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Ilhan Omar easily beats Antone Melton-Meaux, but it should have been even easier

Rep. Ilhan Omar, the last member of The Squad to face a Democratic primary in the quartet’s first re-election cycle, handily beat back a challenge Tuesday from attorney Antone Melton-Meaux in her Minneapolis-area district, continuing a summer of impressive wins for hard-left progressives.

Omar, one of the first two Muslim women elected to Congress and the first refugee, had 57 percent of the vote to Melton-Meaux’s 39 percent, a dominant performance that belied the national media’s expectations of a closer race. Politico, for instance, led with a banner for much of Tuesday hyping that Omar’s career was “on the line in tough primary.”

Yet while Melton-Meaux, 47, was unusually well-funded for a first-time candidate, he was unable to eclipse Omar’s popularity and name recognition in an area she has served as both a member of Congress and, prior to that, a state representative. Melton-Meaux raised $4.1 million of July 22, nearly matching the incumbent’s $4.3 million, according to the Federal Election Commission.

“This is a powerful and unexpectedly strong win for Ilhan Omar,” University of Minnesota political science professor Larry Jacobs said. “It gives her a boost of confidence and also sends her a message that the kind of strong progressive policies she’s pursuing are supported in the district.”

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Indeed, with this victory, Omar joins fellow Squad members Reps. Rashida Tlaib of Michigan and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of New York in landslide triumphs that all but ensure their fall re-elections given the overwhelmingly Democratic makeup of their districts. The fourth Squad member, Rep. Ayanna Pressley of Massachusetts, does not have a primary challenger this year.

The Squad is a moniker the four first-term women of color with similar Bernie Sanders-style left-wing political views gave themselves in jest, only to find Republicans turning it into a sobriquet. In July, they re-appropriated it by forming the Squad Victory Fund, a joint fundraising committee they intend to use to help support like-minded candidates.

“Tonight, our movement didn’t just win. We earned a mandate for change,” Omar tweeted shortly after the race was called. “Despite outside efforts to defeat us, we once again broke turnout records. Despite the attacks, our support has only grown.”

A substantial portion of Melton-Meaux’s financial and political support came from Jewish groups hoping to unseat the congresswoman. Omar has been a controversial figure buffeted by accusations of anti-Semitism after saying, early in her tenure, that for Jews, support of Israel is “all about the Benjamins” and suggesting that Jewish-American advocates have an “allegiance to a foreign country.”

She apologized, but a few months later, Omar was one of just 17 members of Congress to vote not to condemn the boycott, disinvestment and sanctions (BDS) policy aimed at punishing Israel’s economy for its handling of Palestine. During the 2018 campaign, she said at a synagogue appearance she opposed BDS.

Omar’s victory came a week after Tlaib, also a BDS supporter, won her primary as well, and Cori Bush, a Black Lives Matter activist in the St. Louis area, unseated a 10-term Rep. William Lacy Clay. In June, on the same night that Ocasio-Cortez won her primary, another progressive of The Squad mold, Jamaal Bowman, unseated 16-term Rep. Eliot Engel.

“In the face of vicious attacks from Donald Trump and the far-right since being elected to Congress, Ilhan Omar has fought for her constituents with courage and a positive progressive vision,” said Alexandra Rojas, executive director of the progressive PAC Justice Democrats. “Despite all the manufactured hype and money spent attacking them, The Squad is winning, it’s growing, and is here to stay.”

In Melton-Meaux, anti-Omar forces had an amiable Lutheran with a master’s degree in the study of the Hebrew Bible from Union Theological Seminary in New York, taught Hebrew lessons at Harlem’s Abyssinian Baptist Church and served as a chaplain at New York’s New Jewish Home and Hospital.

Melton-Meaux is a professional conflict mediator and campaigned against Omar by accusing her of being unwilling to compromise and too distracted by the trappings of her national profile to be attentive to the needs of her district.

“We don’t have the time for someone to be in this role whose principal vision towards the Jewish community, Israel and many others, is that of a division,” he told the Forward earlier this summer.

Candidate Antone Melton-Meaux and family

Candidate Antone Melton-Meaux and family Image by Antone Melton-Meaux

He received the endorsement of the state’s largest newspaper, the Star Tribune, which wrote said her tenure in Congress had been “marred by missteps, including remarks on Israel widely regarded as anti-Semitic, an outsized number of missed votes, and campaign-finance issues.”

It didn’t matter. Also of little consequence to the race was the fact that the district was the home and the scene of the death of George Floyd at the hands of police, an incident that launched a summer of racial unrest across the nation. Melton-Meaux suggested he, the descendant of American slaves, could better appreciate the complaints of the Black Lives Matter movement against the police. Omar immigrated to the U.S. when she was 12 as a Somali refugee.

Jacobs said Omar would be wise to heed some warnings despite her convincing win. What should have been an easy campaign required more money and effort because of the controversies she’s attracted – including her surprise marriage to her political consultant in March and allegations she funneled campaign funds into his firm, he said.

“It’s a big win but it does send her a signal that her comments about Israel and Jews, the controversies around her personal life along with complaints that she is not doing enough service for her district are something she needs to address,” he said. “She should not have been the lightning rod that attracted millions of dollars to her opponents. This should be one of the safest districts in the country and instead she had to fight it like a general election battle. She’s got a lot of fence-mending.”


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