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The National Obsession Around Ilhan Omar Is Fueling Her Primary Opponent

Antone Melton-Meaux was virtually unknown. But he's now raising millions in his challenge to Ilhan Omar.

Last updated on July 10, 2020, at 3:59 p.m. ET

Posted on July 10, 2020, at 12:24 p.m. ET

Olivier Douliery / Getty Images

Ilhan Omar’s primary opponent is a virtually unknown Minneapolis lawyer. But Antone Melton-Meaux has raised millions from big-dollar donors in recent months fueled by intense animosity toward Omar, one of the first Muslim women in Congress.

“I found out about him because I hate his opponent,” said Stan Weinstein, a retired real estate executive from Miami Beach who gave Melton-Meaux $2,800, the maximum amount allowable by law.

“She does not represent the United States, she doesn’t represent our values, and she doesn’t represent our history,” Weinstein said.

Michael, a donor from Scarsdale, New York, who also gave $2,800 to Melton-Meaux, put it this way: "If Mickey Mouse ran against her, I’d donate to him."

Melton-Meaux took in $1.5 million in May, with an average donation of more than $650, according to ActBlue data. The bulk of that money came from donors who gave more than $2,000, and a substantial chunk of it was bundled by pro-Israel groups. His campaign confirmed those numbers but would not provide any figures to BuzzFeed News, including any fundraising in June.

Omar is still the heavy favorite in the four-way August primary in her district in the heart of deep-blue Minneapolis, which has been the epicenter of nationwide protests over racism and police brutality this summer. But the campaign of Melton-Meaux, a Black lawyer and mediator who has never before run for office, has picked up steam in recent months by fundraising on the back of dislike of Omar.

One out-of-state donor gave $2,800 to Melton-Meaux after asking if there was any way he could “vote against that lady,” said his son, who asked that their name not be used. The donor’s son found Melton-Meaux after searching for Omar’s primary opponents.

“It’s not any kind of appreciation for the other candidate,” the donor’s son said.

In Minneapolis itself, Melton-Meaux has also picked up endorsements that could show signs of weakness for the incumbent. He is backed by a number of local politicians and civil rights activists, as well as Jewish leaders who have condemned Omar’s history of anti-Semitic comments, which she has apologized for.

When Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, another member of the so-called “Squad” of Democratic women of color who were elected to the House in 2018, faced a well-funded primary challenge last month that accused her of abandoning her district, she crushed her opponent by a margin of some 50 percentage points.

But Minnesota’s fifth district is substantially different from the districts represented by the rest of the Squad: It’s 63% white, with a substantial population of high-income voters, and a Jewish community that has been unhappy with Omar’s brief tenure.

The district is 18% Black, including the large Somali immigrant community of which Omar is a part. Some of Omar’s opponents see an opportunity to splinter off the district’s other Black voters, as well as wealthier, white voters in different parts of the segregated city.

“I think she’ll win, but I think it’ll be closer than people think,” one top Minnesota Democrat said of Omar.

"It isn’t surprising that billionaire corporate donors are targeting Rep. Omar, just like they targeted Rep. Ocasio-Cortez and Jamaal Bowman," Isaiah Kirshner-Breen, Omar's deputy communications director, told BuzzFeed News in a statement. "But what is surprising is the degree to which this money is fueled by Islamophobia, xenophobia and misogyny. It is clear that Republican donors will do anything in their power to silence and discredit a black Muslim immigrant service in Congress—even supporting a self-described Democrat. This money isn't just about politics; it's about hate."

Omar’s campaign has raised $3.3 million, mostly, like Melton-Meaux, from out of state donors, and said its average donation was $18.

Melton-Meaux describes himself as a progressive, and he has run to the center of Omar on policy issues. But at the core of his campaign is a portrait of Omar as a “divider” who has left behind her district, and her attempts to legislate, in a quest for international fame.

Melton-Meaux said he voted for Omar in 2018 before becoming disillusioned by her brief tenure in the House, especially the number of votes she missed in 2019, which was significantly higher than the state’s other representatives.

“We don’t want someone who’s looking out for themselves — who’s interested in launching a memoir, who’s focused on her celebrity,” he told BuzzFeed News. “People need someone who is going to show up.”

Part of Omar’s divisiveness nationally — she has become the face of many Republican and far-right media attacks on the Democratic far left — is rooted in her identity. As a Black woman and Muslim immigrant, she has been subject to racist attacks, including from President Donald Trump, who said Omar and the other members of the Squad should “go back and help fix the totally broken and crime infested places from which they came.”

Melton-Meaux said his campaign’s portrait of Omar as a “divider” is about her actions.

“I’m speaking about facts, about things she has said or done herself. These are not attacks or assumptions or subjective narratives. These are missed votes, votes she’s cast, things she’s said herself,” Melton-Meaux said.

Some of Omar’s allies, however, have pointed to what they have called anti-immigrant dog whistles in mailings sent out by Melton-Meaux.

In glossy mailers that have papered the district in recent weeks, Melton-Meaux’s campaign criticized Omar for having “been to Africa three times” while being absent from other parts of her district. Other mailers and advertisements have highlighted Melton-Meaux’s “American story” and his family’s long history in America, including as the descendants of enslaved people.

Melton-Meaux said the focus on his family history is not meant as a contrast to Omar, but a way for voters to understand him, especially his history as a Black man in the wake of the killing of George Floyd. “My telling of my story is an honoring of my past,” he told BuzzFeed News. “It’s not all good. It’s a lot of heartbreak, a lot of sadness, a lot of joy and overcoming.”

“I honor that, and I understand that I am a point in a continuum of time,” Melton-Meaux said. “I didn’t show up out of nowhere — there are people that sacrificed for me.”

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