Ilhan Omar Survives a Nail-Biter. Why Was the Vote So Close?

Ilhan Omar Survives a Nail-Biter. Why Was the Vote So Close?

Ilhan Omar Survives a Nail-Biter. Why Was the Vote So Close?

It was supposed to be a blowout, but Don Samuels lost the Democratic primary by just 2 percentage points.


Minneapolis—On the eve of the Democratic primary, Don Samuels visited a Somali mall in the Whittier neighborhood—Representative Ilhan Omar’s home turf—to pass out flyers as Minneapolis Mayor Jacob Frey introduced him to shopkeepers, even as a few voters’ smiles vanished when told whom this affable stranger was running against. Then Samuels drove to the city’s wealthy southwest corner for the final backyard gathering of his long-shot campaign to unseat the congresswoman. He lamented to the white liberals on the lawn that Omar voted against the $1 trillion infrastructure bill, a Russian oil ban, and more funding for the US Capitol Police after the January 6, 2021, insurrection. But what had really done it for Samuels was not any sort of drama on Capitol Hill—it was, he told them, that Omar held a press conference outside City Hall last fall urging citizens to vote against the mayor because he opposed a ballot measure to replace the police department that murdered George Floyd.

“This was a time when we needed to be together to solve public safety issues,” Samuels said, “and she created a rift.”

The white liberals nodded, rapt, as he promised to practice a more conciliatory leadership if elected. One man piped up, “Where’s the victory party tomorrow night?”

Everybody laughed, and Samuels regaled them with how he spent much of that day campaigning from the Stone Arch Bridge to downtown Minneapolis to Lake Bde Maka Ska—he left out the Somali mall visit—“and I was feeling like, you know, we need to leave, because I’m getting delusions of grandeur. Seriously, it was looking like if I won by 80 percent, I might be disappointed. Everybody we talked to, and the folks we didn’t talk to were riding by across the way waaaaaving, yelling. People were running up to us panting, shaking hands, saying, ‘Thank you for running.’”

He said the party would be at the Canopy by Hilton hotel in downtown Minneapolis, and 24 hours later, Samuels realized that he had hardly been as delusional as many had presumed. A few months ago, political observers scoffed at the idea that a moderate boomer could unseat a millennial progressive celebrity in one of the most liberal districts in the country. The national media slept on the story, and even earlier this summer, Samuels’s own polling showed his name recognition at 38 percent, to Omar’s 98.

Yet, when Samuels assumed the podium to address supporters just before 9:30 pm on Tuesday, the election results showed that he had come within two points of beating Omar, in a race that many expected him to lose by double digits. “We have taken on such a Goliath of a challenge.… To come this close means that we have our fingers on the pulse of the exhausted majority.… We know that America wants change.”

At first glance, Samuels hardly conjures images of change. He has been a community leader for decades and is 73 years old. The son of a Pentecostal preacher and a seamstress, Samuels immigrated from Kingston, Jamaica, in 1970 to study industrial design in New York, and committed himself to living in poor neighborhoods to improve the conditions worsened by Black middle-class flight—no matter how much money he made.

He found success as a toy designer, and in the late 1990s, with his wife, Sondra Samuels, moved to the Jordan neighborhood, one of Minneapolis’s poorest and highest-crime areas, where he became known for confronting drug dealers and slumlords and collaborating with police. His neighbors in north Minneapolis encouraged him to run for the city council, where he was a member from 2003 to 2014, before serving one term on the school board.

Samuels was well into his political retirement when violent crime spiked after Floyd’s murder and the pandemic, and the police force lost a third of its officers to PTSD claims and other departures. He and his wife, along with six other North Side residents, sued the city in August 2020 to compel the department to maintain the charter-required minimum contingent of police officers.

The following year, activists gathered 20,000 signatures and successfully pushed to get a proposal on the ballot that would amend the charter to replace the police department with a new agency that would take a “public health approach to safety.” It would have erased the charter’s minimum police staffing level—the very requirement that the Samuelses accused the city of violating. He and Sondra filed another suit to stop the measure from getting on the ballot, though the Minnesota Supreme Court ruled that it could proceed.

Mayor Frey also opposed the ballot question. Omar supported it. When 56 percent of voters rejected the measure last November, many of whom had backed Omar, some Democrats speculated that there was a political shift that could give Samuels a chance against the congresswoman. They urged him to run. Frey’s campaign manager, Joe Radinovich, who had just guided the mayor to reelection, consulted his wife, Carly Melin, chief of staff to the Minnesota Senate Democratic-Farmer-Labor Party (DFL) Caucus, about whether he should manage Samuels’s campaign.

“You better fucking do it,” she said.

