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U.S. Rep. Ilhan Omar, challenger Don Samuels prepare for final primary election push

Ilhan Omar, challenger Don Samuels prepare for final primary election push
Ilhan Omar, challenger Don Samuels prepare for final primary election push 02:25

MINNEAPOLIS -- Incumbent U.S. Rep. Ilhan Omar and her most prominent primary challenger Don Samuels both say they are feeling confident about their campaigns in the final days before Tuesday's election, where the two will square off to be the DFL candidate in a deep blue district.

"We're excited to be out there, to talk to voters, to get people out to vote and win this election," Omar said in an interview Friday. "I think the voters of the Fifth are smart enough to know we have worked on their behalf in Washington, fighting for the progressive values that have always driven Minnesota's Fifth."

Omar has represented Minnesota's Fifth Congressional District since 2019, which encompasses Minneapolis and surrounding suburbs. In Samuels, Omar has a competitor who is well known and well-funded: Samuels raised more money than her in the second quarter of this year by more than $200,000, according to federal campaign finance reports.

But two years ago, she faced another DFL opponent in an expensive primary fight and still prevailed by 20 points—and then went on to the 2020 general election by nearly 40 points against the Republican candidate.

That's because beating an incumbent is a feat, said Larry Jacobs, politics professor at the Humphrey School of Public Affairs at the University of Minnesota.

"The advantages that the incumbent has are immense," he said. "They've got better name recognition. They've got better fundraising networks and in addition they've usually built up a strong network of supporters who can identify voters, get those voters to polling places on Election Day or get them to mail in their ballots.

Still, Jacobs called Samuels "probably the toughest challenger Ilhan Omar has faced in a primary." He noted Samuels' campaign cash and his own name recognition in the community as a longtime resident of North Minneapolis and a former city council member.

Samuels leans into that part of his story as he angles for voters' support. He recently received the endorsements of Minneapolis Mayor Jacob Frey and mayors of Edina, Golden Valley, St. Louis Park and New Hope.

But he tried to draw the sharpest distinctions between himself and Omar on public safety.

"Public safety, even though it's primarily a local issue, Congresswoman Omar inserted herself into that issue, very robustly demanding police be defunded and also showing insensitivity to the pain that people are feeling with the descent into a certain amount of lawlessness," Samuels said. "I just have a different approach to it. Don't abolish, fix it."

Omar last Novemver supported the Minneapolis ballot measure that would've removed the police department from the city's charter and replaced it with a new public safety agency, an effort that was ultimately rejected by voters.

Samuels was an outspoken critic of the ballot question and notably joined other North Minneapolis residents who sued Minneapolis and the mayor for the depleted police force. The state Supreme Court in that case recently decided the city must employ a minimum number of officers, a threshold which it currently has not met.

As crime remains a problem in the Twin Cities, Samuels thinks his position is a winning one.

"I knew the voters wanted to not defund the police – the [2021] election proved it," he said. "I knew people wanted to feel safe that's why I sued the police department. I'm going to Washington to be equally relevant, both in public safety and on other issues plaguing our community."

Omar said she hears her district's concerns about crime and said staffing woes in the Minneapolis police department stem from its culture—that "people do not want to sign up for a department that is accused by the human rights department here in Minnesota of discrimination and impunity."

She also criticized Samuels' time on the city council as the chair of the public safety committee, arguing that he failed to make the city safer or police more accountable. 

"For someone who had that opportunity but didn't deliver a single change for our city to now say 'pick me' is really thinking the voters are not smart enough to remember his record," she said.

Omar said she will double down on get-out-the-vote efforts in the final days. Some of her colleagues in the U.S. House—Missouri's Cori Bush of Missouri, Michigan's Rashida Tlaib and Massachusetts' Ayanna Pressley—are joining her for a weekend of campaigning.

"The contrast is clear and I'm very confident the voters will see it," Omar said.

Even with Samuels's latest fundraising haul outpacing Omar, Jacobs said he still has to overcome the power of a sitting congresswoman. 

"That does not guarantee a win because of Ilhan Omar's name recognition and a very strong machine she has been able to build to turn out the vote," he said.

Samuels said he's up to the task.

"There's a sleeper level of engagement and connectivity with people in the city and the suburbs that's not evident at the surface level," he said of his campaign. "It's not in the newspapers—it's in relationships, personal relationships and connections, that are stirring into action to become a political force."

The district reliably favors Democrats. Republicans haven't won the seat in decades.  

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