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Biden faces major challenge on Gaza in next week’s Michigan primary

A Michigan group backed by prominent state and local lawmakers is making a last-minute push to get 10,000 Democrats to vote “uncommitted” in the state’s primary next Tuesday as a warning to President Biden that his support for Israel and refusal to call for a cease-fire in the Gaza Strip could cost him the state in November’s presidential contest.

The group, called Listen to Michigan, has spent the past two weeks feverishly calling and organizing residents across the state in hopes of showing that voters opposed to Biden’s support for Israel’s war in Gaza have the ability to swing the election — and, organizers hope, further pressure the president to call for a cease-fire.

“It’s a last-minute effort borne out of frustration and desperation,” said Layla Elabed, the campaign organizer of Listen to Michigan and sister of Rep. Rashida Tlaib (D-Mich.), who has backed the effort. “Michigan will be decided in November by a few thousand votes, so we’re aiming to show that our antiwar voters, our cease-fire voters could provide the margin of victory for Biden and he needs to listen to us.”

Elabed added: “This uncommitted vote is not an anti-Biden vote. … This is our vote to tell Biden he’s not listening to his core constituency. He’s not listening to the voters who came out to support him in 2020.”

Biden has tightly embraced Israel since the Oct. 7 Hamas attacks, in which militants rampaged through Israel’s border fence with Gaza and killed 1,200 people while taking some 240 hostage. Israel responded by launching a punishing military campaign that has killed more than 29,000 Palestinians, according to the Gaza Health Ministry.

Biden responded viscerally to the brutality of the Oct. 7 attacks, which he has called the deadliest day for Jews since the Holocaust. He has been far more sparing in his criticism of Israel’s war in Gaza, which has reduced much of the tiny enclave to rubble, displaced more than 80 percent of its 2.1 million residents and created a humanitarian catastrophe that has put hundreds of thousands of people at risk of famine and disease.

But the war has ignited outrage among much of the Democratic Party, including Arab Americans, Muslims, people of color, progressives and young adults. Recent polls have shown former president Donald Trump, the leading Republican presidential candidate, running even with or slightly ahead of Biden in Michigan. A Fox News poll this month found Trump and Biden roughly tied, at 47 percent to 45 percent, respectively, while a Detroit News poll in January showed Trump with an eight-point edge, 47 percent to 39 percent. Many polls show a large majority of Democratic voters support a cease-fire.

Elabed said the goal of 10,000 “uncommitted” votes was inspired by Trump’s margin of victory in 2016 against Hillary Clinton. Trump won the state by 10,000 votes in 2016, while Biden won by just over 150,000 votes in 2020.

Michigan is home to large numbers of Arab Americans and Muslims, with about 300,000 people who claim ancestry from North Africa or the Middle East.

Biden officials say they are not taking any vote for granted and are focused on the general election. Campaign officials have long made it clear they are counting on a head-to-head race against Trump, who is loathed by rank-and-file Democrats, to shore up the president’s support among disaffected Democrats in November.

Allies of the president noted that some supporters of the Listen to Michigan effort have said that while they want to send Biden a message, their goal is still to defeat Trump in November. Even if organizers succeed in persuading 10,000 Michiganders to vote uncommitted on Tuesday, it is not clear the Biden campaign would recognize that as a defeat, or that the White House would take it as a signal to change course.

In 2012, when President Barack Obama was seeking reelection, about 20,000 Michigan Democrats voted uncommitted, according to the secretary of state’s office.

A separate movement among Arab Americans and Muslims, called Abandon Biden, is working to deny the president a second term outright because of his support for Israel’s attack on Gaza and what the movement’s backers describe as a lack of empathy for Palestinian suffering. That group is also supporting the push to get voters to cast an uncommitted ballot for next week’s primaries, but while the Abandon Biden initiative has a different approach for the general election, Listen to Michigan for now is focused on the primary.