Melin believed that most people were moderate and that the left flank alienated the mainstream “pragmatic progressives,” making it harder for Democrats to win elections. Her husband agreed. He had run for Congress himself in 2018 from one of the nation’s most competitive districts in an Obama-to-Trump swath of northern Minnesota, where he narrowly lost to Republican Pete Stauber.

By the time Samuels announced his candidacy in March, homicides in Minneapolis had more than doubled, and the city was reeling from the police killing of another Black man, Amir Locke, in a no-knock raid. In late June, the state Supreme Court sided with Samuels and his neighbors in the policing lawsuit. Samuels had become the leader of the backlash against the “defund the police” movement. Meanwhile, Omar championed a more holistic approach to public safety that grappled with mental health crises, addiction, and homelessness, and she introduced legislation named for Locke that restricted no-knock warrants.

I recently asked Omar how she responded to Samuels and his allies’ attempts to present themselves as a moderate voice of reason in the Democratic Party against a divisive left. She replied, “Don Samuels has never been the voice of reason on anything.”

Samuels was already persona non grata among progressives for his criticism of public schools as failing too many Black children. The fact that his policing lawsuit was funded by an outfit that worked with the right-leaning Center for the American Experiment also had many questioning if he was committed to the Democratic agenda at all.

While accompanying Samuels on his door-knocking two Saturdays before the election, I saw one woman swiftly cut off his pitch.

“I’m a progressive,” she said.

“I’m progressive, too,” he replied.

She recoiled in horror. “That’s not what I heard.”

A more promising prospect down the block said it was nice to meet him—he’d been following Samuels’s career from afar.

“So, what’s on your mind most of these days?” Samuels asked.

“I think obviously what happened over the last two years here… it’s sad…,” said the guy at the door. “I take public safety accountability [seriously]. I don’t think they have to be two opposing things. I think people kind of think if you support public safety and police, you’re against accountability, and no, I want both.”

The latter exchange was more typical of voters’ reaction to Samuels on the campaign trail (at least to his face), but it was still hard to imagine how he could compete with Omar’s renowned ground game. Over the weekend, three fellow progressive congresswomen from “the Squad” came from out of state to campaign on her behalf. Omar spoke alongside fellow progressive Representatives Rashida Tlaib, Ayanna Pressley, and Cori Bush to an enthusiastic audience at a community center near George Floyd Square. The house was teeming with graying, establishment pols, but 39-year-old Omar talked of the value her unique perspective brought to Congress, citing her work advocating for human rights. She said that as a Somali refugee she more deeply understood the impacts of American foreign policy and that she was putting that to use as the first African-born representative serving on the House foreign affairs’ subcommittee overseeing Africa. She described knowing how it felt to go hungry and how she had secured federal funding to feed 30 million children during the pandemic.

“I don’t care how many doors we have to knock over the next couple days or how many phone calls we have to make, but…we cannot let this seat be the one that serves as an example of the death of the progressive movement,” Omar told the assembly.

On Sunday morning, Bush helped rally several dozen supporters who gathered in a park to door-knock, recounting how she’d seen the pictures of Floyd and Breonna Taylor and all the Black Lives Matter signs on her way into Minneapolis.

“Do we let that fall to the side, because…time has moved, so now we need to morph into some other things?” asked Bush, who represents St. Louis. “No!… But we have to fight, because we’re progressive and we’re women of color.… Will she win barely squeaking by, where they say, ‘You know what, oh we’re ready, because blood is in the water, because she didn’t win by that much,’ or will they say”—she paused for dramatic effect—“‘Leave her alone?’ You make them leave her alone!

In the end, Omar did barely squeak by—with 50.35 percent of the vote to Samuels’s 48.2, or just 2,466 votes. The 27 percent turnout was way down from two years ago during Trump’s reelection bid, when Omar enjoyed a 20-point blowout against a primary challenger named Antone Melton-Meaux who couldn’t overcome his low public profile despite millions in outside spending. “We campaigned [in 2020] like we were down 20, and we were scared shitless,” said a progressive source, adding that the closeness of this year’s race caught the Omar campaign and her base off-guard, as their usual supporters failed to show up in sizable numbers. We “took the win for granted.”

Hamline University political science professor David Schultz said that Samuels would have won had he run a better campaign—he never pressed the law-and-order angle as hard as he could have. Out-of-state right-wing and law-enforcement PACs spent more than $225,000 in outside money against Omar, but Schultz figured a lot of the national money thought she had this one wrapped up.

And how did Samuels’s message resonate around the city? Omar bested him in racially diverse north Minneapolis—including his own precinct—where crime was a major concern, and she beat him in the ward where police killed Floyd and protesters set fire to the Third Precinct station. But Samuels easily won in the whiter, well-to-do southwest ward where he joked the night before about his delusions of winning—and those residents cast over four times as many votes as those of his home district.

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