Biden braces for Democrat backlash in Michigan over stance on Gaza

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Joe Biden is facing an electoral test in Michigan on Tuesday as a group of voters in his Democratic party use a primary election to register their anger at his support for Israel in its war against Hamas in Gaza.

While Biden has not confronted any meaningful challenges for his party’s nomination for president, progressive activists and Arab-American leaders have urged Democrats in Michigan to vote “uncommitted” rather than support him in the primary.

The planned protest is a reaction to Biden’s continued support for Israel during the conflict in Gaza, where almost 30,000 people have died according to Palestinian officials since Israel declared war on Hamas in response to the militant group’s October 7 attack.

The Michigan primary is also likely to serve as a reminder that the president cannot take the Democratic party’s progressive wing for granted as he campaigns for re-election this year.

“President Biden has funded the bombs falling on the family members of people right here in Michigan,” said Layla Elabed, campaign manager for Listen to Michigan, one group joining the protest. “Thousands of Michigan Democrats who voted for Biden in 2020 now feel completely betrayed.”

Listen to Michigan has called for a ceasefire in the enclave and for the Biden administration stop providing funding to Israel.

Michigan is a battleground state that has been decided by narrow margins in recent election cycles. Biden defeated Donald Trump in the state in 2020 by just 150,000 votes, while Trump defeated Hillary Clinton there four years earlier by fewer than 11,000 votes.

Just over half of people living in Dearborn, a suburb of the state’s biggest city Detroit, are Arab-American, according to the latest census data, and about 140,000 Arab-Americans voted in Michigan in the 2020 presidential election.

Rashida Tlaib, a Palestinian-American member of Congress whose congressional district includes much of Dearborn, is among those encouraging Democrats to protest vote.

“I was proud today to walk in and pull a Democratic ballot and vote uncommitted,” she said in a video posted to social media on Tuesday. “When 74 per cent of Democrats in Michigan support a ceasefire, yet president Biden is not hearing us, this is the way we can use our democracy to say, listen.”

Biden, who spent decades in the US Senate, has long been a staunch supporter of Israel.

But he has been increasingly critical of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in recent weeks, while senior White House officials and secretary of state Antony Blinken have also deplored the death toll in Gaza.

Biden told reporters on Monday that he was hopeful a temporary ceasefire could begin in the enclave as soon as next week.

But Democratic voters, especially younger and more progressive ones, have become increasingly disillusioned with the Biden administration’s stance on the conflict. Their disapproval has weighed on the president’s polling numbers as he gears up for November’s election.

Recent opinion polls have put Trump ahead of Biden in a hypothetical match-up in Michigan. An Emerson survey published last week showed him leading by a four-point margin in the state.

Several of Biden’s public events have been interrupted by pro-Palestinian protesters in recent weeks, and the death at the weekend of a US airman who set himself on fire outside the Israeli Embassy in Washington made headlines across the country.

The Biden campaign has spent relatively little time in Michigan compared to other early primary states, namely South Carolina. He last visited Michigan on February 1, where he met carworkers.

Gretchen Whitmer, Michigan’s Democratic governor who was re-elected in 2022, is a co-chair of Biden’s re-election campaign and has been among his loudest defenders in the state.

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“I understand the pain that people are feeling,” Whitmer told CNN this week, referring to the conflict in Gaza. But she added: “Any vote that is not cast for Joe Biden supports a second Trump term . . . this was a man who promoted a Muslim ban. This is, I think, a very high stakes moment.”

Republican voters in Michigan will also have a chance to cast their ballots on Tuesday, in a primary Trump is expected to win comfortably over his sole rival Nikki Haley.

Trump is close to securing the Republican presidential nomination, having already won his party’s first four big nominating contests in Iowa, New Hampshire, Nevada and South Carolina.

Haley, Trump’s former ambassador to the UN, has vowed to carry on campaigning until at least Super Tuesday on March 5, when more than a dozen states will hold primary contests.

Trump’s campaigning in Michigan has focused on blue-collar workers, especially in the car industry, which is a dominant force in the state’s economy. Biden has also courted the backing of organised labour in Michigan, and last month the United Auto Workers union endorsed his re-election bid.

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