Politics and Government

Rep. Ilhan Omar works to fend off a second challenge from fellow Democrat Don Samuels

A woman talks to crowd
Minnesota U.S. Rep. Ilhan Omar listens to a member of the press ask a question during a press conference in Minneapolis marking the two year anniversary of the US Supreme Court decision that overturned the federal right to an abortion on June 17.
Clay Masters | MPR News

Minnesota’s 5th Congressional District is a Democratic stronghold but U.S. Rep. Ilhan Omar is again having to spend considerable time and likely money to hang onto the seat given a challenge from within her party.

Early voting begins one week from Friday ahead of Minnesota’s August primary, where Omar will face former Minneapolis City Council member Don Samuels for a second consecutive election. He came just shy of defeating the incumbent in a 2022 primary in which he used a burst of money — about $1.4 million — to do it.

This time, Omar is spending more time touting her record in the district: stressing the federal money she’s helped land for community projects and hosting regular town halls. And she’s deploying some of the $2.2 million campaign stockpile as she leaves little to chance, dwarfing what Samuels has available this time around.

Omar’s campaign is already up on TV with commercials, a biographical spot that ends with a reminder for people to “vote on or before August 13th.”

A handful of abortions rights supporters gathered this week at The Coven, a co-working office in Minneapolis, the anchor city in the district. They were there to mark the upcoming two-year anniversary of the Supreme Court overturning the federal right to an abortion. 

Omar was at a podium, surrounded by lawmakers and the chief executive officer of Planned Parenthood North Central States, and quoted the president during his State of the Union address. 

“President Biden said, ‘If you, the American people, send me a Congress that supports the right to choose, I promise you, I will restore Roe versus Wade as the law of the land again,’” Omar said. 

Omar said the money her campaign is spending now could be spent in tougher races for Democrats throughout the country. 

“If people really do care about protecting our democracy, if they really care about advancing abortion rights, if they really care about all of the things that we could be accomplishing with the majority, they should think about what it means for us to continuously have to spend millions of dollars in a primary here in the fifth,” Omar said.

But Samuels sees his 2022 finish as a sign. 

“A statement of coming that close, in defiance of many people’s expectations, said that people still wanted change,” Samuels told MPR News in an interview. “If we had another week or two, we might have achieved that. So that’s why I’m running again.”

Republican Dalia Al-Aqidi has no opposition for her party’s nomination and will face the DFL primary winner in November. Omar won her last term with 74 percent of the vote, the third time she ran up the general election score.

In the leadup to the 2022 primary election, Omar was known for making national headlines for comments she made in Congress, but not seen as active in the district. This time around, her campaign is holding more events highlighting federal grants she has helped secure for communities in the district. 

Minneapolis Mayor Jacob Frey endorsed Samuels two years ago and his longtime political adviser is managing the Samuels campaign. Frey and Omar have had a prickly relationship, but when asked in April he was reluctant to weigh in on the race.

“I’m a defender of Minneapolis,” Frey told MPR News before a public appearance with Omar celebrating different funding streams she’d secured for the district. “Different elected officials have different perspectives … regardless of different perspectives you’ve got to work with each other.”

While Omar tries to put the focus on more-local matters, Samuels has highlighted her comments about the war in Gaza, hoping to cast her as a divisive figure on the issue.

Their differing opinions on the Middle East were on display back in May when the two were competing for the DFL endorsement at a high school auditorium in Minneapolis. The two were both asked by a moderator to give their position “on the Israeli Gaza conflict.”

Samuels called it fraught and very complex. 

“We cannot alienate any part of our community. We have to bring each other to face the reality on both sides and come together to suggest in our peaceful place that a community can come together as we will expect the Middle East to come together for a two state solution with dignity and equality for all,” Samuels said. 

A man talks to a crowd with a flag behind him
Former Minneapolis City Councilman Don Samuels holds a press availability in Minneapolis on June 6. Samuels is challenging Rep. Ilhan Omar in the Democratic primary race for Minnesota's 5th congressional district.
Clay Masters | MPR News

Omar said the United States should not allow tax dollars to pay for bombs Israel has used to devastating effect in Gaza, including huge civilian casualties and displacement. 

“You cannot allow for the death of one people to be acceptable while you condemn the death of others,” Omar said. “That is not being neutral in any kind of way. That is choosing which life is valuable and which one is not and my humanity does not allow me to do that.”

Ultimately, Omar won the endorsement in the first round of balloting, which unlocks funding from the local party in her race against Samuels. She also has the backing of Attorney General Keith Ellison, her predecessor who was behind her campaign before the state party endorsement.

This week, Samuels announced the endorsement of The United Steelworkers and the International Union of Operating Engineers 

Lately, Samuels started questioning the business dealings of her well-connected political consultant husband. Omar’s campaign said bringing the matter into the campaign is “desperate” and “politically motivated.”

In the end, Samuels says the race is about a change in leadership that will bring people together. 

“We understood all along that the inner workings of the party were out of step with the average voter,” Samuels said. “So we are taking our case to the average voter on August 13.”

Samuels has less than two months now to set himself apart from one of the most visible members of Congress. Omar would all but lock up a fourth term if she can come out ahead of Samuels again in August.