Minnesota Voters Prepared to Determine Winners in Primary

Rep. Ilhan Omar, D-Minn., speaks during a hearing on Capitol Hill in Washington on Sept. 18, 2019. (AP Photo/Manuel Balce Ceneta)

ST. PAUL, Minn. (CN) — Minnesota voters will go to the polls Tuesday to vote in the state’s primary election, though many have already done so absentee. The late-season primary in the blue-turned-battleground state has several races to watch, and will serve as the state’s first taste of elections under Covid-19.

Over 624,000 Minnesotans have requested absentee ballots for the socially-distant election as of Aug. 7, up from only 37,000 at the same time in 2016, according to the Minneapolis Star Tribune. The deluge has already begun: the Secretary of State’s office reported Friday that approximately 375,000 of those mail-in ballots had already been received and processed, easing but not completely alleviating concerns that results could be delayed past election night.

Minnesota is a no-excuse state for absentee voting, so many of those who plan to vote by mail would have been able to do so with no changes, but Democratic Secretary of State Steve Simon has nevertheless agreed to remove a witness requirement for mail-in ballots in both the primary and general elections. 

Altered polling places and reduced staff for in-person voting have also been points of concern for the election, bolstering calls for mail-in balloting.

While the primary includes all partisan elected offices down-ballot of the presidency, the race bound to gain the most national attention is the 5th Congressional District, where Representative Ilhan Omar faces four Democratic challengers.

Omar, who has garnered national attention as a fierce progressive and member of “The Squad,” has been targeted by challenger Antone Melton-Meaux for her critiques of the Israeli occupation of Palestine, a low attendance record and what he has called a penchant to chase celebrity rather than focus on her constituents.

Omar has pushed back on those contentions, pointing to her record of prolific contributions to legislation. Her campaign has also brought attention to Melton-Meaux’s past as a corporate lawyer for Jackson Lewis, an employment-law firm which has faced criticism for aiding union-busting, an affront to one of the DFL’s major support bases. 

University of Minnesota political science professor Michael Minta said he suspects Omar has the edge in the race. “When she ran the first time, she had some strong challengers in the primary, and she still won fairly convincingly,” he said. “My suspicion is that she’s still going to pull it out, because she’s still more well-known.”

Polls have been sparse, but have consistently shown Omar leading, with differences in the size of that lead.

Omar started with a financing lead, but Melton-Meaux has closed the financing gap in recent months, raising $3.2 million from April through June while Omar raised only $472,000. An ad rush by Melton-Meaux early in July was met by a spate of pro-Omar ads shortly thereafter. Both candidates have fundraised upwards of $4 million in total.

Both candidates have also been the subject of Federal Elections Commission complaints. The Minnesota Democratic Farmer Labor party filed one against Melton-Meaux last week, alleging that his campaign had used shell companies to obscure the identity of political consultants aiding his campaign. An older complaint against Omar alleges that payments to the E Street Group, a consulting firm owned by Omar’s now-husband, Tim Mynett, were improper.

Each has had other scandals. Omar’s critiques of Israel and the U.S.’s support of it have often wandered into anti-semitic tropes, which has drawn fire from conservatives and from Minnesota’s Jewish community. Meanwhile, Melton-Meaux has faced criticism for past writings regarding Black Lives Matter and how employers should handle sexual harassment claims, writings he stood by in a recent interview.

As candidates of color in a city and time where issues of race are at the forefront of political dialogue, Omar and Melton-Meaux have also both received endorsements from Minneapolis’ prominent civil rights activists, with Attorney General and former 5th District Representative Keith Ellison backing Omar and onetime NAACP head Nekima Levy-Armstrong backing Melton-Meaux.

Minta said that race could come down to who turns out to vote. Omar is popular among students, he said, many of whom may not be in the 5th District because of the pandemic. If turnout drops in that demographic or more generally, it could create an opening for Melton-Meaux.

Ultimately, he said, one major question remains unanswered.

“What we don’t have the polling to really find out about is: how much is there discontent within the district about her policy?” he said. 

Omar’s positioning as a progressive and casting of Melton-Meaux as an “establishment” figure means that many may see the primary as a referendum on some of the stances Omar has pushed, notably universal health care, a Green New Deal and measures to address economic inequality.

While news coverage has focused on them almost exclusively, Omar and Melton-Meaux aren’t the only candidates in the race. Three other Democrats and three Republicans are also on the ballot, though all six are considered long shots in the deep-blue Minneapolis district. 

The last Republican to represent the district was Walter Judd, from 1942 to 1963. GOP-endorsed North Minneapolis businessman Lacy Johnson faces QAnon enthusiast Danielle Stella and former Iraqi television star Dalia Al-Aqidi, while attorney Daniel McCarthy, LGBTQ advocate John Mason and former local NAACP communication chair Les Lester, a Universal Basic Income supporter, vie against Omar and Melton-Meaux for the Democratic nod.

The winners in those primaries will also face Michael Moore of the Legal Marijuana Now Party, one of Minnesota’s two major cannabis-focused parties, in the general election.

