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Ilhan Omar gets backing of top Democrats ahead of reelection race

Key Democratic legislators, including Nancy Pelosi, Elizabeth Warren and Barbara Lee have endorsed Omar ahead of Tuesday's election
Minnesota Governor Tim Walz and Senator Tina Smith are backing Omar as well (AFP/File photo)
By Ali Harb in Washington

At a virtual fundraiser last month, Senator Bernie Sanders hailed Ilhan Omar as one of a "handful" of "great" members of Congress.

"What makes Ilhan unique is her understanding that we're not just fighting for one issue here or one issue there," Sanders said. "She understands that we are taking on an entire system - a system based on greed."

The endorsement from the progressive leader was resounding but not unexpected. Since arriving to Congress early in 2019, Omar has emerged as an outspoken figure on the Sanders-aligned left. 

But as she heads for a primary race against a well-funded challenger on Tuesday, the Congresswoman has expanded her base of support earning the endorsements of key figures within the party, including House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and progressive Senator Elizabeth Warren.

'Ilhan is a remarkable leader who has established herself as a visionary both in her district and our nation'

- Congresswoman Barbara Lee

Omar will face off against mediation lawyer Antone Melton-Meaux, a political newcomer who burst onto the national scene in July after reporting his fundraising tally for the second quarter of 2020 - a staggering $3.2m raised with the help of many pro-Israel groups.

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During the same period, the renowned incumbent had only collected $471,000 in donations. The numbers gave Melton-Meaux a media boost and put the Israeli-Palestinian conflict at the centre of another Democratic primary.

Overall, Omar has raised $4.2m this election cycle, slightly more than Melton-Meaux's $4m.

Earlier this year, pro-Israel organisations had spent heavily, but unsuccessfully, to protect Democratic Congressman Eliot Engel, of New York, against progressive challenger Jamaal Bowman.

Party support

Omar, a former state legislator who came to the United States as a refugee from Somalia, represents the heavily Democratic 5th Congressional District, which covers the city of Minneapolis and a few suburban communities. 

In 2018, she comfortably won a six-candidate primary to fill the seat of Keith Ellison who left the House of Representatives to become the state's attorney general. In the following January, she was sworn-in as one of the first two Muslim women in Congress.

Omar captured the attention of the country early on as Congress moved to amend its ban on headwear in order to accommodate the incoming congresswoman's hijab.

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The celebration quickly turned into controversy when Omar criticised the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC), suggesting that campaign donations drive support for Israel in congress.

"It's all about the Benjamins baby," she wrote in a tweet in February 2019 responding to a news story about top Republican Kevin McCarthy seeking to punish her and Rashida Tlaib over their criticism of Israel.  

The entire House Democratic Leadership, including Pelosi, moved to denounce the congresswoman.

"We are and will always be strong supporters of Israel in Congress because we understand that our support is based on shared values and strategic interests," Pelosi and other top Democrats said in a joint statement at the time. 

"Legitimate criticism of Israel's policies is protected by the values of free speech and democratic debate that the United States and Israel share. But Congresswoman Omar’s use of anti-Semitic tropes and prejudicial accusations about Israel’s supporters is deeply offensive."

Omar eventually apologised for the remarks but maintained that she opposes the role of money in politics. And over the past 18 months, she has improved her ties and grew her influence inside the party.

Last week, Pelosi endorsed her, expressing unambiguous support for the congresswoman's reelection bid.

"Ilhan is a valued and important Member of our Caucus," Pelosi said in a statement last Tuesday - a week before the primary. 

"In her first term, Ilhan has already established herself as a leader on a host of issues - from child nutrition to housing to US-Africa relations."

The campaign also received a boost from Warren, a key Democrat who unsuccessfully ran for president this year.

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"From tackling the climate crisis to putting power in the hands of the people, Ilhan is a partner in the fight for big structural change," Warren said in a statement.

On Sunday, Barbara Lee, a California Democrat who is respected in left-wing circles for her opposition to war and advocacy for universal healthcare, came out in support of Omar as well.

"Ilhan is a remarkable leader who has established herself as a visionary both in her district and our nation... She represents the hopes and aspirations of many marginalized people throughout the world," Lee said in a statement.

The Congressional Black Caucus PAC has endorsed Omar as well.

In Minnesota, Omar has received plenty of support from elected officials from the state's Democratic–Farmer–Labor Party (DFL) with Governor Tim Walz and Senator Tina Smith both backing her. 


Muslim-American political activist Ahmed Bedier said the institutional support that Omar is receiving is a testament to her skills and effectiveness as a politician.

"These late endorsements are coming because these leaders see the writing on the wall - Ilhan Omar's going win," Bedier told MEE. "They want to make sure that they're on the right side with Ilhan Omar because she's a formidable campaigner and a huge fundraiser, and they want to be able to get the support of Ilhan Omar to help the party as well."

A recent poll shows the incumbent with a 37-point lead over her challenger. But with the unpredictability ushered by the pandemic, the outcome of the vote on Tuesday is far from guaranteed. 

Melton-Meaux describes himself as a progressive, and one of his arguments against Omar is that her "celebrity" has taken away from her ability to focus on the district. 

In Michigan, Tlaib's challenger Brenda Jones deployed similar talking points ahead of the primary race. But unlike Jones who is the Detroit City Council president, Melton-Meaux was not a public figure before running for Congress. 

His campaign did not return MEE's request for comment by time of publication.

Moreover, the congresswoman's supporters point to her legislative record of co-sponsoring hundreds of bills and amendments as well as her local leadership during the protests.

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This year, for example, she succeeded in passing a law that maintained access to school lunches during the coronavirus pandemic. The legislation was signed into law as part of the Covid-19 relief package. 

During her first term, Omar has also established herself as an outspoken advocate for many progressive issues, including foreign policy, housing and health care. 

An Omar victory on Tuesday would add another defeat to pro-Israel groups this election cycle. 

On his campaign website, Melton-Meaux heaps praise on Israel, calling it a "beacon of liberal democracy". 

"It is vital to the national interests of both Israel and the United States that our two countries continue to be collaborative allies," the campaign says. 

"It cannot be overstated how critical our Israeli partners are in pushing back against Iranian aggression, as well as setting the example of a vibrant democracy for its neighbors."

Omar heads into the race boosted by a string of electoral victories for progressives across the country with Tlaib comfortably winning reelection and the upset win of left-wing challenger Cori Bush over centrist incumbent William Lacy Clay last week.

Bedier said recent results show the unconditional support for Israel is no longer the default position in Democratic politics.

"The tides have been changing; we're just beginning to see the fruits of that now," he told MEE. "The electorate, the Democratic Party and especially the progressive side of the party, have already shifted when it comes to the Israeli-Palestinian question."

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