Maneuvering in a white suit and red bow tie, Brian Rice pointed to the board drawn over with an election analysis in the second-floor conference room of his law office.
“Where we really got killed,” said Rice, “is Dinkytown.”
The veteran political adviser was dissecting the astonishing loss of DFL Rep. Phyllis Kahn, tied for longest-serving Minnesota legislator, to Ilhan Omar in this year’s most competitive legislative primary. Kahn placed third behind another challenger, Mohamud Noor.
Rice, a longtime adviser to Kahn, has three boards in the conference room covered with numbers and calculations that go precinct by precinct, candidate by candidate. One features the 2014 primary, where Kahn fended off a challenge from Noor. The other features election results from Tuesday. A third contains strategy from early in the campaign, when other campaign volunteers dismissed Rice’s suggestion to aim for turnout as high as 5,500. Barely 4,300 showed up last time.
Voter turnout ultimately surpassed 5,800, jumping to 30 percent of registered voters. It’s not uncommon for local primaries to garner a turnout of 10 percent. “This is an unprecedented turnout for a metro area DFL primary,” said Rice, who has worked in local politics for decades.
He pointed to turnout in the contentious 2011 DFL special election for the Senate district representing the area. Even with a far larger base of voters, just 5,981 people turned out for the race with five candidates, including Noor. Kari Dziedzic won.
Rice estimated that East African turnout has more than doubled since then, as Somali-American candidates like Omar and Noor embark on runs for office and energize the community. Abdi Warsame transformed the campaign process during his successful run for Minneapolis City Council in 2013 with the heavy use of absentee voting. (Rice also advised his campaign.)
Rice estimates that Omar captured about half the white vote and nearly one-third of the East African vote. Consider Dinkytown, a neighborhood dominated by students. Kahn received 37 votes from that neighborhood, the same amount that she garnered in her last race. But Omar won 205 votes from Dinkytown. (Noor got just one.) Omar also dominated in the Marcy-Holmes neighborhood, pulling away votes from Kahn. The incumbent received 494 votes from that neighborhood during the election; this time, she got just 189. Omar received 212, and Noor got 21.
(Omar’s campaign has declined to comment this week.)
Eighty-four percent of Noor’s votes came from two districts heavily dominated by Somali-Americans: Cedar-Riverside and Seward. The number of votes cast for all candidates in those districts jumped from 1,400 in 2014 to 2,478 this year, with Kahn’s votes there substantially dropping as old and new voters went with Noor and Omar. By Rice’s estimate, about 300 more Somalis and 400 more students voted than in 2014, in addition to larger turnouts in all neighborhoods.
“They just went out and worked hard,” Rice said. “Sometimes, you just have a great leap forward in the evolution of campaigns.”