Omar, McCollum face challenges from fellow Democrats

Two photos of women side by side.
Rep. Ilhan Omar and Rep. Betty McCollum each face well-funded challengers in the Aug. 9 primary election.
Kerem Yücel and Tony Saunders | MPR News

Two DFL members of Congress in the heart of the metro area face well-funded challenges from within their own party.

Early voting is already underway for the Aug. 9 primary election, and Rep. Ilhan Omar, whose district includes Minneapolis, and Rep. Betty McCollum, who represents St. Paul, are both fighting to stay on the November ballot. 

In Minneapolis, challenger Don Samuels is well known. He's a former city council and school board member who was active in the successful campaign last year to defeat a measure that would have replaced the police department with a new department of public safety. 

Now he wants to defeat Omar, saying she hasn't done enough for the 5th District and that her often controversial rhetoric is hurting Democrats nationwide.

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“'Defund the police' was a snappy, strong slogan that only alienates voters and makes real reform more difficult,” said Samuels, adding that people in Minneapolis and the rest of the district need someone who can get things done in Congress — not just attract attention.

“We don't need someone to make a point in Washington. We need someone to make a difference in Washington,” he said. “That is what this campaign is about.”

A man at a podium in front of a campaign sign
Don Samuels is challenging Rep.Ilhan Omar because he said she hasn't done enough for the 5th district and that her often controversial rhetoric is hurting Democrats nationwide.
Mark Zdechlik | MPR News

Omar easily fended off a primary challenger two years ago who accused her of being more concerned about headlines than her Minnesota constituents. That opponent raised a lot of campaign money, and Samuels has out-raised Omar over the past few months. 

Omar predicts she will once again prevail.

"I think anybody who says we're not focused on the district or we're not delivering or making a difference for our constituents is simply not paying attention or is a liar,” Omar said.

Omar, a member of the "squad" of young progressive women in Congress, does not back down from her “defund the police” statements and contends her brand of politics energizes Democrats. 

“We help Democrats up and down the ticket and have been successful in trying to make sure that we increase turnout in our district,” Omar said. “And we are currently fighting to make sure Democrats maintain the House and win some more seats in the Senate.”

Across the river, the most senior member of Minnesota’s congressional delegation, Rep. Betty McCollum, is facing a DFL primary challenge from Amane Badhasso, a political organizer who first came to the United States with her family as a refugee from Ethiopia.

“I am running for Congress because we need a new generation of progressive Democrats,” Badhasso said, adding that McCollum and other “status quo Democrats” have failed to deliver the systemic change many in her party have been demanding for years.

A woman outdoor restaurant smiles at the camera
Amane Badhasso is a political organizer and a refugee from Ethiopia who says Rep. Betty McCollum and other “status quo Democrats" have failed to deliver systemic change that many in her party have been demanding for years
Mark Zdechlik | MPR News

“They are not addressing the issue of the climate catastrophe. They're not addressing the issue of income inequality. They're not addressing the issue of systemic racism in this country,” Badhasso said. “And what we need is somebody that's accountable to the folks in the district.”

McCollum has been in Congress for nearly 22 years. She chairs an appropriations subcommittee and defends her progressive voting record on issues from health care to the environment. 

“I'm disappointed too that we haven't been able to get the Senate to pass any of this legislation,” McCollum said. “But that's the Senate's numbers. And in the House, I've been successful in building coalitions to move these programs forward.”

Badhasso has raised hundreds of thousands of dollars for her challenge. McCollum has more.

University of Minnesota political science professor Michael Minta says it’s noteworthy that both McCollum and Omar’s challengers agree with the incumbents on almost all the major issues.

“When you're seeing the primary challengers, it's usually a progressive candidate challenging a centrist Democrat,” Minta said. “But you know, Rep. McCollum is progressive.”

That may be one reason McCollum is underscoring the value of her seniority in Congress.

“With my experience, as new members come on and seek committee assignments, I walk people through the way that procedures on the floor work, who to go talk to, if you need help with something,” she said. “Those are all behind the scenes and valuable things that my seniority brings to our state and to the Midwest.”