Ads and new attacks are flying across Minneapolis’ Fifth Congressional District as first-term U.S. Rep. Ilhan Omar seeks to fend off a well-funded primary challenge in one of the safest Democratic districts in the nation.
The contest between Omar, a DFL-endorsed incumbent with a national profile, and attorney Antone Melton-Meaux, a relative newcomer to politics, has spurred millions of dollars in campaign spending, a surge in volunteer activity and a barrage of negative claims from both sides. The efforts are expected to intensify, with two weeks to go until the Aug. 11 primary.
Omar, one of several progressive women of color in Congress facing a serious primary challenge this year, won the Minneapolis-based district with 78% of the vote in 2018. But her national profile and large sums raised and spent on behalf of both rival campaigns of the race have increased interest — and internal DFL divisions — ahead of a five-way primary.
The race already has attracted more than $10 million in campaign contributions — far more than any other state congressional contest, with the vast majority of money coming from donors living outside the state. Voters across the district, which also covers some suburbs to the south and west, are being bombarded with mail pieces and texts from campaign volunteers. Political ads from both sides are blanketing Facebook, streaming platforms and broadcast TV.
Melton-Meaux, who raised more than $3 million between April and July, has spent $1 million on TV ads since mid-June, according to ad analytics data provided to Politico. Omar, also a prolific fundraiser, launched her first television ad last week. The Minnesota DFL Party, which has endorsed Omar, and a super PAC with prominent GOP donors are also pouring money and resources into the race. Americans for Tomorrow’ Future, the independent committee backing Melton-Meaux, has reported spending more than $300,000 on TV ads and mailers this month.
The source of all that spending has become fodder for political attacks, as Omar and her allies decry the influence of wealthy donors and some Republicans in the race. Her supporters, and more recently her campaign mailers, have cited contributions from a handful of billionaires, including a longtime GOP donor who has pledged millions to Democrats in recent years. Individual donors to Melton-Meaux contributed $600, on average, while the average donor to Omar gives $25, according to a Star Tribune analysis.
Attacks have become more searing, and personal, as the primary nears. Mailers and TV ads funded by Melton-Meaux supporters hit Omar on a series of campaign finance issues, including a payments to a political firm co-led by a consultant she married this year. Both Omar and the firm have defended the ongoing professional relationship, which dates back to her 2018 bid.
Other recent mail pieces paint the incumbent as disengaged with the district, claiming she prioritized travel, campaigning for U.S. Sen Bernie Sanders’ presidential bid and “promoting her new memoir on national television” over casting votes. They also accused Omar of siding with President Trump by declining to support a resolution acknowledging the Armenian Genocide. Omar, one of Trump’s most vocal critics, said her vote reflected concerns that it overlooked other human rights abuses, including against American Indians.
While Omar has been attacked for missing about 5% of roll call votes, she counters that her track record includes passing more than a dozen bills and amendments and holding dozens of round tables and town halls for constituents. Her ads highlight support for progressive policy priorities, including Medicare for All and the Green New Deal.
Omar’s supporters, meanwhile, are calling attention to her challenger’s work as an attorney and mediator. On Friday, labor leaders who have endorsed Omar blasted Melton-Meaux’s record on worker issues, including his tenure at the national law firm Jackson Lewis. They cited a report in the Huffington Post that Melton-Meaux represented companies facing worker discrimination and pay claims in at least three cases.
A spokesman for Melton-Meaux said his work and pay at the firm did not involve union-related cases. He did not respond directly to the cases cited by the Huffington Post.
“During his time at the firm as employment attorney, the vast majority of the work he did was to counsel his clients not only to comply with the law but also create workplaces that fostered environments where people feel respected and valued in their work,” a statement read.
The clashes will likely continue this week, as Omar and Melton-Meaux take part Tuesday night in a virtual forum sponsored by the African Career, Education & Resource nonprofit and a Friday afternoon debate on WCCO Radio.
The coronavirus pandemic has put a damper on some traditional organizing and in-person campaigning. But both sides have resumed more traditional tactics in recent weeks, including door-to-door canvassing by volunteers.
In addition to the TV, mail and digital ads, Melton-Meaux’s supporters are phone banking, door knocking and holding virtual town hall meetings. Omar’s campaign says her backers have made more than 300,000 texts, phone calls and other outreach attempts to voters in the district. Over the weekend, the campaign hosted a “day of action” that culminated with a live video featuring Omar and Sanders.
“This election is going to come down to organizing,” Omar said in a statement. “And organized people are always more powerful than organized money.”