U.S. Rep. Ilhan Omar, D-Minn., at the center of a national commotion for her remarks about Israel and the 9/11 terror attacks, raised more than $830,000 in campaign cash during her tumultuous first three months in office, far outpacing the rest of the state’s U.S. House delegation.
While Omar has faced criticism from both Republicans and Democrats, new campaign finance reports filed Monday suggest the controversies also have mobilized loyal supporters, many of whom believe the freshman is being unfairly targeted because she is a black, Muslim woman and refugee.
Donations poured in from across the country. About $400,000 of the $417,000 in itemized contributions reported by her campaign, including small-dollar donations given through the ActBlue fundraising platform, came from outside Minnesota. Campaigns are not required to disclose donors who gave $200 or less, making their origin unclear.
The flood of contributions allowed Omar to end the first quarter with more than $600,000 in her campaign account in a safe Democratic district that elected her by a wide margin in 2018.
With a skyrocketing national profile fed by attacks from President Donald Trump and conservative pundits, Omar raised more money even than House colleagues from Minnesota who represent far more competitive swing districts with potentially strong challengers in 2020.
Only U.S. Sen. Tina Smith outpaced her, raising more than $1 million and ending the quarter with the same amount of cash in the bank. Smith, who won election to fill out the remainder of former U.S. Sen. Al Franken’s term last year, will be on the ballot for a full, six-year term in 2020. Several well-known Republicans, including former Rep. Jason Lewis, state Sen. Karin Housley and attorney general candidate Doug Wardlow, are weighing runs for the Senate seat.
All eight of Minnesota’s U.S. House members also will be on the ballot again in 2020, including four freshmen who flipped hotly contested swing seats in 2018. On the Republican side, Rep. Jim Hagedorn, who represents southern Minnesota’s First Congressional District, raised about $237,000, while Rep. Pete Stauber took in more than $193,000 for his re-election bid in northern Minnesota’s Eighth District. Democratic Reps. Angie Craig and Dean Phillips, who both unseated GOP incumbents in suburban districts, brought in just over $328,000 and $195,000, respectively. Craig and Phillips gave their campaigns six-figure loans in 2018 that have not fully been repaid.
U.S. Sen. Amy Klobuchar reported raising about $5.2 million during the first seven weeks of her presidential campaign, lagging better-known rivals in the crowded Democratic field. Klobuchar also transferred roughly $3 million from her U.S. Senate account. Her campaign ended the first quarter with about $7 million in the bank.
But apart from Klobuchar, Omar’s cash haul was likely the one that political operatives were watching most closely. Emerging as a lightning rod of criticism, she has exposed herself to a potential DFL primary challenge next year, especially as Democratic leaders are forced either to defend or distance themselves from her more provocative pronouncements on Israel and its supporters in the U.S.
Omar, a former state representative who made history as the first Somali-American woman elected to Congress, faced weeks of intense criticism, including from Democratic leaders, for using what some saw as anti-Semitic stereotypes in comments related to Israel’s influence among American Jews. More recently, she came under withering attack from Trump over remarks that some saw as minimizing the 9/11 terrorist attacks.
Analysts say strong fundraising could help Omar ward off rumored primary challenges. A large campaign war chest also could boost her political influence, allowing her to help other Democratic candidates in tough races. But to her detractors, the money would not be free of political taint. Less than 24 hours after she released her fundraising figures, the National Republican Congressional Committee issued a statement attacking another freshman Democrat for taking a donation from Omar.
“If she now starts to give money to a bunch of different districts, every one of these people gets tagged as being connected to Ilhan Omar,” said David Schultz, a political science professor at Hamline University. “If she proves to be successful in terms of raising money, Republicans will ratchet it up against her even more.”
Political consultants and handicappers have long used early fundraising reports as a metric for a candidate’s strength heading into the next election. But in close races, outside groups that can raise and spend unlimited sums can have an outsized impact. In 2018, such committees spent more than $40 million to influence Minnesota’s most competitive U.S. House races, according to the Center for Responsive Politics, a campaign research nonprofit. With figures like Omar and Trump on the ballot in 2020, the state could see even higher outside spending.
“Given the fact that Donald Trump has also said he thinks he can win Minnesota in 2020, we’re going to see a phenomenal amount of money thrown at Minnesota next year,” Schultz said.