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Defend Ilhan Omar

Even compared to other recently elected left-wingers, Ilhan Omar stands out for her political courage and determination. It’s no wonder she now finds herself the target of a phenomenally well-financed primary challenge backed by private equity interests. Helping her fend off that challenge should be a priority for the Left.

Rep. Ilhan Omar questions witnesses during a hearing on May 16, 2019 in Washington, DC. (Chip Somodevilla / Getty Images)

Ahead of last month’s New York primary, Wall Street interests did their damndest to oust populist Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. Thanks to big donations from a veritable murderer’s row of interests in private equity and investment banking, former CNBC anchor Michelle Caruso-Cabrera (who was until recently a registered Republican) proved able to mount a surprisingly well-financed challenge with resources in the millions.

It was all for naught as Caruso-Cabrera finished well behind the incumbent. But with Minnesota’s primary elections set for August 11, a similar dynamic has emerged in the state’s Fifth Congressional District, where lawyer Antone Melton-Meaux is running to unseat left-wing Congresswoman Ilhan Omar. Omar more than doubled her opponent’s fundraising in the first quarter of 2020, but recently released numbers show that Melton-Meaux raked in some $3.2 million in the second and now enjoys a nearly two-to-one advantage when it comes to cash on hand.

Though big donors certainly did their best to defeat AOC last month, she still raised more than five times her opponent’s total — an advantage that can only have aided what was ultimately a decisive margin of victory. The money pouring in to unseat Omar has thus given Melton-Meaux a potential edge Caruso-Cabrera’s challenge didn’t enjoy.

It won’t surprise anyone who has followed Omar’s first term in the House, but the shamelessness of Melton-Meaux’s donor effort is nevertheless quite something to behold.

Earlier this week, the Huffington Post reported that two pro-Israel lobby groups (Pro-Israel America and NORPAC) alone have raised at least $450,000 for his campaign to date (both were also involved in the unsuccessful rearguard action to defend right-leaning incumbent Rep. Eliot Engel in June). Both organizations have raised money for Republican candidates in the past and some of NORPAC’s biggest donors have even made direct contributions to Donald Trump. Wall Street is also well-represented among Melton-Meaux’s donors thanks to multiple contributions from executives in the financial industry. Jonathan Gray, a billionaire who serves as president of private equity firm Blackstone, has reportedly chipped in the maximum legal donation. As Habon Abdulle, a local supporter of Omar’s, noted in Minneapolis’s Star Tribune this week, less than 1 percent of the congresswoman’s donations are over $200 while over three-quarters of her challenger’s donations exceed this number. Her average donation totals just $18, while his campaign’s average is more than $650.

Though Omar enjoys the support of key Minnesota politicians and labor groups, the scale of the effort against her is evidence of continued efforts by right-wing organizations and big financial interests to contain the populist current that continues to sweep through parts of the Democratic base. Even among the new intake of left-wing insurgents who have recently entered Congress, Omar has been a standout figure. Having won election in Minnesota’s most diverse district after a brief tenure in the state’s House of Representatives, she has sponsored transformative legislation to, among other things, cancel student debt, reimburse childcare costs for federal workers affected by the 2019 government shutdown, and transition the United States to a zero-waste economy.

More recently, Omar has been full-throated in her support for Black Lives Matter (something that cannot be said of her opponent) and is working with fellow members of the Progressive Caucus (where she serves as whip) to amend the federal Insurrection Act to curtail the president’s capacity to deploy the military for domestic purposes without congressional approval. And who can forget her grilling of Trump appointee (and war criminal) Elliott Abrams?

From the very start of her career in the Minnesota legislature, Omar has regularly displayed a level of courage rarely seen in American politics. Since assuming federal office in 2018, she has been an incessant target for racists and reactionaries as a result — the unabashed ugliness of a widely condemned recent segment by Tucker Carlson being only the latest example. Despite a seemingly nonstop barrage of smears from Republicans, conservative media, and a less than negligible number of liberals, polls suggest that Omar remains staggeringly popular in her district. Her constituents love her and have been impressively unmoved by the right-wing agitation and race-baiting directed her way.

Nevertheless, the unfathomable sums pouring into her right-leaning opponent’s primary coffers should give pause to anyone who thinks the Left’s newfound foothold in American electoral politics can be taken for granted. In only two years, Ilhan Omar has established herself as an indispensable presence in the House of Representatives. The Left must stand up and defend her.