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Abuse Allegations Loom Over Minnesota Race to Replace Ellison

Female candidates dominate 5th District Democratic-Farmer-Labor primary

Minnesota Rep. Keith Ellison vacated his 5th District seat to run for state attorney general. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call file photo)
Minnesota Rep. Keith Ellison vacated his 5th District seat to run for state attorney general. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call file photo)

Democratic candidates running for Rep. Keith Ellison’s seat in Minnesota’s deep-blue 5th District are pushing voters to the polls Tuesday, as abuse allegations against the congressman threatened to send them off-message in the campaign’s closing hours.

The three front-runners for the Democratic-Farmer-Labor nod in Tuesday’s primary declined to take sides when asked at a candidate forum Monday about allegations that Ellison physically abused a former girlfriend — which he has denied. The six-term congressman vacated the 5th District seat to run for state attorney general. 

Three things are almost certain about Ellison’s successor: She’ll be a woman, she’ll be a Democrat, and, if she chooses, she’ll be there for a long time. Hillary Clinton carried the Minneapolis-based seat by 55 points in 2016, while Inside Elections with Nathan L. Gonzales rates the race Solid Democratic

“Barring any scandal, they’ll be there for life if they choose to,” said Ken Martin, chairman of the Minnesota Democratic-Farmer-Labor Party.

Ilhan Omar, a first-term state representative, is the party-endorsed candidate and a crowd-rousing progressive firebrand. Other top contenders include former state House Speaker Margaret Anderson Kelliher and state Sen. Patricia Torres Ray. 

On policy, little separates Omar and Kelliher: Both are all-in for single-payer health care, free college tuition and abolishing the Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency. But the two represent different styles of politician, and different visions for the future of the House Democratic Caucus.

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Contrasting styles

Omar is a rising star in her party’s progressive wing, with a democratic socialist-style platform and a gift for galvanizing the crowds. A Somali refugee who came to the United States at age 12, her background is well-suited to an increasingly diverse district and a compelling contrast to the Trump administration’s restrictions on immigration and refugees.

If elected, she would be the first Somali-American and one of the first Muslim women elected to Congress. (Democrat Rashida Tlaib, a Muslim, is heavily favored to win in November in Michigan’s 13th District.) More likely than not, Omar would be one of Capitol Hill’s most vocal and progressive members.

“You will hear Omar. She’s going to drive an agenda,” said Larry Jacobs, a University of Minnesota political science professor.  “Omar would be one of the most visible freshman members of Congress.”

Kelliher, meanwhile, is the legislative powerhouse. Though less inclined than her opponent to stir up a crowd or capture media attention, she would likely be the more effective lawmaker, Jacobs said. With 12 years in the Minnesota House, including four as speaker, Kelliher is a good bet to reach party leadership within a decade, he added.

“The differentiation for me is that I have a really unique combination of experiences,” Kelliher said. “I have a track record of getting stuff done … and people want someone who can hit the ground running on Day One.”

The race poses a sensitive choice for Democrats in a state that’s self-consciously white: Do they side with Kelliher’s legislative chops or throw in with the young rising star and shatter another glass ceiling?

“We want our elected leaders to look like the people that they’re serving,” said Martin, the DFL chairman. “The more young people of color and the more young immigrants running for office the better, in my opinion.”

Omar had the early momentum in the race after the seat opened up in June when Ellison announced a last-minute bid for attorney general. Omar sprung into action, picking up a slate of key endorsements, including Minnesota Gov. Mark Dayton, Minneapolis Mayor Jacob Frey and several major Democratic organizations such as, Our Revolution and Women Winning.

She also won the DFL endorsement at a hastily arranged endorsing convention in June, earning financial and logistical support from the party apparatus. Omar’s campaign did not respond to requests for comment.

Still, Kelliher is hanging on tight. She remains one of the most prominent politicians in the state despite being out of public office for eight years, and has taken advantage of a sizable fundraising lead with ads and mailers. Her campaign is making a play for the suburban parts of the district, where voters haven’t quite caught Omar fever, Jacobs said.

Torres Ray, the first Latina elected to the state Senate, is a third leading contender for the seat. She said health care, education, gun safety and the environment have been key themes with voters during the campaign. Other Democrats running include activist and businessman Jamali Abdulahi and real estate agent Frank Drake, the losing Republican nominee in 2016.

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