The 5th District has garnered heavy national attention, but it isn’t the only Minnesota race worth watching. Collin Peterson, the longtime representative of western Minnesota’s sprawling 7th District and chairman of the House Agriculture Committee, has been heavily targeted by Republicans. 

The 2018 victories of Republicans Jim Hagedorn and Pete Stauber in the southern 1st District, once represented by Democratic governor Tim Walz, and the northeastern 8th District left Peterson as the only rural Democratic U.S. representative in the battleground state.

Peterson, a moderate founder of the Blue Dog Coalition of right-leaning Democrats, faces two primary challengers but the GOP contest has drawn more attention. Dave Hughes, a retired Air Force major and Peterson’s challenger in 2016 and 2018, lost the Republican nomination this year to State Senator Michelle Fischbach. Three other candidates include farmer William Louwagie, gastroenterologist Noel Collis and substitute teacher Jayesun Sherman.

Fischbach’s victory at the GOP state convention is contentious, with Hughes calling her a political insider and alleging that her former campaign manager jammed his phone line to prevent him from participating in virtual county conventions. 

Fischbach has stressed that the campaign manager is no longer with her campaign, but said little else about it. “It is now a legal matter,” she told Minnesota Public Radio. No case regarding the allegations has yet been filed in Minnesota courts.

He has the endorsement of Donald Trump, leading Minta to predict a Fischbach victory in that contest leading to a tough general election fight.

“Hughes, he’s lost twice. Gosh,” he said. “I’d be very surprised if she doesn’t win the nomination.”

“If she wins the nomination, which I think that she will, Peterson is in real trouble. And he’s always in real trouble,” he added. “Peterson has been able to hang on, so I wouldn’t count him out. Clearly he understands his constituency, and he has the ag groups behind him.” 

He pointed out that Peterson’s influence as Agriculture Committee chair provides value to the district, but that voters might not recognize that.

Peterson’s primary challengers both come from the right, including conservative food co-op organizer Alycia Gruenhagen and attorney Stephen Emery.

Other battlegrounds have quieter primaries. In the 1st District, Hagedorn will rematch Democrat Dan Feehan in the general election, and neither has primary opponents. Early polls show the race as a toss-up, leaning slightly toward Feehan. Stauber will compete with anti-Trump Republican Harry Welty for the chance to face Democrat Quinn Nystrom in the 8th District.

Minta said he’s also eyeing the suburban districts of Democrats Angie Craig and Dean Phillips, who both unseated Republican incumbents in 2018. While they’re generally regarded as safe, he said, Donald Trump’s vow to turn Minnesota red could impact their races. And with Omar serving as a boogeyman for right-wing ads, suburban Republicans may be more motivated than in 2018.

“If [Republicans] are going to put resources into the state, I think all of these competitive races are going to be in play,” he said. If I’m Angie Craig, if I’m Dean Phillips, I’m not comfortable.”

With that in mind, he said, presidential-year elections are often a question of how excited the base is to vote, and tanking approval ratings for Trump and a worsening pandemic are not good signs for Republicans in any district.

Craig will face Republican Tyler Kistner in the general election. Neither has primary opponents. An early poll showed that race leaning heavily toward Craig. Phillips, meanwhile, will have to beat Cole Young, a challenger from the left who also ran in 2018, before facing either medical tech exec Kendall Qualls or perennial candidate Leslie Davis, who is running as a Republican despite prior involvement with the Green Party.

Democratic Senator Tina Smith and her Republican opponent Jason Lewis — the incumbent Craig unseated in 2018 — both face easier primary races. Each has four primary opponents, none of whom are within striking distance.

Among Smith’s opponents are Paula Overby, who has also run for Amy Klobuchar’s Senate seat as a Green Party candidate and took just under 8% of the vote in the 2nd Congressional District in 2016 as an independent; Steve Carlson, a self-proclaimed “TrumpoCrat” who has run as a Democrat and an Independence Party candidate in elections going back to at least 2010; and Ahmad Hassan, a Texas real estate agent who has said he was inspired to run for office in Minnesota after the May 25 death of George Floyd despite never having lived in the state.

Lewis, meanwhile, faces Albert Lea art teacher Cynthia Gall, perennial candidate and anti-Trump Republican Bob Carney Jr., entrepreneur James Reibestein and blogger and self-proclaimed “Engineer & Recipient of Minnesota-certified torture” John Berman, who also claimed in his filing statement to have farmed garlic on the alien planet of Vulcan and objected to what he said are inaccuracies in the planet’s depiction on the television show Star Trek.

Minta said he’d be surprised if any of the primary contenders posed a serious challenge to Lewis or Smith, even considering Berman’s claimed endorsement from Sarak (sic) of Vulcan. (Sarek of Vulcan is an interstellar diplomat and the father of First Officer Spock in the show’s prime continuity). In any case, the winners will also face Kevin O’Connor of Legalize Marijuana Now and Oliver Stein of the Grassroots — Legalize Cannabis Party in the general election.

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