Reps. Tlaib and Omar are latest 'Squad' members facing primary challenges

The progressive leaders are defending their seats for the first time.

August 4, 2020, 5:08 AM

Since arriving on Capitol Hill two years ago, Reps. Ilhan Omar, D-Minn., and Rashida Tlaib, D-Mich., have emerged as progressive leaders in Congress, taking on President Donald Trump and working to push Democrats to the left on policy.

But this month, the founding members of the "Squad" and the first two Muslim women elected to Congress will be in an unfamiliar position: on the ballots as incumbents, looking to defend their seats from aggressive challengers claiming they have sought the national spotlight at the expense of their districts.

Tlaib's primary is taking place Tuesday, Aug. 4, while Omar's primary is taking place one week later, on Aug. 11.

In Minneapolis, Omar is facing off against Antone Melton-Meaux, a lawyer and mediator who has tried casting the Minnesota congresswoman as a "divider."

"We don't need someone going their own way, someone who's interested in Twitter fights with the president or launching her memoir. We don't need dividers or celebrities in D.C.," Melton-Meaux, who is Black, said in an interview with ABC News.

A first-time candidate, he's raised more than $3 million from around the country, including from Democrats critical of Omar -- such as Colorado Gov. Jared Polis. Omar's support of the Boycott, Divest and Sanction movement against Israel, and the comments she made last year that were criticized for allegedly being anti-Semitic and prompted a vote from the House, have translated into additional financial support for her challenger.

Much of it is coming from large donors, and from pro-Israel political action committees, including $382,000 in donations bundled by the Pro-Israel America PAC. Another group, NORPAC, has raised over $105,000 for Omar's challenger.

When asked specifically by ABC News about the support he has received from the PACs, Melton-Meaux said that the PACs are "nonpartisan organizations that have given to both Democrats and Republicans," asserting that his campaign has "strong funding because people believe in what we're doing," and that he does not feel the donations will sway any policy decisions.

However, Omar said in a statement to ABC News that she is "most concerned that the man trying to unseat me is raising money from donors to Donald Trump and Mitch McConnell and the Republican-backed SuperPACs supporting him. That has no place in the 5th District."

As of June 30, Omar's campaign had raised more than $3.8 million, with approximately $1.1 million cash on hand. Omar's campaign told ABC News her donations came from grassroots movements, with her average contribution coming in at $18.

Melton-Meaux has capitalized on the controversies surrounding Omar, saying that although he voted for her in 2018 and was "hopeful that she would use her platform to do good work for the district," he has been "disappointed and dismayed and time and time again," by the Congresswoman's work.

PHOTO: U.S. Rep. Ihan Omar (D-MN) speaks with a reporter after a press conference on July 7, 2020 in St. Paul, Minnesota.
U.S. Rep. Ihan Omar (D-MN) speaks with a reporter after a press conference on July 7, 2020 in St. Paul, Minnesota.
Brandon Bell/Getty Images

Omar asserted that she has made it her top "priority to be in the community with Minnesotans and listen to them," holding 32 public town halls and roundtables last year, as well as "working around the clock [during the pandemic] to make sure we are getting resources directly into the hands of Minnesotans as well as our state and local government. We have brought home over $450,000 to our constituents in the form of casework and securing critical funding during the coronavirus pandemic."

Tlaib, who first made waves in Washington for vowing to "impeach the motherf-----" at a celebration hours after her swearing in, is facing Brenda Jones, the Detroit City Council president, two years after defeating her in a six-way primary by 900 votes.

"I am not interested in being a national rock star, I am interested in representing the people of the 13th Congressional District," Jones told ABC News about representing the majority Black district.

Jones had defeated Tlaib in a special election to fill the seat after Rep. John Conyers, D-Mich., a founder of the Congressional Black Caucus and the dean of the House -- the longest-serving member at the time -- resigned amid sexual harassment allegations in 2017.

Jones has been endorsed by her other four 2018 primary opponents, including former state Sens. Ian Conyers and Coleman Young II, as well as other influential figures, like Rev. Wendell Anthony, the president of the Detroit chapter of the NAACP.

Tlaib has raised more than $3 million for her reelection bid -- millions more than Jones -- and said her constituents have "embraced" her style of legislating in Washington.

PHOTO: Michigan Democratic U.S. Rep. Rashida Tlaib addresses a rally protesting against racial inequality in the aftermath of the death in Minneapolis police custody of George Floyd, in Detroit, Michigan, U.S. June 6, 2020.
Michigan Democratic U.S. Rep. Rashida Tlaib addresses a rally protesting against racial inequality in the aftermath of the death in Minneapolis police custody of George Floyd, in Detroit, Michigan, U.S. June 6, 2020.
Rebecca Cook/Reuters

"My receipts don't match up with these myths that are out there," she told ABC News, pointing to her work securing funding to replace lead water pipes, and getting a bill to protect seniors from fraud signed into law by President Trump. "My residents overwhelmingly have felt seen and heard."

Both congresswomen have been targeted by the president, who told Tlaib and the other members of the "Squad" -- all women of color -- to "go back" to "help fix the totally broken and crime-infested places from which they came."

Trump has particularly singled Omar during campaign rallies and events, calling her an "America-hating socialist" and a "disgrace," as well as telling his supporters in Tulsa that Omar wanted to turn "our country" into her native Somalia. "No government, no safety, no police, no nothing, just anarchy," he said. "And now, she's telling us how to run our country. No, thank you."

The racist comments were later condemned by the full House along party lines.

Despite criticism from their opponents, Omar and Tlaib have both received support from prominent Capitol Hill allies, and are backed by the other members of the "Squad": Reps. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, D-N.Y., and Ayanna Pressley, D-Mass. All four congresswomen formed a joint fundraising committee with them earlier this summer to pool their campaign resources.

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., and Sen. Bernie Sanders, D-Vt., have also both endorsed Omar and Tlaib.

"Ilhan is a valued and important Member of our Caucus," Pelosi said in a statement. "In her first term, Ilhan has already established herself as a leader on a host of issues -- from child nutrition to housing to U.S.-Africa relations."

Similarly, she called Tlaib a "tireless advocate" for her district, noting her efforts to secure funding to replace lead water pipes, and her legislation signed into law by President Trump to protect seniors and retirees from fraud.

Tlaib, one of the House's most progressive members, who endorsed Sanders for president in the Democratic primary, said last week that she wouldn't endorse former Vice President Joe Biden for president. "I am focused on my election," she told Newsweek.

"If the ultimate goal is to get rid of Donald Trump, that doesn't have to involve me actually endorsing Biden," she said. "My constituents don't need to be bogged down in, 'Is he the best candidate?' That's not what you have to convince my residents. They need to come out in droves and be inspired by something. And that is going to be a vote against Donald Trump."

In July, Omar announced her endorsement of Biden, alongside a cohort of prominent Muslim Americans.

In addition to Melton-Meaux, three other Democratic candidates are challenging Omar: Les Lester, John Mason and Daniel McCarthy.

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