Arab Americans use Michigan primary to send a message to Biden

Arab Americans use Michigan primary to send a message to Biden

The White House had expected Democratic unrest over Gaza to fade as President Biden picked up his campaigning against presumptive Republican nominee Donald Trump.

Nine months before the election, the problem is worsening as Mr. Biden’s opposition to calling for a permanent cease-fire continues to stir anger in a coalition of voters that propelled his 2020 victory, from Black Americans to Muslim activists in must-win Michigan to young voters.

Democrats have been broadly divided over Mr. Biden’s vocal support of Israel since the Oct. 7 Hamas attacks that killed 1,200 Israelis, polls show. Some Jewish Americans, who largely vote for Democrats, have rallied behind Mr. Biden. Many younger Democrats and people of color oppose his approach, disturbed by a rising death toll from Israel’s retaliation in Gaza that tops 29,700, according to Gaza’s health ministry.

In Michigan’s Democratic nominating contest on Feb. 27, Arab-American activists who backed him in 2020 have vowed to withhold their support, urging primary voters to check “uncommitted” at the ballot box in an early litmus test for how Mr. Biden’s handling of Gaza could hurt him in the swing state.

Hoping to address their frustrations, Mr. Biden’s administration officials met on Feb. 8 with Arab-American community leaders in Michigan, and held an additional, previously unreported meeting in the state, said two sources with direct knowledge of the meeting.

The White House in mid-February proposed a temporary cease-fire resolution at the United Nations Security Council, but vetoed a measure calling for a permanent cease-fire. Mr. Biden said on Feb. 26 that he hoped to see a temporary cease-fire to release hostages within a week, although Hamas and Israel appear far apart on talks.

Mr. Biden’s campaign has acknowledged the concerns. But it points to evidence of Democratic enthusiasm, such as a recent fundraising windfall. Last week, his campaign and Democratic Party allies said they raised more than $42 million in January and have $130 million cash on hand for a likely contest against Mr. Trump.

What Arab-Americans want

In Michigan, the protest vote pushed by Arab American and Muslim political activists threatens to overshadow Feb. 27’s primary. Organizers of the “uncommitted” movement are seeking a permanent cease-fire in Gaza and an end to U.S. military aid to Israel in a campaign that has resonated with young voters and people of color from a variety of religions and backgrounds.

The stakes are high. Michigan is home to over 300,000 Arab American and Muslim voters, and had the highest nationwide turnout of young voters, aged 18 to 29, in the 2022 midterm elections. Mr. Biden won the state by less than 155,000 votes in 2020.

Emgage Action and Listen to Michigan, groups led by Muslim activists, aim to convince at least 10% of Michigan’s Democratic primary voters to choose “uncommitted,” a symbolically significant margin of about 10,000 votes – about equal to Hillary Clinton’s 2016 loss to Trump in Michigan.

“What I want is for the people around President Biden to knock some sense into this campaign, and tell him that if he does not take a different approach, he will lose key voters here in Michigan that will hand Trump the presidency,” said Abbas Alawieh, a former senior congressional aide who is now a Democratic strategist in Michigan.

Effects outside Michigan

Outside Michigan, Black churches and activists are demanding Mr. Biden push for a cease-fire. Some, like Celine Mutuyemariya, a Black political organizer in Kentucky, say they feel betrayed.

“When it comes to fighting for his constituents, the constituencies that put him in office in 2020, he has completely abandoned us,” she said.

Ms. Mutuyemariya said she voted for Mr. Biden in 2020 and convinced others to support him after the March 2020 police killing of Breonna Taylor, a Black woman whose murder fueled racial justice protests. Ms. Mutuyemariya watched again as another Black American – George Floyd – was murdered by police in Minneapolis in May 2020, sparking demands for police accountability.

Kentucky isn’t a swing state, but Ms. Mutuyemariya has spent the past four years building Black political power there as a director of the Black Leadership Action Coalition of Kentucky. Short of a cease-fire, Ms. Mutuyemariya is unsure whether she will support Mr. Biden again. “If he cannot understand the plight of the Palestinian people, he will never be able to understand the plight of Black Americans or Black people in general in the U.S,” said Ms. Mutuyemariya.

But a dozen Black voters, politicians, advocates, and civil rights leaders said Mr. Biden’s campaign appears disconnected from voters on Gaza, the economy, and other issues.

The disenchanted youth vote

That disenchantment extends to some Gen Z and millennial Democratic voters, who turned out in record numbers to elect Mr. Biden in 2020.

American millennials and Generation Z accounted for 31% of the 155 million voters in the 2020 election, up from 23% in 2016, Democratic research group Catalist found. Generation Z, those born between 1997-2002, and millennials, born between 1981-1996, favored Mr. Biden over Mr. Trump by bigger margins than any other group, according to the nonpartisan Pew Research Center.

Gen-Z for Change, online influencers who went by the name “TikTok for Biden” in 2020, and the Sunrise Movement, an activist youth climate organization, were among groups that warned the White House in a November letter of problems recruiting volunteers for the 2024 election, blaming “atrocities committed with our tax dollars, with your support” in Gaza.

Gen-Z for Change and the Sunrise Movement never got a response, their spokespeople said. Asked about this, Mr. Biden’s campaign co-chair Mitch Landrieu said the president’s campaign was still in the early stages.

This story was reported by Reuters. Kat Stafford reported from Detroit. Additional reporting by Trevor Hunnicutt and Heather Timmons. 

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