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A preview of Minnesota elections with Jack O’Connor

Kaylie Sirovy is joined by Jack O’Connor, the city desk editor, in the studio to discuss the upcoming Minnesota elections, such as the rematch between Don Samuels and Ilhan Omar and other important races and issues voters are talking about.

KAYLIE SIROVY: Hello everyone. My name is Kaylie Sirovy, your host from the Minnesota Daily. Right now you’re listening to In The Know, a podcast dedicated to the University of Minnesota. With me in the studio today, I have our lovely city editor, Jack O’Connor. Thank you for joining us, Jack. 

JACK O’CONNOR: Yeah. Thank you so much for having me. 

SIROVY: He’s in the studio today because we are going to be talking about some important Minnesota election stuff with primaries and representatives and senators. But first off, do you want to talk a little bit about yourself there, Jack?

O’CONNOR: Yeah, sure. So just as Kaylie said, I am currently the city desk editor. I’ve been here for more than a year now. Started as a city desk reporter, but you know, I got a promotion not too long ago, and it’s been everyone’s problem since. 

SIROVY: No, it has not been everyone’s problem. You’re doing a great job. 

O’CONNOR: Wow. 

SIROVY: First off, let’s talk about the rematch of Don Samuels versus the incumbent Ilhan Omar. What should we know about that? 

O’CONNOR: Yeah. So this is a repeat of the 2022 primary. Ilhan Omar has been the representative here since 2020, if I’m correct, and in 2022, Ilhan Omar and Don Samuels faced off in the primary. Ilhan Omar is the typical, she is part of the squad, she is a progressive leaning member, she is an immigrant from Somalia.

Meanwhile, Don Samuels is an immigrant from Jamaica and leans a lot more to the moderate side of the Democratic Party. In 2022, their election was very close. It was decided by about 2,000 votes. That is an incredibly small margin, especially considering the fact that Ilhan Omar was the incumbent at this time.

A lot of people would point to the fact that Don Samuels got a lot of money from AIPAC, the American Israel Public Affairs Committee. It’s essentially a, a finance group that gives money to candidates who are pro-Israel, or they give candidates money who are running against candidates they feel are against Israel.

And that was in 2022. So now two years later, this is a very different scene now with the Israel-Palestine-Hamas conflict. This is something that’s a little divisive some would say. In 2022, the, the big issues in that election were crime. Don Samuels was really blasting Ilhan Omar for supporting this ballot measure which would have essentially reorganized the MPD into the Public Safety Committee, or not that same. 

SIROVY: Oh, I heard about that, yeah. 

O’CONNOR: Yes. It basically would have changed policing in Minneapolis really drastically, but didn’t end up passing. But Samuels was very much attacking Omar over that issue. But now, two years later, this is very much the Israel versus Palestine election here. If there’s a vote, you know, a Muslim woman is really supporting Palestine. She’s been sending out a lot of statements. Meanwhile, Don Samuels is very much a pro-Israel candidate. He recently got a bit of flack. I saw he called Omar a pawn of Hamas. 

SIROVY: Ooh. 

O’CONNOR: Not great. 

SIROVY: Not great. 

O’CONNOR: Samuels has had a bit of a foot in mouth issue going on this election cycle. One that he got really early on in this cycle was he essentially said that, “Ilhan Omar was not cute enough to make up for her downfalls.”

SIROVY: Oh, that is not a good thing to say about your political opponent. Oh, no.

O’CONNOR: It was not great. I think this is definitely an election where Samuels is gonna have to, I think we’re going to see a lot more talking about why the other candidate is bad for our community rather than why my specific beliefs would be good for the community.

SIROVY: Has AIPAC given to a bunch of political candidates here before? 

O’CONNOR: Yeah, yeah. This is something that they do every election cycle. Actually, this cycle, they have yet to give to Don Samuels. They may down the road, but they haven’t. One candidate that they gave a lot of money to was the opponent of Jamal Bowman, who, if you don’t know, another member of the squad who was just defeated in his primary. So this is very much a group that is ideologically opposed to the squad.

