Why Ilhan Omar Almost Lost Her Primary

Conventional wisdom suggests that members of opposing political parties don’t like each other — and I mean really don’t like each other. But what does it mean when members of your own party are seemingly aching to get you out of office too?

Minnesota Rep. Ilhan Omar must be asking herself that question after nearly losing her primary on Aug. 9. She is a member of the progressive group of mostly women of color commonly known as “the Squad,” and a week rarely goes by without one of them making headlines: New York Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez has been repeatedly admonished by both fans and critics for alleged political stunts; Michigan Rep. Rashida Tlaib stirred controversy in 2019 for dropping the F-bomb while calling for then-President Donald Trump’s impeachment; and Massachusetts Rep. Ayanna Pressley and New York Rep. Jamaal Bowman faced blowback in March for posting and then later deleting tweets that seemed to defend actor Will Smith for slapping comedian Chris Rock onstage at the Oscars.

In other words, Omar isn’t the only one who’s attracted negative headlines over the years. But it does seem as if Omar routinely receives the most flak from both Republicans and Democrats. It’s a hard thing to quantify, but she may even be the Squad’s most controversial member.

Why?

To be sure, there is no one explanation for why Omar is seemingly so disliked. Perhaps more than her fellow Squad members, she has repeatedly questioned the U.S. government’s relationship with Israel in ways that have angered members of both parties. There was the time in 2019 when she responded to a tweet and said the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, a pro-Israel group, was “all about the Benjamins,” a comment that angered lawmakers from her own party (not to mention the GOP) because it invoked historical anti-Semitic tropes linking Jewish people with money and power. Then there was the time in 2021 when she compared the actions of the U.S. and Israel to those of militant Islamist groups Hamas and the Taliban. But it’s not just her criticism of U.S. policy on Israel; she’s also had problems with politics at home. In fact, her support for a 2021 ballot initiative to replace the Minneapolis Police Department with a new Department of Public Safety may have turned off moderate Democratic voters in her primary last Tuesday, for example. 

Many members of the Squad have experienced racist attacks, but as a Muslim woman born in Somalia, Omar may be uniquely vulnerable to a particularly toxic mix of virulence and xenophobia.

“The fact that Omar still wears the hijab is a reminder that she’s maybe ‘not one of us’ or that she’s different,” said Michael Minta, a political scientist at the University of Minnesota, Twin Cities, who specializes in congressional politics as well as race and ethnic politics. In fact, Omar is the first to wear a hijab in Congress, and while Minta did say that fellow Squad member Tlaib, who is also Muslim, sometimes wears traditional Palestinian clothes, she doesn’t do it often. “Omar, on the other hand, is a visible representation of what Islam is. She’s also Black. And that intersection makes her a lightning rod,” he said.

Multiple Squad members have faced primary challengers this year. Omar and Rep. Cori Bush of Missouri had four, Tlaib and Bowman had three<a class="espn-footnote-link" data-footnote-id="1" href="https://fivethirtyeight.com/features/why-ilhan-omar-almost-lost-her-primary/#fn-1" data-footnote-content="

Bowman had three challengers until one of them suspended his campaign earlier this month.

“>1 but Ocasio-Cortez and Pressley had none. Only Omar has come close to being defeated. (We don’t yet know how Bowman will fare in his primary on Aug. 23, but fundraising suggests he may have a fight on his hands.) Still, Bush beat her nearest primary opponent by about 43 percentage points; Tlaib won by about 41 points. Omar, however, won by only 2 points. In fact, Omar is the only Squad member to face back-to-back competitive primaries following her initial 2018 win.

Why do Democrats dislike Rep. Ilhan Omar?

The margins by which the six U.S. House members known as “the Squad” have won as incumbents against their closest challengers in the 2020 and 2022 primaries, their 2022 districts and those districts’ partisan leans

Squad member District District partisan lean 2020 Primary 2022 Primary
Ilhan Omar MN-05 D+57 +19.7 +2.2
Rashida Tlaib MI-12 D+44 +32.5 +41.4
Cori Bush MO-01 D+52 +42.9
Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez NY-14 D+57 +56.3
Jamaal Bowman NY-16 D+40
Ayanna Pressley MA-07 D+73

In the 2020 primaries, both Bush and Bowman challenged Democratic incumbents and won. Pressley ran unopposed.

Bowman’s 2022 primary is on Aug. 23. Ocasio-Cortez and Pressley will run unopposed.

Win margins for 2022 are current as of Aug. 15 at 2:30 p.m. Eastern.

Sources: ABC News, State Election Offices

Unpacking why Omar’s most recent primary was so close, though, is hard for the reasons I cited earlier. “Anti-Muslim sentiment certainly plays a role,” said Shadi Hamid, a senior fellow in the Center for Middle East Policy at the Brookings Institution who studies the intersection of religion and politics. “But it’s hard to know how much it plays a role in this specific case because you would have to disentangle that from the fact that [Omar’s] outspoken; she’s controversial; she wears the hijab and talks about Israel more than most members of Congress.”

