Ilhan Omar Ekes Out Nail-biter in Minnesota Primary in Potential Missed Opportunity for AIPAC

One of Israel's most prominent critics in Congress defeated her opponent by less than 3,000 votes, making AIPAC question its reluctance to get involved in what it believed to be a lost battle

Ben Samuels
Ben Samuels
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Rep. Ilhan Omar, D-Minn., at a news conference at the Capitol in Washington, in 2021.
Rep. Ilhan Omar, D-Minn., at a news conference at the Capitol in Washington, in 2021.Credit: J. Scott Applewhite /AP
Ben Samuels
Ben Samuels

WASHINGTON – Rep. Ilhan Omar, among the most prominent critics of Israel in Congress, survived an unexpectedly close primary battle on Tuesday for Minnesota's fifth Congressional District.

Omar, who carried the district by 35,000 votes in a seemingly more competitive primary last election cycle, defeated challenger Don Samuels by less than 3,000 votes this time – a victory of 50.3 percent to Samuels' 48.2 percent.

Pro-Israel groups like AIPAC and Democratic Majority for Israel, among Omar's harshest critics, did not spend any money in hopes of defeating Omar this cycle, undoubtedly expecting her to achieve an easy victory. Considering the volume of their spend on races where they believe they can make a difference, the groups are assuredly wondering whether their investment could have led to an unprecedented upset akin to victories by progressives such as Reps. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Jamaal Bowman.

The close margin will undoubtedly serve as a wake-up call for both the progressive movement and the pro-Israel camp emboldened by a spate of victories, who will likely focus on the narrow vote differentials as supposed evidence that Omar's policies are out of sync with voters – grouping her notorious criticisms of Israel and support for Palestinians into this. While the district is solidly blue and an investment would likely be for naught in the 2022 general election, the surprisingly close results will be on everyone's mind indefinitely.

While pro-Israel groups and pro-Israel donor-backed Super PACs did not enter the race, the race did encounter significant establishment Super PAC spending on trend with other contentious Democratic primary races this year. A full $625,000 was spent in Samuels' favor, compared to over $179,400 spent on Omar – nearly $130,600 of which focused on attack ads – though Omar maintained a sizable cash advantage. A significant amount of the pro-Samuels spend came in the campaign's final days, likely helping close the gap between the two.

Much of the race focused on Omar's support for the "defund the police" policies of redirecting public safety funding into community-based programs, while Samuels garnered establishment support and an array of endorsements (including from Minneapolis Mayor Jacob Frey) over his support for the police.

"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. This win is for them and everyone who still believes that regression will not be the legacy of the Fifth," Omar said following her victory.

There was also significantly lower voter turnout compared to previous elections – 172,457 people voted in 2020, compared to 114,567 this year. Further, Omar did not spend on television ads, instead relying on get-out-the-vote efforts, and leading progressive organizations did not actively spend on her re-election campaign beyond endorsements.

"[Omar] has faced some of the ugliest attacks of any elected official, and throughout this primary had hundreds of thousands of dollars spent against her. Despite this, she won her primary once again," Sen. Bernie Sanders, Omar's most prominent endorsement, said following her victory.

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