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Progressive Ilhan Omar Faces Dark Money and Right-Wing Attacks in Minnesota Primary

"When you speak truth to power, power fights back," Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez said of Omar's primary challenge.

Rep. Ilhan Omar (D-Minn.) rallies with fellow Democrats before voting on H.R. 1, or the People Act, on the East Steps of the U.S. Capitol March 08, 2019 in Washington, D.C. (Photo: Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)

Freshman Rep. Ilhan Omar is facing a well-funded challenger in the Minnesota primary on Tuesday as progressives champion her essential voice in Congress amid right-wing attacks from a relatively unknown opponent and outside dark money groups.

Omar has the backing of formidable lawmakers, including Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.), House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), Sens. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), and Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.). Numerous progressive organizations—including Justice Democrats, Brand New Congress, 350 Action, MoveOn.org, and the Working Families Party—have thrown their support behind the progressive incumbent.

"It’s not an accident that Ilhan and I had primary challengers," Ocasio-Cortez wrote this month. "Because when you speak truth to power, power fights back."

Political neophyte Antone Melton-Meaux, who is challenging the progressive Democrat in Minnesota's 5th District, posted massive fundraising numbers in the second quarter, and is neck-and-neck with Omar in total fundraising for this cycle. Omar reports raising $4.2 million while Melton-Meaux brought in $4.1 million, but the similarities stop there.

A champion of grassroots organizing, Omar's campaign reports nearly 60% of her campaign contributions coming from individual small-dollar donations of $200 or less, while Melton-Meaux reports just under 7% of his funds from that cohort. The lawyer and mediator shows 91% of his run is funded by large contributions with about $80,000 in self-financing.

Melton-Meaux's campaign spending, Too Much Information reported last month, has come under scrutiny. According to TMI, Melton-Meaux "paid  $1.2 million—65% of his overall spending—to three anonymous companies, a move that circumvents traditional campaign finance disclosure standards." The unusual financial activity prompted the Minnesota Democratic-Farmer-Labor Party (DFL) to file a complaint with the Federal Elections Commission last week. 

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The complaint accuses Omar's challenger of violating campaign finances by "conspiring to intentionally obscure the individuals providing services to Antone for Congress." Melton-Meaux called the complaint "frivolous" and noted that some vendors registered as LLCs to protect themselves from retribution from the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee (DCCC). The DCCC said earlier this year it would cut off firms who work to challenge party incumbents. The FEC won't rule on the matter any time soon, however, as after two Republican commissioners resigned in June and July, the committee no longer has a quorum.

Groups aligned with the pro-Israel lobby have reportedly chipped in to help Melton-Meaux defeat Omar, who has been outspoken in her defese of Palestinian rights and criticized U.S. foreign policy in the Middle East.  

As TMI reported, "Pro-Israel political action committees have raised more than $400,000 for Melton-Meaux’s campaign. A super PAC funded by frequent GOP donors last week disclosed spending $228,000 on mailers opposing Omar." The group, Americans for Tomorrow’s Future "recently bankrolled a Democratic pro-Israel super PAC that has been weighing in on Democratic primary races."

Omar's sharp criticisms of the Washington, D.C. establishment have made her a target not only of centrist Democrats but of Republicans and President Donald Trump. Melton-Meaux has honed in on Omar's national celebrity—she is a member of "the Squad," a group of progressive congresswomen including Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez—and criticized her for missing votes. 

A win for Omar would be another in a string of victories for the progressive wing of the Democratic Party. Squad members Ocasio-Cortez and Rashida Tlaib (D-Mich.) both defeated challengers this cycle and a crop of progressive newcomers backed by many of the same left-leaning politicians and organizations have ousted long-time centrist incumbents. 

"It's been really the honor of my life to represent my district to be a voice for those that have been told they are too loud and that their, you know, presence isn't supposed to be in the halls of power," Omar told NPR Tuesday.

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