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How Democrats Can Get Rid of Ilhan Omar

It’s going to take a primary opponent, but not just any primary opponent.
by Liz Mair
February 21, 2019
How Democrats Can Get Rid of Ilhan Omar
Rep. Ilhan Omar. (Photo by Alex Wong/Getty Images)

In the weeks since Rep. Ilhan Omar was sworn into office, the freshman lawmaker has already made a name for herself dabbling in what looks like thinly veiled anti-Semitism.

This despite having had a prime opportunity to learn about anti-Semitism and how to avoid inadvertently dabbling in it earlier in her political career (some people thought her rhetorical missteps were just that—the result of being partly raised in a refugee camp in Kenya as opposed to in a normal, American environment where from an early age, ideally one would learn about anti-Semitic rhetoric and tropes).

Not only is she firmly installed in office, but the party has given her a seat on the powerful House Foreign Affairs committee. Omar’s district is solidly Democratic. No Republican will ever win it. So is America just stuck with a prominent, very vocal, publicity-seeking anti-Semite in Congress for an indefinite period? Is there anything Omar’s critics can do?

They need to beat her in a primary. But that must be done carefully.

Omar won the endorsement of the Democratic-Farmer-Labor Party, besting two opponents in June 2018. She went on to win a five-way primary to become the DFL nominee, and de facto next representative, in August, with 48.2 percent of the vote. That was a fairly strong showing, but it still indicates that with the right primary opponent, she could be vulnerable in 2020. The big problem is, the people who are probably most angry with her—liberal, Jewish voters—are not numerous enough to boot her out. And they have an optics problem.

Objectively, a primary campaign by state Sen. Ron Latz, a Jewish Democrat from within Omar’s district who evidently, fruitlessly, took point on attempting to educate Omar would have nothing to do with anti-Muslim, anti-refugee, anti-Somali, or anti-hyper-progressive bigotry. However, it would be extremely easy for Omar to characterize a male—or even a female— Jewish opponent in these terms and portray herself as the victim.

Given the power of incumbency, and setting aside that some Minnesotans suspect Omar’s anti-Semitic chat is more of a feature than a bug in the very lefty 5th, it’s unlikely in those circumstances Omar would be booted. She might even emerge from such a primary more powerful and vindicated—only to go on and do God knows what in her potentially decades-long future career.

No, to beat Omar, someone who is obviously and identifiably a minority will need to go up against her. Possibly someone like Minneapolis City Council Vice President Andrea Jenkins.

Jenkins is not just a transgender African-American woman; she is the first transgender African-American woman ever elected in America. She is obviously liberal. She also happens to hold an office that would be a great launching point for a congressional run. She won her election with 70 percent of the vote.

And Jenkins is now, too, the subject of a lot of chatter in Minnesota—much of it centering on whether she might, or might not, be willing to take on Omar. As of this writing, she hasn’t given any indicator. But don’t be surprised to see a recruitment effort kick off, even if right now it seems pie-in-the-sky and mostly driven by Minnesotans on the right.

A pretty broad coalition of Omar critics within the district, spanning the philosophical spectrum and of various races and religions has already come to show interest in ousting her with literally anyone who can accomplish the job. And it would be nigh-on-impossible for Omar to successfully paint herself as the victim of bigotry in a race against Jenkins. If you truly are a bigot, it’s at best a coin toss between an African-American, transgender woman and a Somali-American, refugee, Muslim woman—but my gut says transphobia is a more prevalent and powerful form of bigotry these days even than anti-Muslim or anti-refugee sentiment.

Politics—in Minnesota, or anywhere else—shouldn’t be about identities and victimhood. Politics should be about ideas and policies and good constituent representation.

But the reality is, voters in Minnesota’s 5th are probably going to get some version of the same very lefty policy playbook, no matter who they elect. They are not necessarily going to get good constituent representation from Omar, or feel that they can, if they are Jewish, conservative, or just plain not an Omar fan.

Omar and her boosters had better hope that she stops alienating so many people so fast that her opponents could recruit, run, and vote for literally a tree trunk to replace her, because as immune as she looks on spec, in practice, things might prove a little more complicated. If Omar continues to piss off people at the rapid pace she has set to date, 2020 might not be the cakewalk she’s currently anticipating; it may be easier to just stop doing and saying things that are easily and justifiably read as anti-Semitic, and then fundraising off the back of the criticism.

Liz Mair

Liz Mair is a former communications adviser to the Republican National Committee, Carly Fiorina, Rick Perry, Rand Paul, and Scott Walker. She supported and campaigned for Gary Johnson in 2016. She is also the founder, owner, and president of strategic communications firm Mair Strategies LLC.