Prominent Michigan lawmakers and allies have warned the White House that the president’s embrace of Israel and continued resistance to calling for a permanent cease-fire, even as the war drags into its fifth month, could compromise his reelection. Those lawmakers have warned that Biden especially risks losing support among young voters, progressives and people of color, who polls show deeply disapprove of the president’s handling of the war.

Michigan Democrats started warning the White House to take the Listen to Michigan campaign seriously after former congressman Andy Levin (D) started promoting the effort recently, along with Our Revolution, a successor to the organizing effort behind the presidential bid of Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.). More than 30 elected representatives in Michigan, including Dearborn Mayor Abdullah Hammoud, are now supporting the effort.

Levin said he supports Biden and will undoubtedly vote for him in November, but that he has thrown his weight behind the Listen to Michigan campaign because he believes the president needs to dramatically change course on the Israel-Gaza war. He wants the uncommitted effort to succeed, Levin added, so that Biden and his allies will begin taking the concerns about the war more seriously.

“For Joe Biden to win the electoral college, he has to win Michigan,” Levin said. “I don’t think Joe Biden can win Michigan unless he changes course. … I don’t think there’s a political solution to this conundrum he’s in. I don’t think he can do really great messaging or beautiful ads or send the right people.”

Earlier this week, the United States vetoed a U.N. Security Council resolution calling for a cease-fire in Gaza — the third time the Biden administration has blocked a cease-fire proposal at the United Nations. That has fueled further anger among Democrats and liberals already frustrated by the president’s support of Israel.

“I don’t think they realized what the feelings were on the ground. They have now,” Rep. Debbie Dingell (D-Mich.) said of Biden’s team, noting that the president has started publicly condemning the civilian deaths in Gaza more forcefully. “There are people who want to be heard, need to be heard, who will vote uncommitted.”

Still, those voters “also know what Trump would be,” Dingell added, referring to Trump’s promise to reimpose a ban on travel from Muslim-majority countries.

Biden has sent a number of top aides to Michigan to meet with Arab American and Muslim leaders. Several Arab American elected officials refused to attend a meeting in January with Biden’s campaign manager, Julie Chavez Rodriguez. Earlier this month, Biden sent a number of top administration officials, including deputy national security adviser Jon Finer and Samantha Power, chief of the U.S. Agency for International Development, to meet with Hammoud and others.

The meetings have been accompanied by a moderate shift in Biden’s rhetoric. Biden recently called the Israeli military campaign in Gaza “over the top,” his sharpest rebuke yet of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s scorched-earth approach to Gaza. He has also shown more willingness to acknowledge the despair among Palestinians, noting that innocent civilians, including women and children, have been killed by the thousands and that many Palestinians are facing starvation.

The strategy behind the Listen to Michigan campaign was apparent last Saturday, when early voting began in the state and a few dozen people filed into a fast-food corporate office in Dearborn for a phone bank asking Democrats to vote uncommitted.

One of the organizers, Lexis Zeidan, said getting to 10,000 uncommitted votes would show “that we can control the election result in some capacity.” In response to concerns that the effort would help Trump, Zeidan said it was the candidates’ responsibility to earn their votes by representing their views. She said the coalition included some people who remained open to Biden and others who have written him off. Personally, Zeidan said, she would not vote for Biden or Trump.

Another participant in the phone bank, Abdul Hamad, said he was willing to pay the price of a Trump victory to send the message that Biden’s handling of the war in Gaza has been unacceptable.

Hamad said he planned to send a picture of the phone banking group to his family in Gaza, whom he hadn’t heard from in weeks because of their intermittent internet access. Last they were in touch, Hamad said, his relatives had fled to the southern Gaza city of Rafah and were sheltering in a tent.

“It’s a matter of sending a message to every politician to say that you can’t commit a genocide and get away with it and get reelected,” Hamad said. “The way things are going, it’s an absolute no.”

By the end of the afternoon, organizers said they had made 21,852 calls, reached 1,122 people and recorded 668 who agreed to vote uncommitted.

This post appeared first on The Washington Post

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