Minnesota politician Keith Ellison grabbed headlines back in September, when he won the Democratic primary to replace Martin Sabo. The 14-termer Sabo represented the heart of Minneapolis, a district that voted 71-28 for Kerry over Bush. That, apparently, was that—Ellison, a former Nation of Islam activist, would become the first Muslim to serve in Congress.
While polling indicates that Minnesota Democrats are going to notch huge victories across the state, Ellison's support is surprisingly weak. A weekend Survey USA poll shows Ellison winning with only 49 percent of the vote. The main reason: Democratic defections to the energetically-named Tammy Lee. Prominent Democrats who worked for Sabo have endorsed her over Ellison, as has Tim Penny, the former Democratic congressman who used to be the party's point man on Social Security privatization (back before they were against it). Twenty-three percent of Democrats, the same number of whites, and 19 percent of liberals back Lee.
None of this suggests that Ellison could actually lose. Actually, the tolerance this 71 percent white district is showing for a black Muslim would have been unthinkable 10, 20 years ago. Still, why are a sizable number of liberal Democrats gunshy about pulling the lever for a Muslim? Is Ellison just uniquely controversial (as the Powerline dudes have been insisting with a fury that makes Dan Rather feel like he got off easy)? Once Democrats are no longer scrambling for their very survival as a party, are they going to take another look at a voter bloc that's only supporting them because of the botched war in Iraq?