U.S. Rep. Ilhan Omar spent months largely ignoring her Democratic challenger.
"I have not given it a thought," Omar said in June when asked about the state of the primary race, going on to declare, "We're going to do great, as always."
But in Tuesday's primary, amid lower turnout and some voter frustration over her policies and style, the Fifth Congressional District nearly slipped from her grasp.
Omar barely beat former Minneapolis City Council Member Don Samuels in the DFL contest, turning him away by a little over two points. It was the closest a Democratic U.S. representative has come to losing a primary in the history of Minnesota's DFL Party, according to University of Minnesota Humphrey School research fellow Eric Ostermeier. The race was far tighter than the 2020 primary that put Omar on an easy path to a second term after defeating DFL challenger Antone Melton-Meaux by around 20 points.
South Mpls., suburbs gave Omar close 2022 primary
Challenger won by less than 10 pctg. points 10+ points
After conceding the race, Samuels said the results show Omar's "shortcomings are a threat to her longevity in Congress."
"They say you hit rock bottom and people change when they do," Samuels said. "This is certainly not rock bottom for her, but it's a strong message. I'm hoping it's strong enough."
Omar's campaign declined to make her available for an interview Wednesday. In a victory statement on primary night, Omar upbraided Republicans, conservative Democrats, special-interest groups and corporations.
"Pundits and news agencies have tried to smear us and undermine our work," Omar said. "Tonight's victory is a testament to how much our district believes in the collective values we are fighting for and how much they're willing to do to help us overcome defeat."
Golden Valley Mayor Shep Harris, who endorsed Samuels, questioned whether Omar campaigned hard enough, with her primary vote total coming in far lower than in 2020.
"I think she's famously known for 'you get what you organize for' and it didn't seem like that happened this time," Harris said.
Minneapolis City Council Member Jeremiah Ellison, who backed Omar, said he thinks the close primary outcome had more to do with low voter turnout than it did with excitement for Samuels. He noted that Samuels earned 13,000 fewer votes than Omar's 2020 challenger, Melton-Meaux. But Omar also received fewer votes than she did two years ago, earning about 58,000 in Tuesday's primary compared to 103,000 in 2020.
"If you're not letting people know that you're vulnerable, which maybe her campaign didn't illustrate quite enough, people will stay home in big numbers," Ellison said. "And I think we saw a little bit of that."
Omar saw the number of votes in her favor drop in every city in her district, compared to the 2020 primary. Two years ago, she secured 58% of the votes districtwide, but that fell to 50% this year.
While the boundaries of the district have shifted slightly with redistricting, Minneapolis remains key to a Fifth District win. In the state's biggest city, Omar saw her percent of the total DFL primary votes fall from 64% in the last election to 55% on Tuesday. In the majority of cities in the district, Samuels bested Omar.
Omar is expected to easily win this fall over Republican Cicely Davis and hold the safe blue seat covering Minneapolis and nearby suburbs. Winning a third term, however, will come with the footnote that Omar almost lost her primary despite having the advantage of incumbency and the DFL's endorsement.
A week before the election, Omar shrugged off Samuels' attempts to make their primary election contest all about public safety in Minneapolis, saying he should have run for mayor, not Congress, if he wanted to bring about change there.
Samuels repeatedly touted that he helped lead the opposition to last year's ballot question to replace the Minneapolis Police Department with a new department of public safety, while Omar supported the measure.
Minneapolis voters rejected the contentious policing proposal. Minneapolis City Council President Andrea Jenkins, who endorsed Omar, said she thinks Tuesday's election suggests Samuels' public safety messaging resonated with many Fifth District voters.
"A lot of African Americans are really concerned that we need to have respectful, accountable, approachable police in our culture and society," Jenkins said. "I think that played a role in Don's support."
Omar made history as the first Somali American and one of the first two Muslim women elected to Congress. Two other member of Omar's progressive "Squad" in the House also faced primary challenges so far this year, but neither came anywhere near as close to losing as Omar did Tuesday.
"These primaries shouldn't really be a surprise to people in the district," Omar said before primary day. "It's actually, I think, a good thing because that means I am advocating, I am pushing back against people who want to make sure the status quo is sustained."
Samuels dramatically outspent Omar in July, according to the most recent campaign finance reports. His expenditures totaled about $383,000, more than five times what Omar doled out between July 1 and July 20. That preprimary finance report showed Samuels had roughly $270,000 in cash. Omar had far more left in the bank, around $471,000.
The majority of Samuels' spending during that period — about $270,000 — went toward television ads. Thirty-second ads highlighting his background and efforts to combat gun violence frequently aired on local and cable channels in the run-up to the primary. Meanwhile, Omar's latest report did not list any spending on television ads.
Samuels' run was also boosted by a Super PAC called Make a Difference MN 05 in the closing days of the race that quickly spent hundreds of thousands after forming in late July. The Samuels campaign said Wednesday that he hasn't ruled out challenging Omar again in 2024.
Omar's vote last November against a major infrastructure law further emboldened critics in the aftermath of her supporting the local policing ballot question and unsuccessfully pushing to deny Jacob Frey another term as mayor of Minneapolis.
Frey, who endorsed Samuels, said he was hopeful after Tuesday's contest that Omar will "take the message that constituents want politicians to be working together."
"Would I be surprised if she continued with the vitriolic messaging? No, not entirely," Frey said. "But I hope she doesn't."
Shortly after that, Omar ridiculed Frey on social media in reference to a television interview the mayor did after Samuels lost.
"Our incompetent Mayor gets upset when we talk about his failures, but as the Mayor he is solely in charge of our city, it's police & public safety," Omar tweeted. "No matter how much media covers for him, people know our city is suffering because of his poor leadership and childish behavior."
The message spurred Frey to call a reporter back and point out the irony.
"Am I surprised? No," Frey said. "I am disappointed, though."
Newsroom developer Tom Nehil contributed to this report.