Very much two sides of the Democratic Party, the more moderate side, your Joe Biden’s, your Hillary Clinton’s versus your more progressive, your Bernie Sanders, your Alexandria Ocasio Cortez. Yeah, this is very much in my mind, a kind of a battle of two different sides of the Democratic Party. 

SIROVY: What do you think is going to happen?

O’CONNOR: Man, this is so, there’s still so much time. I know it’s a little more than a month till the primary (August 13). But I think Ilhan Omar is gonna barely take it again. I don’t think, I think it’s gonna be really close. One reason that I say she’s gonna win is because last time she was very much caught off guard. 

I think, in her mind, she just was not expecting anyone to really put up any serious challenge to her, but Don Samuels was really able to capture that, tapped into the kind of this side of the Democratic Party that just was not ready for a more progressive candidate like Ilhan Omar. But I think now that Ilhan Omar is much more aware of the potential threat that it presents. I think she’s going to be a little more wise, a little more involved in the community, at least for the next two months. 

SIROVY: Is that what other news organizations are saying and like polling places? 

O’CONNOR: Yeah. Yeah. I did read a little. The polls show it’s going to be a very tight race within the margin of error for both sides, so either candidate could really take it. There’s still more than a month to go, so just saying the one candidate is definitely going to win is not realistic. You know, Omar also has a few other advantages. According to reporting, Omar has $2 million on hand compared to Samuel’s 200,000. Obviously, that can change within the month. 

SIROVY: He only has 200,000?

O’CONNOR: On hand, so that means he’s spending money. 

SIROVY: Okay.

O’CONNOR: Like, it’s like, think of it like, if they want to put out a bunch of money, like, that’s where that goes. That doesn’t consider like, payroll and all the stuff they’re already paying for. 

SIROVY: Okay, okay.

O’CONNOR: But yeah, that was as of March, so he might have gotten a lot more money since then. You know, this is another one of his controversies that Samuel has kind of had, I forget when this was, this is a handful of years ago. Don Samuels and his wife were biking with a couple of neighborhood children, and one of the children fell into the nearby lake.

SIROVY: Oh goodness.

O’CONNOR: Don Samuels and his wife didn’t know how to swim, and so the child drowned. Obviously that, you know, that’s a tragedy, that’s not something they could have predicted, but Samuels hasn’t really responded in the best way, at least in my opinion. I remember seeing a tweet he made. I don’t know if he deleted it yet, but it was essentially along the lines of like, someone was criticizing him for that and he basically said, like, “can’t swim, but can run for office.

SIROVY: Oh, I remember seeing that caused a big uproar. Did he ever like really apologize for? 

O’CONNOR: I don’t remember him issuing like a statement about it. Like, I’m sure he like, he always, he feels bad. Like that’s not something he could have known. But like you are the responsible adult there. You should have had some precautions and like to not really even have like the feeling to like just not say something like that after the fact. I mean, come on. 

SIROVY: That’s yeah, that’s not an okay really thing to do. So the Democrats currently hold a trifecta, as you said at the state legislature. What does that mean exactly? And what races will decide if this trifecta survives? 

O’CONNOR: So a trifecta essentially means that one party holds every single one of the chambers here. So State House is controlled by the Democrats. State Senate is controlled by the Democrats and our governor, Tim Walz, is a Democrat. Essentially what that means is if that the Democrats can get every one of their camp to support something, it’s just gonna pass. There’s basically nothing the Republicans can do about that. That may sound like kind of a technical thing, but that is insanely important. This is such a major thing. 

The Democrats only control the state senate by one seat. And they control the state house by four seats. And with that kind of control of the state legislature, they’re able to pass things like the sick and safe time leave law. They’re able to pass marijuana legalization. They’re able to pass a lot of the transgender protection, LGBTQ+ protection that we’ve seen over the past two, four years. 

SIROVY: Didn’t they pass the lunch for all students

O’CONNOR: Yes. I believe if I remember correctly, that was also a party split vote. So that just means only Democrats voted for it. Republicans opposed it.

SIROVY: What races will decide if this trifecta survives? 

