AMAC Exclusive – By Daniel Berman
In the Minnesota Democratic primary on Tuesday, Don Samuels, a former Minneapolis city councilor who struggled to fundraise, nearly delivered the upset of the year when he came within a whisker of ousting high-profile “Squad” member Representative Ilhan Omar, losing by the razor-tight margin of 50.3%-48.2%. While it may seem easy to ascribe the result to local factors and Omar’s “controversial” record, it makes more sense to place the result within a wider context of urban politics. 2021-2022 has seen a revolt in the bluest of American cities against far-left politics, especially when it comes to the fields of crime and education – two areas where Omar fares particularly poorly.
Ilhan Omar is an unexpectedly unifying figure in American politics. In public, Republicans denounce her advocacy for far-left causes, abrasive personality, and attacks on American allies, while Democrats, often unable to rebut those charges on substance, resort to implying that racial or religious motives lay behind Republican criticisms. In private, however, Democrats despair of the embarrassment she causes, while Republicans find her presence a godsend, a posterchild to be waved around the country whenever local Democrats try to break with the increasingly radical image of the national party.
What unites Republicans and Democrats is that almost no one believed there was anything that could be done about Omar. She represents a district Biden won by a margin of 80%-17% in 2020, and she won her primary two years ago against a centrist who raised more than $3.2 million by a margin of 18%. Unsurprisingly, no one gave Samuels much of a chance. Yet now, it seems clear that had Samuels received a fraction of the funding Omar’s opponents in 2020 received, Omar would be on her way to being a former congresswoman.
While many where shocked at the close race, contests in other deep-blue areas recently have foreshadowed such a result. Seattle elected a former Republican candidate for Lt. Governor as City Attorney last fall. New York City rejected a series of progressive candidates in favor of an African American former police officer for Mayor. San Francisco first recalled three school board members and then the District Attorney. Now it looks like Los Angeles may follow suit and oust far-left prosecutor George Gascon.
It is worth noting how these revolts have taken place. Republicans are not viable electorally in almost any of these cities. The revolt has therefore taken place either through recalls, non-partisan local elections, or within Democratic primaries. Equally importantly, it has often manifested as a class and racial revolt, pitting working class African American, Latino, and Asian American voters concerned about crime and education against “woke” white professionals.
Minneapolis, where Omar’s district lays, was ground-zero for riots and chaos in the summer of 2020, and those internal divisions lasted, pitting the Mayor Jacob Frey, a liberal, against far-left police abolitionists and members of the City Council who insisted he further defund the police. Given the chaos, it is easy to see why Minneapolis would be ripe for the same sort of revolt against the far-left witnessed in cities across the country.
It is also easy to see why Samuels gained traction. Samuels does not look like Omar’s historical opponents, who were often wealthy, white, female attorneys or professional politicians who tried to win by mobilizing traditional white liberals, only to discover that their neighbors had gone “woke,” while their candidacies also failed to attract non-whites. Samuels, by contrast, is black, a self-made immigrant who arrived from Jamaica at age 20. He founded his own toy company before entering politics, where he established a reputation on the city council as a maverick, a very different kind of politician from Omar. While he was outspoken, sometimes in racial terms about what he felt was the under-funding and under-education of young black students in the Minneapolis schools, he was a fierce defender of the police force, and in fact sued Mayor Frey for failing to fund the police force at the constitutionally mandated level in 2020. (Frey, for what it is worth, nonetheless endorsed Samuels over Omar.)
The irony of the election, as noted by the Times of Israel, is that Omar’s traditional opponents, the Pro-Israel lobby, did not get involved at all on Samuels’ behalf. They wrote him off, as did much of the beltway media, which only looked at how Omar failed the country on the national stage rather than how she was failing her community. Oddly, it was alternative left-wing outlets which reported on how Omar was recently booed at a meeting of the local Somali community, or how activists felt she was using her position in Congress to advance the interests of her clan within Somalia.
Omar’s close call is a warning to both Democrats and Republicans. For Democrats, it reinforces how little they have been listening to the groups they ostensibly represent, and that those voters are in turn deeply unhappy. For Republicans, it indicates that there is a path forward even in the most inhospitable terrain, but that the reasons local voters may object to the far-left are often different from why Republicans do. Omar’s greatest weakness was not Israel, but that she was seen as failing her community. And angry rhetoric and accusations of racism were not substitutes for cops on the streets, public safety, or responding to those concerns.
Culture War issues mattered, but they mattered in that voters in Minneapolis saw Omar’s focus on them as coming at the exclusion of the issues they cared about: public safety, education, and jobs. Similarly, Republicans are having enormous success with framing Democrats as obsessed with CRT and abortion, but the most damaging charges, which cut across ideological lines, are that Democrats are more concerned with the pronouns on the name-tags of government employees than they are with the price of gas, or whether 911-calls are answered in reasonable time. Recognizing this will help ensure not just a Red Wave but a Red Tsunami in November. And while Ilhan Omar might survive this year, it seems her days are numbered. Don’t be surprised if she hangs it up for some sort of media role.
Daniel Berman is a frequent commentator and lecturer on foreign policy and political affairs, both nationally and internationally. He holds a Ph.D. in International Relations from the London School of Economics. He also writes as Daniel Roman.
We hope you've enjoyed this article. While you're here, we have a small favor to ask...
Support AMAC Action. Our 501 (C)(4) advances initiatives on Capitol Hill, in the state legislatures, and at the local level to protect American values, free speech, the exercise of religion, equality of opportunity, sanctity of life, and the rule of law.Donate Now