Washington – Rep. Ilhan Omar's rocky start in Congress has Minnesota Democrats whispering about her political future even as the high-profile freshman works to refocus on her job and downplay fallout from her controversial comments on Israel.
But so far, no challengers have emerged publicly.
Omar's first two months in Washington culminated with the House passage of a wide-ranging condemnation of bigotry, a reaction to remarks she made that were widely criticized as anti-Semitic. In a flash, the Minneapolis congresswoman found herself under attack from President Donald Trump, congressional Republicans and even some House Democrats.
In Minnesota, Jewish leaders and constituents in Omar's strongly Democratic Fifth Congressional District joined in the criticism, and the weeks following the March 7 anti-bigotry vote in the House found some Democrats and activists in Minnesota privately buzzing about a possible Democratic primary challenge in 2020. In Washington, Republicans are working to capitalize on tension between Democrats and America's Jewish community, with several upcoming U.S. Senate votes planned on anti-Semitism measures.
Even if no clear opponent to Omar stepped up, the sense, even among many of Omar's allies and supporters, is that continued missteps would make a challenge by a fellow Democrat much more likely.
"Ilhan has an amazing ability to be a powerful voice in the U.S. Congress given her unique story and the struggles she faced as a refugee. She has a unique position in Congress to lift voices of the marginalized," said Ken Martin, chairman of the Minnesota Democratic-Farmer-Labor Party. "My hope as we go forward is that she gets back to that work, and I believe she will."
Martin did not dispute there's been talk about a possible primary challenge but said he's not aware of any credible candidates who are thinking about it. Several Fifth District Democrats seen as prospects have publicly disclaimed interest.
Omar declined an interview request for this story. Last week, with Congress on break, she kept up a heavy schedule in her district. She spoke at a solidarity event for the New Zealand mosque shooting and highlighted a looming deadline that could mean deportation for many in Minnesota's sizable Liberian community.
"You have somebody who's under intense scrutiny," said Minnesota Attorney General Keith Ellison, Omar's predecessor. He suggested Omar bear down on policy work, "ignore the trolls," and meet monthly with Jewish constituents.
Ellison, who was at the solidarity event at Dar Al-Farooq Islamic Center, said Omar received a sustained standing ovation.
In a move that many saw as a potential turning point, Omar penned a Washington Post column last week that explicitly endorsed a two-state solution for Israelis and Palestinians. "A balanced, inclusive approach to the conflict recognizes the shared desire for security and freedom of both peoples," she wrote.
Amid the controversy, Omar scored several policy wins. She shaped two provisions to a major House Democratic legislative package meant to crack down on money in politics. Both measures related to Washington lobbying by foreign countries. She plans to soon introduce legislation to boost affordable housing and reduce homelessness and to seek the repeal of some Trump Administration immigration policies.
While Omar tries to turn the page, some critics aren't ready to move on.
"We all celebrated this historic election of a Muslim woman, a Somali immigrant, and I feel like she is taking this political capital, this enormous sense of goodwill and she's blowing it on a subject she is going to have very little effect on, which is the Israeli-Palestinian relationship," said Siyad Abdullahi, a Minneapolis entrepreneur who is well-connected in DFL circles.
Abdullahi, who also is Somali, recently wrote a lengthy Facebook post that was critical of Omar. He said he's unlikely to challenge her next year but added: "You never say never in politics."
Omar triggered perceptions of anti-Semitism with a February tweet that American political support for Israel was "all about the Benjamins," a song lyric that many felt raised negative stereotypes about Jews and money. Less than three weeks later at a forum in Washington, again talking about U.S. policy toward Israel, she made a comment about "allegiance to a foreign country" — which for many critics resurrected a longstanding charge that Jews who support Israel are guilty of dual loyalty. Critics also point to a 2012 tweet, before she ran for office, that Israel had "hypnotized the world."
"I don't buy it anymore that she doesn't know what she's saying," said Dan Israel, a singer-songwriter from St. Louis Park. Israel, who is Jewish, plans to engage in the Fifth District nominating process next year and is looking for an alternative to Omar. "I'd like to not cede my party to people I feel don't have its best interests, and the best interests of the Jewish people, at heart," he said.
Even after the controversies, any primary challenger would face heavy odds given Omar's devoted supporters and national profile. Omar is "a first-time Muslim woman representing Minnesota in a difficult and contentious Congress," Mary Ann Van Cura of Minneapolis wrote in an e-mail to the Star Tribune. "She has been accused of being anti-Semitic. However, her words and actions do not line up with that."
Some prominent DFLers said they're not ready to judge if a primary challenge is warranted.
"I think it's too early to think about that," said Sylvia Kaplan, a longtime DFL donor and insider. She called the string of controversies "a distraction for the party" and said of Omar: "I hope she stops the tweeting."
Amid the turmoil, Omar's political team has undergone some staff turnover as she has settled in to Washington. Aisha Chughtai, who managed Omar's campaign last year and initially stayed on as her top political aide, has since left that position. A campaign spokesman said the parting was amicable. Will Hailer, a former aide to Ellison and top official at the Democratic National Committee, serves as a political adviser.
Omar's campaign also parted ways with Nick Espinosa, a Minneapolis activist most known for staging a series of "glitter-bomb" protests in 2011-12 against prominent Republican politicians. Omar's campaign spokesman said Espinosa did list-building work on contract and was never an employee of the campaign. The spokesman declined to reveal whether Omar knew of Espinosa's past as a high-profile protester.
Michael Latz, a Minneapolis rabbi upset by Omar's comments about Israel, said he is willing to give her another chance. He lamented that allegedly anti-Semitic campaign rhetoric by some congressional Republicans hasn't received similar attention. He said Omar apologized to him and "acknowledged the pain she's caused," and that her staff has been diligent in responding to concerns.
"I appreciate this has been a learning curve," said Latz, who is also connected to many DFL leaders. "I'm hopeful she will live up to all our collective aspirations and lead with great dignity and great integrity."