O’CONNOR: Yeah. So for voters in the university area, you’re not really going to be able to decide the state house this time around. Minneapolis is a democratic stronghold. It’s not going to be decided here. Where it is going to be decided is in those suburbs. So think about Lakeville, White Bear Lake. Those kind of suburbs are what’s going to decide the race. I remember reading some reporting from the MinnPost, over the last 20 years, the amount of contested races in the state house has gone from like 30 to 35 to now, which is just about 10 to 15. 

So, we know, going into the election, which races are going to be close, which ones just aren’t going to be close at all. The Democratic trifecta is going to be decided in these suburbs. So Minneapolis suburbs, obviously, but also a bit of the other population centers in Minnesota. Think Duluth, Winona, Mankato; places like that are going to decide this election.

SIROVY: Interesting. I had no idea about that. This is a juicy one. Will the election for Klobuchar and, uh, Royce White, is that?

O’CONNOR: Yes. 

SIROVY: Will that be close this year? 

O’CONNOR: It’s not going to be close at all. It’s going to be very much, uh, an easy election, but in my mind, it is the most entertaining in a kind of an outside observer way. I’m the most entertained by this one. I think Royce White is a very interesting character. Just some background things about Royce White.

He has almost no political experience. The most political experience he has is that he ran in the Republican primary for 2022 to defeat incumbent Ilhan Omar, but he lost that primary, and so now he’s kind of gone all the way. I should clarify, Royce White technically hasn’t secured the nomination. He has the GOP endorsement, but he doesn’t have the primary victory yet. That is coming on August 13th. But, with that GOP endorsement, with, with everything going on, it’s very much in Royce White’s favor. 

I think the only guy even close is Joe Trista, who is kind of a retired Army Air Force kind of man. But yeah, so a little background about Royce White is he has no political experience, he only ran in one primary before, where he lost, and he is a former NBA player. Nine minutes, no points, no passes, no anything. 

SIROVY: Oh no.

O’CONNOR: He also was in one professional fight where he lost. So a very interesting man. He was also, um, kind of, uh, one of the early leading figures in the Black Lives Matter movement, which is very strange just hearing that from a Republican, but he was very much involved in that. He has been described as promoting conspiracy theories. He’s described a lot of his behavior as sexist, racist, but you know, he’s an interesting figure. I’m not sure how much Republican, the Republican Party of Minnesota is really going to pour into him but.

SIROVY: Why did he get the endorsement then? 

O’CONNOR: You know, it was a really weak class. There’s this idea that smart politicians, politicians who want to be in office, who want to run, they’re not going to run for a race they know they’re going to lose. And this race just, it’s unless some miracle thing happens, I just cannot imagine Amy Klobuchar losing. 

She has won by many, many percentage points for the last few reelections, and I don’t see Royce White doing that again. And so if you’re a smart Republican politician, you want to be in office, you don’t want to be known as a loser, you’re not going to go run these campaigns just to lose.

Look, running a campaign, even a bad campaign, even a campaign that’s not going to go anywhere, is difficult. It is not an easy thing to do. It’s so many working hours, it’s a lot of time, a lot of effort, and just to do all of that effort, just to get blown out by 10 plus percentage points. No one wants to do that. 

And so, we saw a pretty weak Republican primary. I think, as I said, Joe Trista was the only one who was expected to really do it. Joe Trista was the favorite, but Royce White managed to get a little populism going and managed to take it. Or at least take the GOP endorsement. I keep forgetting to say it’s not a done deal yet, but he is very much the favorite.

SIROVY: So this kind of sounds like they, even though he’s putting a lot of hard work into it, into this, they’re kind of setting him up for failure almost?

O’CONNOR: You know, it’s not really their fault. It’s just the cards the Republicans have on the Senate level in Minnesota is just not in their favor. You could always just not run someone, but you know, you can’t stop someone from running and you want to at least have someone on the ballot. Makes your party seem a little more, you know, official makes it seem like you’re trying. 

