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New challenge

Don Samuels announces rematch against Ilhan Omar 

The former Minneapolis city councilman came within 2,500 votes of unseating Omar last cycle

AP Photo/Steve Karnowski

Former Minneapolis City Council member Don Samuels poses at his home, Friday, Nov. 10, 2023, in Minneapolis. Samuels is challenging U.S. Rep. Ilhan Omar of Minnesota in the 2024 Democratic primary.

Don Samuels, a former Minneapolis councilman who nearly unseated Rep. Ilhan Omar (D-MN) last cycle, announced on Sunday that he is seeking a rematch in next year’s August primary election.

The new challenge from Samuels, who came within just 2,500 votes of defeating Omar in 2022, sets up a hotly contested race for the nomination in Minnesota’s 5th Congressional District, where two lesser-known rivals have also launched campaigns in recent months.

In an interview with Jewish Insider on Sunday, however, Samuels, 74, voiced confidence that he is now better poised to take on one of the most prominent members of the left-wing Squad, citing his unexpectedly strong showing in 2022 as well as what he described as new commitments from unnamed backers who sat on the sidelines during his first race.

“When you put all those things together, it says that I’ve got the momentum,” Samuels said, noting that he has allowed himself a longer runway on which to build a viable campaign this cycle. “The conditions persist and the opponent is even more vulnerable.”

Political observers who spoke with JI agreed with Samuels’ assessment, but emphasized that even if he is able to clear the field, he will still have a tough race ahead of him. “I think it’s exciting he’s jumping in the race,” said Manny Houle, a pro-Israel activist and former Democratic organizer in Minneapolis. “But he’s got a big hill to climb even given his last turnout.”

Samuels, a Jamaican-born Democrat, said he will focus on three major issues this cycle, including threats to democracy, public safety and foreign policy — which has grown increasingly salient to voters as the war between Israel and Hamas unfolds in Gaza.

Samuels drew a particularly sharp contrast on Israel, accusing Omar, 41, of equivocating over Hamas’ Oct. 7 terror attack and otherwise using divisive rhetoric to create mounting tensions with Jewish constituents who are offended by her views.

“In the recent crisis, her early inability to have an empathetic response to the terroristic, brutal invasion of Hamas really alienated her further from the Jewish community,” Samuels said of Omar, who initially seized on the conflict to renew calls for conditioning military aid to Israel. “For the worst violence since the Nazis, she had a tepid response.”

He claimed that Omar, a three-term lawmaker, has continued to “show imbalance on Israel” during her tenure in Congress, arguing that she has frequently targeted the Jewish state for punishment while, for instance, opposing Russian sanctions and accepting a trip to the World Cup last year funded by Qatar, a Hamas-hosting country accused of human rights violations.

“She doesn’t seem to have the political savvy to even be judicious in her comments,” Samuels told JI.

Even as he voiced concerns over Israel’s military response in Gaza, Samuels dismissed calls for a cease-fire from Omar and her allies in the House, aligning himself with President Joe Biden, who has faced pressure from the left for standing with Israel despite voicing caution over its military response in Gaza.

The president “has taken a very balanced position in a difficult situation,” Samuels argued, while adding that the U.S. will need to continue to “help Israel to see that there is a possibility it could go too far.”

“Israel is our ally, and we don’t want to exacerbate global ill feelings to make sure that we don’t breed the next generation of terrorists, really,” Samuels stressed. “We have to be very careful to be humane and to restrain the fight to justifiable targets so that Israel can maintain the sympathy it has in the world.”

With nine months until the primary, Samuels said he anticipates that Omar’s campaign will seek to cast him as a conservative out to dismantle a progressive agenda, as her campaign did last cycle. But Samuels emphasized that he largely agrees with Omar on a range of domestic concerns, including LGBTQ rights, abortion, gun safety and universal health care, notwithstanding their differences on foreign affairs.

“Until someone hears the contrary from me directly, those are my beliefs,” Samuels insisted. 

In a statement shared with JI on Sunday, Omar said she is “incredibly proud of the model of co-governance we’ve built in the 5th District, which has included monthly town halls, routine constituent service resource fairs and a brand new district office.”

“As a leader of the House Budget Committee and Progressive Caucus, I’ve continued to fight for the progressive values Minnesotans sent me to advocate for,” Omar added, “whether it’s fighting to codify Roe v. Wade into law, pushing for historic climate legislation, addressing the opioid crisis or fighting for an assault weapons ban.”

Shortly after he lost to Omar last cycle, Samuels voiced frustration that pro-Israel groups had not rallied behind his campaign, when another primary challenger had received millions from pro-Israel donors in 2020. While AIPAC quietly opposed Omar last cycle by contributing $350,000 to a separate group created to boost Samuels, other pro-Israel organizations stayed out of the race.

It remains to be seen if pro-Israel groups will get involved in the Minneapolis primary, even as they have embraced a more aggressive approach to challenging other far-left incumbents who have been among the most strident critics of Israel in the House. 

In recent weeks, United Democracy Project, a pro-Israel super PAC affiliated with AIPAC, has begun airing attack ads targeting three Squad members and a libertarian Republican over their votes last month against a House resolution standing with Israel and condemning Hamas — which drew support from most lawmakers. Rep. Rashida Tlaib (D-MI) has also faced attack ads from another leading pro-Israel group.

But Omar hasn’t faced any such attacks on the airwaves, despite AIPAC’s efforts to enlist another challenger, Minneapolis Councilwoman LaTrisha Vetaw — who has indicated that she is uninterested in mounting a campaign. Vetaw did not respond to a request for comment on Sunday.

Speaking with JI on Sunday, Samuels said he had not had conversations with AIPAC about his new campaign. “I haven’t heard from them directly,” he said. “I’ve heard from many people locally. There were significant local resources that were withheld because people didn’t think I could win. Then nationally, folks like AIPAC, I’ve heard indirectly, they were pretty dissatisfied with their decision.”

Marshall Wittmann, spokesperson for AIPAC, said in a statement to JI on Sunday that the group is “reviewing a number of races involving detractors of Israel, but we have made no decisions at this time.”

A spokesperson for UDP did not respond to a request for comment.

Rachel Rosen, a spokesperson for Democratic Majority for Israel’s political arm, suggested that the group, which does not typically go after incumbents, is still assessing the primary. “We are watching the race closely and we certainly won’t be supporting Congresswoman Omar,” she told JI on Sunday. “We wish Mr. Samuels the very best.”

Meanwhile, House Minority Leader Hakeem Jeffries (D-NY), an AIPAC ally, has given multiple indications in recent months that Democratic leadership will continue to support incumbents, including those affiliated with the Squad.

The two other Democratic challengers in the race include Sarah Gad, a Minneapolis attorney, and Tim Peterson, a former Minnesota National Guard recruiter — both of whom have been critical of Omar’s approach to Israel.

“I’ve talked to both candidates multiple times, and we all agree that only one person can win,” Samuels said. “Everybody’s assessing where they are at this point early in the race, and decisions will be made accordingly. I feel confident that I am the strongest candidate.”

In a text message to JI on Sunday, Peterson, who launched his campaign this summer, said that he and Samuels had “never agreed upon a mutual election strategy,” adding that he “would welcome his endorsement.”

A spokesperson for Gad’s campaign declined to comment.

While Samuels acknowledged that he is in for a challenging race, he told JI that he is “taking nothing for granted” as he prepares for a bitter campaign in the months ahead. 

“I expect her to be more prepared,” he said of Omar, “because she knows that she can lose.”

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