Why Biden Allies in Michigan Are Worried About Protest Votes Over Gaza - The World News

Why Biden Allies in Michigan Are Worried About Protest Votes Over Gaza

For months, anger within the Democratic Party over President Biden’s support for Israel in the war in Gaza has been building. Protesters have shouted through his campaign events, marched outside the White House and vilified him as “Genocide Joe” on social media.

Now, Michigan’s primary election next week will put that discontent on the ballot for the first time, with Mr. Biden’s liberal detractors urging Democrats to vote “uncommitted” against him. Some of the president’s allies worry that a movement to register disapproval against him now could have lasting effects into the general election — especially if Mr. Biden does not alter his stance toward the conflict.

Michigan’s combination of an early primary, a large and politically active Arab American population, progressive students on college campuses and the option of a protest vote have raised the stakes of what has otherwise been a sleepy election in the state.

There are warning signs for Mr. Biden that frustration over Gaza has metastasized beyond Dearborn and other Detroit suburbs, which are the heart of Michigan’s Arab diaspora, and onto the state’s college campuses, where students increasingly feel affinity with the Palestinian cause.

In some Michigan communities without a large Arab American presence, crowds have demanded that their local governments enact cease-fire resolutions. Last week, The Detroit Metro Times, an alternative weekly newspaper, endorsed voting “uncommitted” in the primary.

There is no public polling to indicate how much support the “uncommitted” push might bleed from Mr. Biden, but Democrats at the highest levels of Michigan politics have cautioned — most of them privately — that the president is at risk of losing the state to former President Donald J. Trump if those who disagree with his Israel policy stay home or vote for a third-party candidate.

“Every vote that doesn’t support Joe Biden makes it more likely we have a Trump presidency,” said Gov. Gretchen Whitmer of Michigan, a co-chairwoman of Mr. Biden’s campaign. “Any vote that is not cast, or is cast for a third party, or cast to send a message, makes it more likely that there is a Trump presidency.”

The campaign to vote “uncommitted” was announced this month by Layla Elabed, a sister of Representative Rashida Tlaib, a Palestinian American progressive who last weekend became the first member of Michigan’s congressional delegation to call for voting against Mr. Biden in the primary.

Ms. Tlaib’s endorsement raised alarms among Biden supporters in the state’s congressional delegation, who worry that it will be difficult to persuade voters activated by the “uncommitted” push in the primary to support Mr. Biden in November.

Yet in Michigan, few Democratic officials are eager to risk a backlash if they criticize the effort to vote “uncommitted.”

“The Muslim community and the Arab American communities are clearly very upset, and understandably so,” said Representative Shri Thanedar, a Detroit Democrat. “You know, 30,000 or so innocent civilians have been killed, including women and children. So the concern is understandable. They are using this time to get attention, and make a point, and make a case. And I really do not blame them.”

Mr. Thanedar said he would vote for Mr. Biden, however, because “I’m not a single-issue voter.”

Michigan Democrats expressed uncertainty about how many people will vote “uncommitted” in Tuesday’s primary. While the Biden campaign is bracing for Arab Americans and young progressive voters to oppose the president in the primary, Lauren Hitt, a campaign spokeswoman, stressed that union workers, suburban women and Black voters remained supportive.

“His investments in infrastructure and green energy have created thousands of union jobs. He walked the picket line with U.A.W. He is standing up for reproductive rights, an issue that motivated hundreds of thousands of Michiganders to flip the statehouse in the midterms,” Ms. Hitt said of Mr. Biden. “He recently met with Black voters in Detroit to talk about his administration’s efforts to create record low Black unemployment. And he is working tirelessly to create a just, lasting peace in the Middle East.”

Two weeks ago, Mr. Biden’s White House dispatched a delegation of senior aides to Dearborn to try to ease tensions with Michigan’s Arab American community. Jon Finer, a deputy national security adviser, told the local leaders that the Biden administration had made “missteps” in dealing with Israel and Gaza and had left “a very damaging impression.”

The same day, Mr. Biden declared that Israel had gone “over the top” in its response to the Oct. 7 attack by Hamas that killed 1,200 people.

But students, Arab Americans and other Michiganders said in interviews that Mr. Biden’s alliance with Israel’s government was unforgivable and would prevent them from voting for him in November if he did not call for a cease-fire and halt American aid to Israel’s war effort. Perhaps more concerning for the president as he tries to win over skeptical young voters, students with no family connections to the Middle East described their advocacy for the Palestinian cause as part of their social identity.