The University of Minnesota’s Minta, however, pointed to a number of missteps Omar had made at home. For instance, she didn’t back Minneapolis Mayor Jacob Frey’s reelection bid in part because he didn’t support the amendment change to replace the city’s police department. Frey, in turn, endorsed Omar’s main primary opponent, former Minneapolis City Council and school board member Don Samuels.<a class="espn-footnote-link" data-footnote-id="2" href="https://fivethirtyeight.com/features/why-ilhan-omar-almost-lost-her-primary/#fn-2" data-footnote-content="

No relation to me.

“>2 There’s not a ton of recent polling on Frey, but a September survey suggests that a majority of the city’s Black voters view him in a favorable light. “I think that having the incumbent mayor against you may have divided Omar’s coalition,” Minta said.

Samuels also repeatedly criticized Omar for her support of replacing the city’s police department with a Department of Public Safety, a bid which ultimately failed by roughly 12 points in November. Minta told me that Omar’s support for this ballot measure could have angered Black and white voters who didn’t want to disband the police department but wanted to reform it instead. On top of that, Omar has continued to call for police reform, which puts her at odds with other Democrats in the area who have moved away from calling for sweeping police reform in the years after George Floyd’s murder in police custody. Frey, for example, once promised to reform and rebuild the city’s police department but later retreated from this pledge. Samuels, meanwhile, attempted to make the race against Omar a referendum on that November vote by touting his past support for more resources and better training for police officers versus annihilating the department completely. 

“Some Black activists in the past have argued that Omar is out of touch with the community, particularly as it relates to ‘defund the police,’” Minta said. “There was also an uptick in crime in some of the urban areas in and around the city around the time when this proposal was going around, and many people still wanted police on the streets to fight crime. As a result, the more progressive messaging on policing was not in sync with some of the city resident’s demands.”

It may also be the case, though, that Omar just didn’t take her primary challenge too seriously. For instance, Omar and Samuels didn’t debate, and despite amassing a sizable war chest of her own — over $2.3 million — Omar didn’t air any TV campaign ads against him. Samuels was also perhaps a surprisingly strong primary opponent. He had his own name recognition in the community as a longtime resident and activist of north Minneapolis and a former city council and school board member. He also raised a lot of money — though ultimately less than Omar — which boosted his overall campaign and had the backing of a number of establishment Democrats in the area, plus the endorsement of Minneapolis’s big newspaper, the Star Tribune, which put Omar in a tough spot even though she was the incumbent.

But Omar’s struggles at home don’t fully explain what happened last Tuesday or why Omar has faced a primary challenge each time she has sought reelection. Remember, she’s the only member of the Squad to face back-to-back challenges while other outspoken members, like Ocasio-Cortez, have run unopposed.

That brings us back to Omar’s identity. “She has these various identities that make her really susceptible to being targeted because she’s so visible,” said Nazita Lajevardi, a political scientist at Michigan State University who studies political behavior as well as race and ethnic politics. “She’s a woman, first and foremost; she’s Black; she’s veiled, and she’s an immigrant. These four things are in a sense competing for how she can be really attacked, and they make her particularly vulnerable.” 

In fact, Lajevardi told me that Omar’s identity is likely one reason why so many Democrats feel emboldened to challenge her. Omar’s image has been used by Republicans as a sort of bogey(wo)man since she first won in 2018, and that, Lajevardi said, could buoy Democrats who want to similarly knock her down. It hasn’t helped, Lajevardi added, that establishment Democrats, like House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, have also publicly admonished Omar, which could also embolden moderate Democrats with similar views, like Samuels.

While it’s true that Omar’s criticism of Israel may go too far for many Democrats, Lajevardi stressed that as an immigrant woman, Omar’s comments on Israel might be interpreted differently than if they came from someone who was white or born in the United States. “Nativity is super important here because people seem to think that if she questions how the United States might be responsible for any sort of harm or violence abroad, then perhaps that means she’s not loyal to the United States,” Lajevardi said. “When she’s critical of Israel, people aren’t just listening to arguments of somebody being critical of Israel, but the image of her — her body politics and identity — matters, too, in shaping how that message is received.”

As a result, Omar’s an easy target in a way that other Squad members just aren’t. She is a disruptive representative because of who she is and what ideas she represents. And because she built a coalition with the progressive arm of the Democratic Party, which has an uneasy relationship with the rest of the party, she is an easy scapegoat for both establishment Democrats and Republicans. “So will she get another challenge in 2024? Seems likely,” Minta said.

CLARIFICATION (Aug. 16, 1:37 p.m.): This story has been updated to explain that although no debate took place between Omar and Samuels, Omar’s campaign says she did not decline to debate him.