Ilhan Omar ekes out surprisingly tight US House primary win in Minnesota

Ilhan Omar ekes out surprisingly tight US House primary win in Minnesota
Ilhan Omar's narrow defeat of Don Samuels comes after she crushed a similar primary challenge two years ago from a well-funded but lesser-known opponent.
5 min read
Ilhan Omar (centre) is one of the left's leading voices in Congress [Anna Moneymaker/Getty-archive]

Minnesota Congresswoman Ilhan Omar, a member of the progressive Squad, eked out a closer-than-expected Democratic primary victory on Tuesday against a centrist challenger who questioned the incumbent's support for the "defund the police" movement.

The evening went far smoother for another progressive, Becca Balint, who won the Democratic House primary in Vermont – positioning her to become the first woman representing the state in Congress.

A key race was unfolding in western Wisconsin, where Democratic Congressman Ron Kind's retirement after 26 years in office opens up a seat in a district that has been trending Republican.

The GOP nominee vying to replace Kind is a former Navy SEAL who attended the "Stop the Steal" rally in Washington on 6 January 2021, which preceded the insurrection at the US Capitol.

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Omar survives tough challenge

Omar, who represents Minneapolis and is one of the left's leading voices in Congress, has defended calls to redirect public safety funding more into community-based programmes.

She squared off with former City Councilmember Don Samuels, whose north Minneapolis base suffers from more violent crime than other parts of the city.

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Samuels argued that Omar is divisive and helped defeat a ballot question last year that sought to replace the city police department with a new public safety unit.

He and others also successfully sued the city to force it to meet minimum police staffing levels called for in Minneapolis' charter.

Samuels said his narrow loss shows that Omar is beatable: "If this was the general election, no doubt that we would have won this race."

Omar countered: "Tonight’s victory is a testament to how much our district believes in the collective values we are fighting for."

Barb Atkinson, a 53-year-old part-time event planner for a radio station who supported Samuels, called Omar "too far to the left".

"Although I respect Ilhan Omar and what she's done, I disagree with the defund the police. I really think that wording sends the wrong message," Atkinson said.

She added: "We need our leaders to work together to solve this issue."

Omar, who is seeking her third term in the House, had crushed a similar primary challenge two years ago from a well-funded but lesser-known opponent.

"She’s had a lot of adversity already and pushback. I don't think her work is done," said Kathy Ward, a 62-year-old property caretaker for an apartment building in Minneapolis who voted for Omar. "We’ve got to give her a chance."

Two other members of the Squad – Congresswomen Rashida Tlaib of Michigan and Cori Bush of Missouri – won their Democratic primaries last week.

Two elections, one seat in southern Minnesota

Voters in southern Minnesota, meanwhile, were deciding two races related to the same seat vacated by Republican Congressman Jim Hagedorn, who died earlier this year from cancer.

A special election for the remainder of Hagedorn's term pitted Republican Brad Finstad, who served in the US Department of Agriculture during the Trump administration, against Democrat Jeff Ettinger, a former chief executive at Hormel Foods.

Both won a 24 May special primary election for Hagedorn's seat to serve until January – though the race was too early to call Wednesday morning.

Regardless, Finstad and Ettinger will face off again in November for a full term in the district – it includes Rochester and Mankato – after each secured their party's nomination Tuesday.

Ettinger faced minimal primary opposition while Finstad had little trouble dispatching state Representative Jeremy Munson.

Munson said he doesn't think President Joe Biden's victory was legitimate – despite federal and state election officials, courts and Trump’s own attorney general saying there was no credible evidence the 2020 presidential election was tainted.

Replacing Ron Kind

Republicans see a pickup opportunity in Wisconsin's 3rd Congressional District, the seat being vacated by Democratic incumbent Kind.

The district covers a swath of counties along Wisconsin's western border with Minnesota and includes La Crosse and Eau Claire.

Republican Derrick Van Orden was unopposed in his primary on Tuesday and has Trump's endorsement.

Van Orden narrowly lost to Kind in the 2020 general election.

He attended Trump's "Stop the Steal" rally near the White House but has said he never stepped foot on the grounds of the Capitol during the insurrection.

State Senator Brad Pfaff topped three other Democrats to secure the party's nomination and will face Van Orden in the fall.

Pfaff, a onetime state agriculture secretary, had previously worked for Kind and received his endorsement.

Rare Vermont open Senate seat

Vermont is the last state in the country yet to add a female member to its congressional delegation.

Balint, who immediately becomes the favourite in November's general election, would also be the first openly gay member of Congress from Vermont.

She was endorsed by some of the nation's highest-profile leaders on the left, including Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders, Massachusetts Senator Elizabeth Warren and Congresswoman Pramila Jayapal, chair of the Congressional Progressive Caucus.

"Vermont has chosen a bold, progressive vision for the future, and I will be proud to represent us in Congress," Balint said in a statement.

Balint is vying to fill the state's lone House seat, which is being vacated by Congressman Peter Welch who is running for Senate and easily secured the Democratic nomination on Tuesday.

Welch is trying to succeed Senator Patrick Leahy, the Senate’s longest-serving member, who is retiring, creating Vermont's first open Senate seat since 2006, when Sanders succeeded Jim Jeffords.

Balint defeated Lieutenant Governor Molly Gray, an ex-staffer for Welch and has been backed by Leahy and former Vermont Governor Howard Dean.

In November, she'll face Liam Madden, a Marine Corps veteran from Bellows Falls who secured the Republican nomination.