Ruthy Lynch, 21, an undergraduate student from Traverse City, Mich., said she had not known much about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict before the Oct. 7 attack that sparked the war in Gaza.

Ms. Lynch now wears a black-and-white scarf known as a kaffiyeh around campus to demonstrate to friends and others that she sides with the Palestinians.

“I’m wearing it as a show of solidarity,” Ms. Lynch said. “It feels good to walk around campus. I see other people also wearing kaffiyehs, and we are sort of trying to normalize it and bring more visibility to solidarity with Palestinians.”

Ms. Lynch said that she had voted for Mr. Biden in 2020 but that she would not in November if he did not call for a cease-fire and halt U.S. military aid to Israel. “I’m not sure I can bring myself to do it,” she said.

A Fox News poll of registered voters released last week found Mr. Biden narrowly trailing Mr. Trump by two percentage points in a head-to-head matchup in Michigan. With third-party and independent candidates included, Mr. Trump’s lead grew to five points.

Abbas Alawieh, a former congressional aide from Dearborn who helped organize the group Listen to Michigan, which is leading the “uncommitted” effort, said it was Mr. Biden, not those protesting his foreign policy, who was putting his electoral prospects in jeopardy.

“President Biden has brought risk onto himself in a general election by making it so that his policy on Gaza is indistinguishable from Netanyahu’s most murderous instincts and actions,” Mr. Alawieh said after the Ann Arbor rally, referring to the Israeli prime minister. “He’s already lost people, and what we’re trying to tell him is, if you take a different approach, that is something that people here in Michigan need to see. Help us prevent Trump from becoming president.”

Mr. Biden’s political toxicity in Ann Arbor and Dearborn was evident in his campaign’s scheduling this week. Vice President Kamala Harris is expected to visit Grand Rapids on Thursday, and the campaign dispatched surrogates including Mitch Landrieu, the former New Orleans mayor, and Representatives Sara Jacobs of California and Joyce Beatty of Ohio to address voters — but there are no events scheduled in the congressional district that includes Ann Arbor.

Instead, Representative Ro Khanna of California is hosting an event on Thursday that posters across the University of Michigan campus call a “cease-fire town hall” and is scheduled to appear alongside Ms. Tlaib in Dearborn on Thursday evening. Mr. Khanna’s role as a Biden surrogate is not mentioned — a conspicuous omission to avoid advertising his affiliation with the president’s campaign.

“If we don’t have a change in the situation in Gaza and in our policy approach, there is a risk of losing,” Mr. Khanna said. “Any day that bombs are falling on innocent children and women in Palestine is not a good day for our party and our prospects.”

Listen to Michigan has set a public goal of 10,000 votes — slightly less than the margin by which Mr. Trump carried the state in 2016, but about half the number of votes for “uncommitted” in Michigan’s 2016 and 2020 Democratic primaries. Our Revolution, the political group formed by supporters of Senator Bernie Sanders, said it was aiming for 10 percent of the primary vote. (Mr. Sanders has disavowed the effort, a spokeswoman said.)

While the “uncommitted” supporters have held events in Dearborn and on Michigan’s college campuses, they have not built a presence in Detroit’s Black neighborhoods. Branden Snyder, the executive director of Detroit Action, a progressive organizing group in the city, said voters there would be more inclined to support a Biden protest effort if the focus were on domestic issues.

“There are a ton of Black folks and brown folks who are disgruntled with Biden’s policy and looking at Biden spending resources abroad instead of at home on issues we cared about,” he said. “If messaging really focused on those people, you’d have some serious concerns.”

Some Michigan voters say Mr. Biden has already lost their support in the general election.

Mozhgan Savabieasfahani, an Iranian American environmental toxicologist from Ann Arbor who has run repeatedly for local office, was distributing business cards on Tuesday highlighting her latest City Council campaign. Her platform includes cleaning the city’s contaminated water, enacting a $15 municipal minimum wage — and telling Congress to “stop funding Israeli wars.”

Dr. Savabieasfahani, 64, said she would not support Mr. Biden, even if doing so would help Mr. Trump return to the White House.

“We cannot be held hostage between two terrible choices,” she said. “Pick between these two elderly white men who don’t know what you want and don’t agree with what you want.”

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