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Minnesota’s Omar holds off well-funded primary challenger

Rep. Ilhan Omar of Minnesota on Tuesday survived a stiff Democratic primary challenge from a well-funded opponent who tried to make an issue of her national celebrity.

Omar, seeking her second term in November, defeated Antone Melton-Meaux, an attorney and mediator who raised millions in anti-Omar money.

“Tonight, our movement didn’t just win,” Omar tweeted. “We earned a mandate for change. Despite outside efforts to defeat us, we once again broke turnout records. Despite the attacks, our support has only grown.”

Rep. Ilhan Omar, left, D-Minn., talks with Keaton Sisk outside the Dinkytown Target near the University of Minnesota campus in Minneapolis on Tuesday, Aug. 11, 2020. (Leila NavidiStar Tribune via AP)

Melton-Meaux used the cash to paper the district and flood airwaves with his “Focused on the Fifth” message that portrayed Omar, a member of “The Squad” of four progressive female members of Congress, as out of touch with the Minneapolis-area 5th District. He conceded defeat and acknowledged that his efforts weren't enough, while declining to speculate on why.

“I'm also incredibly proud of the work that we did, that garnered at least over 60,000 votes from the district, from people who resonated with our message of effective leadership grounded in the district, and bringing people together to get things done,” Melton-Meaux told The Associated Press.

Omar in 2018 became one of the first two Muslim women elected to Congress, building on a national profile that started when the onetime refugee from Somalia was elected to the Minnesota Legislature just two years earlier. Her aggressive advocacy on liberal issues, and her eagerness to take on Donald Trump, made her even more prominent.

Riya Madan, left, verifies her information with poll worker Sharri Nurein, right, as she cast her ballot inside the Frederick R. Weisman Art Museum at the University of Minnesota in Minneapolis on Tuesday, Aug. 11, 2020. (Anthony SouffleStar Tribune via AP)

Omar rejected Melton-Meaux’s attacks, saying they were funded by interests who wanted to get her out of Congress because she’s effective. She also downplayed Melton-Meaux’s prodigious fundraising before the vote, saying, “Organized people will always beat organized money.”

Democratic U.S. Sen. Tina Smith and Republican challenger Jason Lewis easily won their primaries in the only statewide races on the ballot. Elsewhere, in western Minnesota's conservative 7th District, former state Sen. Michelle Fischbach won a three-way Republican race for the right to challenge Democratic Rep. Collin Peterson. Peterson, chairman of the House Agriculture Committee, is one of the GOP's top targets to flip a House seat in November.

After entering Congress with fanfare, Omar hurt herself early with comments about Israel and money that even some fellow Democrats called anti-Semitic, and found herself apologizing. She also came under scrutiny when her marriage fell apart and she married her political consultant months after denying they were having an affair.

Minneapolis voters line up to vote a day ahead of Minnesota's Tuesday primary election on Monday, Aug. 10, 2020, at the Minneapolis Election and Voters Services offices. (AP PhotoJim Mone)

Republicans also raised questions about continuing payments to her new husband's firm, though experts said they aren't necessarily improper.

In the wake of George Floyd’s death in Minneapolis, police reform also emerged as an issue. Omar supported a push by a majority of the Minneapolis City Council to replace the city’s police department with something new. Melton-Meaux did not support that but did support shifting some funding away from police to more social service-oriented programs. Both touched on the issue in personal ways, with Omar saying she wanted her son to grow up safely. Melton-Meaux, who is also Black, told a personal story of being detained while at the University of Virginia by police seeking an assault suspect reported to have run into his apartment building.

Progressive Democrats gained confidence in Omar’s reelection chances after primary victories last week by fellow “Squad” member Rashida Tlaib in Michigan and by Cori Bush, a Black Lives Matter activist, in a St. Louis-area congressional primary. Progressives also claimed momentum from the renewed focus on racial and economic justice after Floyd's death.

Election judges Andrew Olson, left, and Sandra Hunter, show voter Riya Madan where to cast her ballot inside the Frederick R. Weisman Art Museum at the University of Minnesota in Minneapolis on Tuesday, Aug. 11 2020. (Anthony SouffleStar Tribune via AP)

Wendy Helgeson, 57, a consultant, backed Omar two years ago, even installing a lawn sign in her yard, and said she was “awfully proud of her being the first Black Muslim woman that we elected.” But she said she was concerned about campaign payments to Omar's husband's firm as well as her national presence, and found it easy to vote for Melton-Meaux, whom she said has been her friend for 12 years.

“I admire her as a woman,” Helgeson said of Omar. “As a candidate, ehhh ... I have some reservations.”

John Hildebrand, a 47-year-old teacher in Minneapolis who voted for Omar, said her national profile is an advantage.

Minneapolis voters line up to vote a day ahead of Minnesota's Tuesday primary election on Monday, Aug. 10, 2020, at the Minneapolis Election and Voters Services offices. (AP PhotoJim Mone)

“I think just her presence encourages other Muslims and Somalis to run for office and to seek to be represented,” he said. “I think she just engages people in the political system more and more.”

Blake Smith, 23, a parks worker who is Black and described himself as a leftist, also backed Omar. He's concerned about climate change, Medicare for all and getting money out of politics, and he sees her as an ally.

“It's more time for radical change than like small — I don't think we have time for incremental change anymore,” Smith said.

Robert Rodriguez cast his primary ballot at the Minnesota Army National Guard N.E. Minneapolis Training and Community Center Tuesday, Aug. 11, 2020 in Minneapolis. (Anthony SouffleStar Tribune via AP)

Doug Glass contributed. Ibrahim is a corps member for the Associated Press/Report for America Statehouse News Initiative. Report for America is a nonprofit national service program that places journalists in local newsrooms to report on undercovered issues.

Fifth Congressional District Democrat candidate Antone Melton-Meaux, middle, visits with a resident in south Minneapolis, Tuesday, Aug. 11, 2020, primary Election Day in Minnesota. (AP PhotoJim Mone)

Fifth Congressional District Democratic candidate Antone Melton-Meaux, left, waves to passing cars in south Minneapolis Tuesday, Aug. 11, 2020, primary Election Day in Minnesota. He faces Democratic, Rep. Ilhan Omar in the primary. (AP PhotoJim Mone)

Election judge Tyler Sahnow, left, sprays hand sanitizer to John Enloe as he arrives to vote at Northeast Middle School in Minneapolis, Minnesota, during the first election in Minnesota since the full outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic, Tuesday, Aug. 11, 2020. (Anthony SouffleStar Tribune via AP)

Election judge Tyler Sahnow uses tape to mark off spots on the floor for voters to stand before the voters arrive to cast their ballots at Northeast Middle School in Minneapolis, Minnesota, during the first election in Minnesota since the full outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic, Tuesday, Aug. 11, 2020. (Anthony SouffleStar Tribune via AP)

Voters arrive to cast their ballots at Northeast Middle School in Minneapolis, Minnesota, during the first election in Minnesota since the full outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic, Tuesday, Aug. 11, 2020. (Anthony SouffleStar Tribune via AP)

Rep. Ilhan Omar, second from right, D-Minn., greets a young voter outside the Dinkytown Target near the University of Minnesota campus in Minneapolis on Tuesday, Aug. 11, 2020. (Leila NavidiStar Tribune via AP)

Rep. Ilhan Omar, center, D-Minn., talks with Dulce Sanchez, whose family owns Dulceria La Piñata at Mercado Central in Minneapolis, on Tuesday, Aug. 11, 2020, primary day in the state. Omar faces Antone Melton-Meaux in the Democratic primary, (Leila NavidiStar Tribune via AP)