Ilhan Omar faces another primary, as her challenger hopes to find some weakness campaigning on crime

Don Samuels, a former Minneapolis City Council member, is seeking to oust her.

August 9, 2022, 7:57 PM

MINNEAPOLIS -- For the second straight cycle, two-term Minnesota Rep. Ilhan Omar is hoping to defend her seat in the state's 5th Congressional District, encompassing Minneapolis and its western suburbs, from a well-funded Democratic primary challenger.

Omar has handily won her past congressional primaries, including in her first race in 2018, and looks to do so against Don Samuels, a former Minneapolis City Council member.

Samuels has tried to paint Omar as too passive on crime in an attempt to energize the same voters who turned out last fall against a failed ballot initiative that, if passed, would have dramatically reshaped Minneapolis' police department.

"In many ways Don Samuels is the face of, let's say, police reform -- as opposed to where Omar became a face for 'defund the police,'" David Schultz, a political science professor at Hamline University in St. Paul, told ABC News on the eve of Tuesday's primary.

Samuels has campaigned effectively on the issue, said University of Minnesota professor Larry Jacobs, sustaining what experts nonetheless describe as faint hopes of knocking off Omar, who was elected as Congress's first Somali-American and has a national reputation as a member of the "squad," the small but influential group of progressive representatives.

Like other leading progressives, however, Omar has drawn more moderate challengers. Unlike some of those other lawmakers, she has repeatedly held her seat.

“Our district has always been one of the most progressive districts in the county. We have not elected a moderate in our district in a long time, and I don’t believe that the people in this district will do that now," she told ABC News on Tuesday.

Samuels wants to change that.

PHOTO: In this Sept. 28, 2012, file photo, Minneapolis Police Chief Tim Dolan briefs reporters at a news conference in Minneapolis. Dolan was joined by city leaders, including council members Don Samuels, left, and Lisa Goodman.
In this Sept. 28, 2012, file photo, Minneapolis Police Chief Tim Dolan briefs reporters at a news conference in Minneapolis. Dolan was joined by city leaders, including council members Don Samuels, left, and Lisa Goodman.
Elizabeth Flores/Star-Tribune via AP, FILE

"He has profiled [the issue of crime] in a way that is a challenge for Omar because she's got a good number of constituents who agree with Samuels," Jacobs, the professor, told ABC News. "There's no doubt that it's an effective campaign strategy."

Experts, however, are skeptical that Samuels can draw enough people to the polls in a primary election, which tends to see lower turnout, to counter Omar's advantages. They also say the post-census redistricting did little to change the area's partisan makeup.

"For the most part she's ideologically aligned with her district, and she has constituents that love her and will turn out to vote for her in a primary," Chris Chapp, a professor of political science at St. Olaf College, said of Omar.

"It really is a matter of, can you rally enough folks to vote for you in the primary – to bother to come out to the polls on Aug. 9? And she's been able to do that," Clapp added.

In 2020, Omar faced what some expected to be stiff primary competition from Antone Melton-Meaux, a lawyer who drew notice when he out-raised her in the months leading up to the election.

But the race was not close, and Melton-Meaux finished a distant second by around 35,000 votes.

This year's primary has drawn interest for both candidates' competing involvement in a 2021 Minneapolis ballot measure that proposed removing language in the city's charter on the police department, including minimum police funding requirements.

Omar championed the proposed changes, while Samuels fought against them. The measure failed by roughly 18,000 votes.

Omar's campaign has sought to play down any strategic connection between the ballot initiative and this year's primary.

PHOTO: Rep. Ilhan Omar speaks to a reporter before a press conference outside the U.S. Capitol, on July 19, 2022, in Washington, D.C.
Rep. Ilhan Omar speaks to a reporter before a press conference outside the U.S. Capitol, on July 19, 2022, in Washington, D.C.
Francis Chung/E & E News/Politico via AP, FILE

"That was a municipal election. You're electing the city council and the mayor, who's in charge of overseeing the police department and local public safety initiatives. This is obviously a federal congressional election," a senior aide told ABC News.

"Voters are able to parse out that Ilhan Omar is not the one overseeing the police department," the aide added.

Evan Stuart, a 25-year-old social worker, spoke with ABC News outside a precinct in Cedar Riverside, where Omar is very popular. He cited having friends who are "very, very caring about the DACA issue," referring to immigration protections for young people who were brought to the U.S. illegally as young children. "I care about them and I care about their citizenship status in the United States."

As for crime, Stuart said he didn't even remember how he voted on last year's ballot measure -- but he said, "I do want to see the police looked at again and restructured."

In an interview with ABC News, Samuels' campaign manager, Joe Radinovich, cited several areas of agreement between the candidates, including support for H.R. 1280, or the George Floyd Justice in Policing Act, which was introduced in Congress last year but has not passed.

But Radinovich said he believed the ballot measure did cast some shadow over the primary.

"Primarily the main issue is on public safety," he said.

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