‘Go back’? Omar and the squad are building strength at home

July 19, 2019 GMT
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Heart shaped notes line the wall outside the office of Rep. Ilhan Omar, D-Minn., Friday, July 19, 2019, part of a day-long solidarity vigil organized by anti-war group Code Pink, on Capitol Hill in...
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Heart shaped notes line the wall outside the office of Rep. Ilhan Omar, D-Minn., Friday, July 19, 2019, part of a day-long solidarity vigil organized by anti-war group Code Pink, on Capitol Hill in...

MINNEAPOLIS (AP) — President Donald Trump can tell Rep. Ilhan Omar to “go back” to Somalia all he wants. All indications suggest she’s not going anywhere.

Safely entrenched in liberal, urban districts, Omar and most of her fellow “squad” mates of progressive Democrats have been posting impressive fundraising numbers, so far scaring away serious primary challenges and quieting some critics on their home turf. While their leftist policies and uncompromising tactics may roil Democratic leaders and draw Trump’s fire, they’ve only bolstered their standing at home. The squad is poised to be a foil for Trump and a complication for Democratic leaders.

“We are going to continue to be a nightmare to this president because his policies are a nightmare to us,” Omar, the first Somali American to serve in the U.S. House, told the crowd of supporters who gave her a hero’s welcome at the airport Thursday as she returned to her Minneapolis district from Washington.

She spent the week as Trump’s top target, after he tweeted Sunday that lawmakers should “go back” to their countries if they want to criticize the U.S. He was referring to Omar and her fellow congresswomen Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of New York, Rashida Tlaib of Michigan and Ayanna Pressley of Massachusetts — four freshmen women of color known as the “squad.” All four are U.S. citizens, and only Omar was born outside the U.S. Her family fled violence in Somalia when she was a child.

“We are not deterred. We are not frightened,” she said. “We are ready.”

Omar hasn’t always been so celebrated at home. Some Democrats were dismayed by remarks she made earlier this year that they considered anti-Semitic. Some believed she was vulnerable to a primary challenge from her district’s sizable Jewish community. But none has emerged. The three little-known Republicans who have filed to run against her are given almost no chance of winning in the district that covers the heart of the city’s large Somali community, as well as some first-ring suburbs. Trump drew only 18% of the vote in 2016.

Omar’s campaign bank account is likely a deterrent for any Democrat. At least $1.2 million of the $2.4 million that Omar has raised since 2017 comes from outside her state, according to an analysis of fundraising data by The Associated Press.

Ocasio-Cortez has amassed $1.4 million, records show. At least $1.2 million of the money she has raised since launching her campaign comes from outside her home state, according to the AP’s analysis. Their squad mates have more modest but still respectable bank balances.

The cash — particularly Omar and Ocasio-Cortez’s hauls — sets them up to become kingmakers. They have started to share the wealth with like-minded candidates — potentially including progressives who will take on Democratic incumbents.

“Nancy Pelosi has been minimizing the significance of the squad. Her phrase was just four votes. But this fundraising haul suggests it’s more than four votes — it’s millions of dollars that are going to be distributed around the country to advance progressive candidates,” said Larry Jacobs, a political scientist at the University of Minnesota.

And that could mean challenging establishment Democrats, just as Ocasio-Cortez and Pressley did with stunning success in 2018.

“If you’re a moderate Democrat in the U.S. House, the money raised by the squad presents an imminent danger to your political survival,” Jacobs said.

The appetite for more confrontational politics among the Democratic base is clear.

James Ehresman-Tsagong, a 22-year-old community college student, dismissed talk of progressives like Omar pulling the party to the left. Their agenda, which includes Medicare for All, free college and ambitious climate change goals, is “the only path to being a party that represents working people,” he said at a town hall hosted by Omar on Thursday.

“I’ve never been so proud of a politician that represents Minnesota,” he said.

Of the four lawmakers, Tlaib appears most likely to court a primary challenge. The Palestinian American won her seat by eking out a victory in a crowded Democratic primary. Her Detroit-area district — one of the poorest in the country — is majority black and was represented by Rep. John Conyers, the longest-serving African American in Congress, until his retirement in 2017.

Tlaib hasn’t drawn a primary challenger yet. But all eyes are on a possible rematch with Detroit City Council President Brenda Jones, a black woman, who lost to Tlaib in the primary but actually defeated her on the same day in the special election to serve out the rest of Conyers’ term. Jones did not respond to inquiries about her plans.

In New York, where Ocasio-Cortez represents parts of the Bronx and Queens, the political star has capitalized on her celebrity to become a fundraising powerhouse and a local force. No Democrat has announced plans to challenge her.

One measure of her popularity: After Ocasio-Cortez endorsed a public defender’s outsider campaign for Queens district attorney, the first-time candidate managed to mount a serious challenge to the Democratic establishment pick. The race is now locked in a recount.

Pressley, who made history by defeating a longtime incumbent in a primary to become the first black woman elected to represent Massachusetts in Congress, also appears safe. No Republican ran against her, and she remains popular in her Boston-area district, which was formerly represented by President John F. Kennedy. No one has launched a primary challenge against her.

In Minnesota, Omar and her star power have quickly become part of state Democrats’ strategy. The chairman of Minnesota’s Democratic-Farmer-Labor Party, Ken Martin, said he expects her to use her cash to help Sen. Tina Smith keep her seat and deny Trump his often-expressed hope of carrying the state. Trump lost Minnesota by 1.5 percentage points in 2016.

“She’s all in on this election. She’s been a great team player with our party and other elected officials, and will be investing a lot of her personal, her campaign effort to help elect Democrats up and down the ballot here in Minnesota,” Martin said.


Slodysko reported from Washington. Associated Press writers Steve LeBlanc in Boston, David Eggert in Lansing, Mich., Karen Matthews in New York and Kathleen Hennessey in Minneapolis contributed to this report.