U.S. Rep. Ilhan Omar, the first Somali-American elected to Congress, swept to victory over a well-funded primary challenger on Aug. 11 as two other progressive candidates of color — both second-generation African immigrants — staged primary upsets against established local DFL state legislators.
In Southwest Minneapolis, Omar bested the Uptown resident and media lawyer Antone Melton-Meaux on his home turf, winning every precinct in the Uptown area while also taking the neighborhoods along Interstate 35W.
Melton-Meaux won most of the higher-income, whiter precincts south and west of the Chain of Lakes, showing strength in a majority of the precincts won by former Vice President Joe Biden in the March presidential primary.
Omar won every Southwest precinct that went to Sen. Bernie Sanders, as well as precincts in Bryn Mawr, Kingfield, Tangletown, Linden Hills, Armatage and Kenny that went to Biden and Sen. Elizabeth Warren in March.
Out of the 40,389 ballots cast in 39 Southwest precincts, roughly 58.1% went to Omar, 40% went to Melton-Meaux and 1.9% went to other candidates in the five-way race.
Omar, a progressive hero whose left-wing views, political missteps and racial identity have attracted a variety of critics, won 58.2% of all votes cast in the 5th District — a 19-point margin of victory and a significant expansion of her base from the 2018 primary, when she won 48.2% of the district.
“We earned a mandate for change,” Omar said in an election-night statement. “Despite the attacks, our support has only grown.”
In state Senate District 62, which includes Crystal Lake most Southwest neighborhoods along I-94, 30-year-old Omar Fateh defeated incumbent Sen. Jeff Hayden 54.9% to 45.1%.
Hayden, a leader in the DFL Senate caucus, has been in the Legislature since 2009, but Fateh won the DFL endorsement in May. It was his second run for state office, after an unsuccessful run for the House in 2018.
Fateh, a University of Minnesota business analyst and the son of Somali immigrants, campaigned to Hayden’s left as a democratic socialist seeking a single-payer health care system, free college and a guarantee of housing as a universal right.
In House District 59B, Esther Agbaje narrowly upset four-term Rep. Raymond Dehn. Agbaje won 48.2% to Dehn’s 41.7%. Agbaje had also won the DFL endorsement in the district, which includes Bryn Mawr, Downtown and parts of North Minneapolis.
Agbaje, 35, a Harvard-educated medical malpractice lawyer and daughter of Nigerian immigrants, ran on a platform of housing, environmental justice, public safety reform and transit.
She said her campaign focused on meeting and building relationships with voters, by going into communities that don’t usually have contact with candidates for socially distanced meetings and events.
Because the Minneapolis area leans so heavily Democratic, Omar, Fateh and Agbaje are all virtual locks to win in the general election.
Minneapolis had record turnout for a primary election this year, with 130,888 votes cast, including 85,217 before election day. In District 62 alone, nearly four times as many people cast ballots in the state Senate race as did in 2016, when Hayden faced a less viable primary opponent.
Both Fateh and Agbaje’s campaigns focused on issues of housing, police reform, climate and education.
Hamline University political science professor David Schultz said he was more surprised by Hayden’s defeat than by that of Dehn, who narrowly withstood a primary challenge in 2018.
He said Hayden and Dehn might have been overconfident about their election prospects as they began shaping their campaigns and that their lack of DFL endorsements likely hurt them.
“They were just basically outgunned in terms of the resources that they needed to win,” Schultz said.
Hayden said he felt criticism that he wasn’t sufficiently progressive was unfair.
“I’m the guy who’s sitting in the room fighting my tail off for people of color and urban neighborhoods,” he said.
In a 5th District race that appeared to be a referendum on Omar’s first term in office, her admirers said her dedication to progressive politics merited her a second term, despite controversy over payments to her husband’s consulting firm, comments about the state of Israel that some have labeled as anti-Semitic and other political miscues.
Graphic designer Ivan Nuñez, who voted at Whittier Park, said he voted for Omar because he wanted to “stay with someone I know well, while wanting her to do better.” (Nuñez, a Venezuelan immigrant, said her campaign dodged his questions about whether she opposes the regime of autocratic President Nicolás Maduro.)
Haley Paige, another Whittier resident, said she voted for Omar because the country needs more women of color in office and because she appreciates Omar’s support of policies like the Green New Deal and raising taxes on the rich.
“Donald Trump likes to say she’s spending too much time being a celebrity, but she’s only in the public eye as much as she is because she is signaled out for being a woman of color and people are uncomfortable with the fact that she covers up her head,” she said.
Jay Botten said he voted for Melton-Meaux, though he was not sure whether Melton-Meaux would better serve him in Congress.
“Really we have to have a real representative who’s actually legislating and interested in doing things for the district besides talking,” he said.
Schultz said that Omar’s incumbency and effective social and digital media presences were key to her victory, adding that Melton-Meaux lacked a robust social media presence and made minimal efforts to phone bank.
Melton-Meaux was criticized during the campaign for his lack of prior experience in public service, for a job he had at a law firm with a union-busting reputation and for the fact that a number of large donors to his campaign also donated to Republican candidates.
Winning DFL candidates said their main goal now is maximizing voter turnout and assisting other campaigns in the general election, with Minnesota being viewed as a potential swing state in the presidential race and DFLer Tina Smith running for re-election in the U.S. Senate.
Republican Lacy Johnson, who won a three-way race in the 5th District GOP primary with 76.6% of votes cast, and Legal Marijuana Now party candidate Michael Moore will face Omar in the general election.
Each Southwest Minneapolis-area state legislator will also face a Republican challenger. A candidate from the Green Party is running in District 59B against Agbaje and Republican Alan Shilepsky.
District 62 Republican candidate Bruce Lundeen said that while he’s expecting limited resources from the state GOP party, Fateh will be easier to campaign against than Hayden, given his more progressive stances.
“Jeff and I are probably not that far off in a lot of ways,” Lundeen said, describing himself as more liberal than “upstate Republicans.”
“I like to call myself an ‘urban Republican,’” he said.
He said he recognized that his odds are impossibly long but is hoping Minneapolis’ push to defund its police department and the hesitancy to reopen schools for in-person learning nationwide will attract people to his campaign.
Voters in Southwest Minneapolis will also decide on three School Board races in the general election, two of which just had their fields set in competitive primaries.
DFL-endorsed candidate Kim Ellison earned the most votes in the at-large race and will face the second-leading vote-getter, Michael Dueñes. Christa Mims, also endorsed by the DFL, earned the most in the District 4 race and will face Adriana Cerrillo.
Ellison and Dueñes finished ahead of three other candidates — Lynne Crockett, Doug Mann and William Awe — in the at-large race. In the District 4 race, Ken Shain was eliminated after finishing third.
Zac Farber contributed reporting to this story.