WASHINGTON – Minnesota Rep. Ilhan Omar, a member of the progressive Squad, eked out a closer-than-expected Democratic primary victory Tuesday against a centrist challenger who questioned the incumbent's support for the “defund the police" movement.
The evening went far smoother for another progressive, Becca Balint, who won the Democratic House primary in Vermont — positioning her to become the first woman representing the state in Congress.
In Minnesota, a Republican was headed to Congress to serve the remaining months of the late Rep. Jim Hagedorn's term.
And a key race was unfolding in western Wisconsin, where Democratic Rep. Ron Kind’s retirement after 26 years in office opens up a seat in a district that has been trending Republican. The GOP nominee vying to replace Kind is a former Navy SEAL who attended the “Stop the Steal” rally in Washington on Jan. 6, 2021, which preceded the insurrection at the U.S. Capitol.
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OMAR SURVIVES TOUGH CHALLENGE
Omar, who represents Minneapolis and is one of the left's leading voices in Congress, has defended calls to redirect public safety funding more into community-based programs. She squared off with former City Councilmember Don Samuels, whose north Minneapolis base suffers from more violent crime than other parts of the city.
Samuels argued that Omar is divisive and helped defeat a ballot question last year that sought to replace the city police department with a new public safety unit. He and others also successfully sued the city to force it to meet minimum police staffing levels called for in Minneapolis' charter.
Samuels said his narrow loss shows that Omar is beatable: “If this was the general election, no doubt that we would have won this race." Omar countered, “Tonight’s victory is a testament to how much our district believes in the collective values we are fighting for.”
Barb Atkinson, a 53-year-old part-time event planner for a radio station who supported Samuels, called Omar "too far to the left.”
“Although I respect Ilhan Omar and what she’s done, I disagree with the defund the police. I really think that wording sends the wrong message,” Atkinson said. She added, "We need our leaders to work together to solve this issue.”
Omar, who is seeking her third term in the House, had crushed a similar primary challenge two years ago from a well-funded but lesser-known opponent.
“She’s had a lot of adversity already and pushback. I don’t think her work is done,” said Kathy Ward, a 62-year-old property caretaker for an apartment building in Minneapolis who voted for Omar. “We’ve got to give her a chance.”
Two other members of the Squad — Rep. Rashida Tlaib of Michigan and Rep. Cori Bush of Missouri — won their Democratic primaries last week.
TWO ELECTIONS, ONE SEAT IN SOUTHERN MINNESOTA
Voters in southern Minnesota, meanwhile, were deciding two races related to the same seat vacated by Republican Rep. Jim Hagedorn, who died earlier this year from cancer.
Republican Brad Finstad, who served in the U.S. Department of Agriculture during the Trump administration, won a special election to serve the remaining months of Hagedorn's term. Finstad defeated Democrat Jeff Ettinger, a former chief executive at Hormel Foods, in a race that was closer than anticipated in the Republican-leaning district. Both had won a May 24 special primary election to advance to Tuesday's contest.
Finstad and Ettinger will face off again in November for a full term in the district — it includes Rochester and Mankato — after each secured his party's nomination Tuesday. Ettinger faced minimal primary opposition, while Finstad had little trouble dispatching state Rep. Jeremy Munson. Munson said he doesn't think President Joe Biden's victory was legitimate — despite federal and state election officials, courts and Trump’s own attorney general saying there was no credible evidence the 2020 presidential election was tainted.
REPLACING RON KIND
Republicans see a pickup opportunity in Wisconsin's 3rd Congressional District, the seat being vacated by Democratic incumbent Kind.
The district covers a swath of counties along Wisconsin's western border with Minnesota and includes La Crosse and Eau Claire. Republican Derrick Van Orden was unopposed in his primary Tuesday and has Trump's endorsement.
Van Orden narrowly lost to Kind in the 2020 general election. He attended Trump's “Stop the Steal” rally near the White House but has said he never stepped foot on the grounds of the Capitol during the insurrection.
State Sen. Brad Pfaff topped three other Democrats to secure the party's nomination and will face Van Orden in the fall. Pfaff, a onetime state agriculture secretary, had previously worked for Kind and received his endorsement.
RARE VERMONT OPEN SENATE SEAT
Vermont is the last state in the country yet to add a female member to its congressional delegation. Balint, who immediately becomes the favorite in November's general election, would also be the first openly gay member of Congress from Vermont.
She was endorsed by some of the nation’s leading leaders on the left, including Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders, Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren and Rep. Pramila Jayapal, chair of the Congressional Progressive Caucus.
“Vermont has chosen a bold, progressive vision for the future, and I will be proud to represent us in Congress,” Balint said in a statement.
Balint is vying to fill the state’s lone House seat, which is being vacated by Rep. Peter Welch who is running for Senate and easily secured the Democratic nomination on Tuesday. Welch is trying to succeed Sen. Patrick Leahy, the Senate’s longest-serving member, who is retiring, creating Vermont’s first open Senate seat since 2006, when Sanders succeeded Jim Jeffords.
Balint defeated Lt. Gov. Molly Gray, an ex-staffer for Welch and has been backed by Leahy and former Vermont Gov. Howard Dean. In November, she'll face Liam Madden, a Marine Corps veteran from Bellows Falls who secured the Republican nomination.
Associated Press writers Steve Karnowski, Doug Glass and Trisha Ahmed in Minneapolis, Scott Bauer in Madison, Wis., and Wilson Ring in Montpelier, Vt., contributed to this report.