Another, Royce White has gotten into a few different controversies. So in that 2022 primary I mentioned, one of the FEC filings, so kind of the mandatory financial reporting stuff that all elections, all politicians need to do. It was shown that he spent, I think it was 1,200 dollars at a strip club in Florida. Now, on a podcast, he explained that one, in his mind, I’m not saying what he’s saying is true or, or that he’s lying, but he said that a) it was filed wrong, and that the person who was in charge of that messed up and included that there, and that b) this is a direct quote from him, “they sell food at a strip club, don’t they?” 

Now, I also saw reporting that from the strip club, the most expensive thing was 25 dollars, and alcohol is not something that can be included in FEC filing. And also this is an all nude strip club, which just adds a little more, you know, flavor to this little story. 

SIROVY: Flavor?

O’CONNOR: I’m really entertained by it, you know. 

SIROVY: You know, you don’t really hear too many politicians say stuff like that. So, I mean, it keeps things entertaining for sure. 

O’CONNOR: I’m entertained. That’s the only point politics has for me, just, you know, a little fun. 

SIROVY: Did he have any other controversies? 

O’CONNOR: I’d have to look it up, but I know he’s said a few controversial things. I think he said women belong at home or. 

SIROVY: Oh. 

O’CONNOR: I’d need to double check that but.

SIROVY: Yeah. 

O’CONNOR: He said things along those lines. 

SIROVY: I get why he is considered an interesting character, as you said. Okay, so what advantages for this do the Democrats have? 

O’CONNOR: Yeah, the Democrats have a few advantages going for them. First off, it’s gonna be the abortion issue. This has been something the Democrats have really managed to rally themselves around, rally voters around. We saw in 2022, during those midterms, it was really expected that Joe Biden was gonna take a huge hit. 

Republicans were gonna get a big wave in the House, in the Senate, and it just didn’t happen. Also in the Minnesota State House, in the Minnesota State Legislature, that Republican wave was also kind of expected for them to get rid of that trifecta, and they just weren’t able to do it. A lot of that could be attributed to the fact that the Roe v. Wade abortion case had been decided not too long ago. This is still an issue that is very important to voters, and based on polling, around two thirds of voters are in support of legal abortions. 

And that’s something Democrats, if they’re going to be smart, could really rally themselves around. Also at the Minnesota democratic party has also been a lot better at running. Minnesota democratic party has much better financial situation going on than the Republican party.

SIROVY: Is there a big gap between the two right now? 

O’CONNOR: Yeah, I’d have to go back and check the exact numbers, but I remember for a time it was really ugly. The Republicans were not in a great shape, and the Democrats were just kind of rolling in their cash. Cash is that one thing where it’s so important for an election. 

People might not like it, but it’s just such an important thing. It determines how many ad rolls you’re gonna have. Are you gonna put up billboards? How many staff can you have? Are you gonna be able to put up campaign offices from around the state, or are you just gonna have to concentrate them in one area? Like, this is something that is incredibly important to a successful election. And it just seems like the Democrats have a pretty big advantage on that aspect.

SIROVY: On the flip side, what advantages do the Republicans have?

O’CONNOR: Yeah, I think the real big advantage Republicans have is that Democrats at a national level aren’t incredibly popular, or at least I should say Joe Biden, the top ticket Democrat, is just not polling incredibly well. And this is something that’s going to be important for Democrats, even at the local level. This is something that encourages voters to get out. 

If a Democratic voter doesn’t feel inspired enough by Joe Biden to go out to a polling place and go out and vote, then they’re not also voting for the smaller local elections where Democrats are at. So it’s going to be really important for them. Look, Joe Biden’s unpopularity is going to be a major issue for the Democrats and it’s something Republicans are really going to be able to take advantage of. They’re going to be. 

SIROVY: They already have. 

O’CONNOR: Yeah, this is something that’s going to be a huge thing for the Republicans to take advantage of. And also kind of, I guess it’s more of Democratic weakness. You can call it a Republican strength, but Democrats are very much divided on the Israel-Palestine conflict. We saw it in our local race here with Ilhan Omar, Don Samuels, two sides of the opposite coin. 

