This summer, three of the House’s most left-wing members — Rashida Tlaib, Ilhan Omar, and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (AOC) — all faced primary challenges. Tlaib’s seat is in Michigan, Omar’s in Minnesota, and AOC’s in New York, but every contest yielded an identical pattern: corporate interests and big donors lined up to fund a challenger and the incumbent won easily.
In June, AOC bested former CNBC anchor Michelle Caruso-Cabrera with nearly 75 percent of the vote. Few seemed to expect a loss, but the margin of victory was still notable (easily surpassing the congresswoman’s 2018 margin against then-incumbent Joe Crowley).
Earlier this month Tlaib did much the same, handily beating Detroit city council president Brenda Jones by more than 30 points. Here, the result completely defied the running media narrative, which said Tlaib was “fighting for her political life.” Last night, Ilhan Omar did the same.
Despite a slew of powerful endorsements ranging from Bernie Sanders to Nancy Pelosi, Omar’s race was repeatedly framed by the media as a close contest: “Ilhan Omar’s career on the line in tough primary,” read Politico’s headline on election day; “Representative Omar faces a tough re-election fight in Minnesota,” read the New York Times; “US Rep Ilhan Omar readies for tough primary challenge” (Al Jazeera); “Tlaib, Omar face insurgent primary challengers: Can ‘Squad’ survive?” (Fox News); “Is Ilhan Omar one and done? Why she could lose the August primary” (David Schultz, the Hill).
In fairness, challenger Antone Melton-Meaux’s campaign was incredibly well-financed. Thanks to huge donations from financial interests and Israel lobby groups, he enjoyed a nearly two-to-one advantage in cash on hand during the final leg of the race. On election night, however, all the money and media bluster came to nothing, Omar garnering more than 57 percent of the vote and beating Melton-Meaux by nearly 20 points — an improvement on her 2018 result of 48 percent.
If there’s a lesson in all this, beyond the obvious fact that media narratives are often wrong, it’s that the kinds of politicians who are called “controversial” tend to be vastly more popular than the label implies. Omar, Tlaib, and AOC have much in common as members of the same congressional cohort and as political allies. But, most importantly, all share a hostility to institutional power and an insurgent style certain to rub corporate interests the wrong way.
This, in turn, made the primary challenges against each of them similar in tone, with special interests sinking mountains of cash into their campaign coffers. As the abysmal results of these efforts suggest, what is called “controversial” is often incredibly popular — and what big donors detest is often exactly what real people like.