people who think they want to vote by mail to get their ballot requests in as soon as possible so that election officials won’t be overwhelmed trying to fill those requests as the election approaches.

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