But if you go to the Republican party, it’s pretty much Israel. Like there are obviously Palestine supporters on the Republican Party, but it is very much a more unified front there. So I think what the Republicans have going is a more kind of unified party. They have, they don’t have Joe Biden at the top of their ticket, which they need to rally around. So I’d say that’s their strength. 

SIROVY: Do we think that the Minnesota Democratic Party will retain the trifecta? 

O’CONNOR: It’s a tough question, but Walz is staying on the top of the ticket. I think the Democrats will be able to retain the one seat up for, I think the Democrats will be able to retain the Senate, but I think they’re going to lose the House. I don’t.

SIROVY: Really?

O’CONNOR: I just don’t think they’re going to be able to do it in the, I don’t think it’s going to be an absolute destruction, but I think I could imagine five to eight seats going the Republican way. 

SIROVY: What do we know exactly which seats? 

O’CONNOR: There are a few open seats, suburbs, but I’d have to go through them seat by seat to really make my choice but. 

SIROVY: Yeah. The point is that there’s seats open that the Republicans can take.

O’CONNOR: Yeah. And I think there’s gonna be a few Democrats that are just not gonna be able to. I just think that a few of those Democrats, really in the suburbs, just aren’t going to be able to get enough votes. Especially with a lackluster national ticket, that they’re gonna be able to overcome that.

SIROVY: This is one of my questions that I have for you. Do you think that based on the Minnesota elections that we’re having and the National election that we’re having that you think more or less people are gonna vote this year? 

O’CONNOR: Oh my god. That’s a tough question. That’s a good question. I like it. I think we’re gonna see a lot of voter turnout. I think I’d say a little less than 2020 would be my guess as the voter turnout. I think we’ve got a pretty polarized election going on, so I think that’s going to inspire some people to go out, but there’s definitely been a lot of voter apathy this time around. I mean, it’s repeat of 2020, say what you want about Joe Biden and Donald Trump, but they are the nominees, and some people are very dissatisfied that those are the two choices. So I think that might dissuade some people from voting at all. 

SIROVY: Yeah, I’ve seen a lot from social media and online that people are just not happy about how this is the election that’s turning out. Is there anything else that you really want to talk about?

O’CONNOR: I’m trying to think. 

SIROVY: Oh, did you, is there going to be a specific person that will be in charge of writing about the Minnesota elections from city desk?

O’CONNOR: I think that’s probably going to be more of a group effort, I think. For this primary, I think I’m going to have one of our reporters just write something up quick. I’ll probably, sorry Alex, if you’re hearing this, you’re gonna be doing it. It’s gonna be you. I’m assigning that to you now. But once we come to the full election, I think that’s gonna be a much more of a team effort with the City Desk and probably some other reporters. See some nice graphics. 

SIROVY: Oh, I love those graphics. Graphics make a story. Well, I think that is it. Unless, anything else? 

O’CONNOR: I guess I’ll just add one thing about what a trifecta means because I do want to hammer home like just how important that is. If you are someone who has been really impressed with the Democrats in Minnesota, you’ve really liked everything that they’ve been doing so far, then you really want them to retain this trifecta.

I cannot overstate how much this is going to play a role in Minnesota politics for the next two years. 

Being able to just get all the support within the party. Not needing to go to the Republicans and ask, “Would you pretty please support this?” Not having to water down any bills that they support. This is going to be something that plays major role in future Minnesota politics. 

SIROVY: And compared to the states around us, I mean. 

O’CONNOR: Yeah, I mean, this is, we are a bit of a, the blue outlier: the Dakotas, Iowa, Wisconsin, mainly Republican controlled. 

SIROVY: Wisconsin though can be a battleground state. 

O’CONNOR: It could be. They’ve got a, I think if I remember correctly, a Democratic governor in a Republican House.

SIROVY: Oh, what an interesting combination. Alrighty, that has been the end of this episode. As always, we appreciate you listening in, and feel free to leave us an email at [email protected] with comments, questions, or concerns. I’m Kaylie. 

O’CONNOR: And this is Jack. 

SIROVY: And this has been In The Know.

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  • Wendy Eilers
    Jul 10, 2024 at 1:22 pm

    A very informative conversation. VOTE, VOTE, VOTE!!!