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Michigan Democrats Threaten to Turn Away from Biden Over Israel Aid

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As President Joe Biden marches towards the Democratic nomination with plunging approval ratings, a movement in Michigan is calling on his party's voters to reject him in the state's upcoming primary in an effort to pressure him to call for a permanent ceasefire and end Military aid to Israel.

The campaign, called “Listen to Michigan,” is encouraging voters to vote “uncommitted” in the state’s February 27th primary. “The Democratic primary election is an opportunity to question whether the incumbent genuinely holds the support of his own party's base,” the campaign says on its website.

The campaign has drawn significant support. It has been endorsed by Detroit’s Metro Times and the Democratic Socialists of America’s local and national chapters. Former Congressman Andy Levin has supported the cause, as has Democratic Rep. Rashida Tlaib, and more than 30 local elected officials have pledged to vote uncommitted. Organizers say it’s too early to know how many voters will participate, but Dearborn alone has seen 6,000 requests for absentee ballots in the election, compared to 2,200 in 2020, which Layla Elabed, a Palestinian American activist and one of the organizers of the campaign, hopes represents an increase in uncommitted voters.

For Detroit City Council Member Gabriela Santiago-Romero, one of the local officials planning to vote uncommitted, the move is a show of support for those in her district. “So many of our constituents that have family in Palestine and Gaza, that are being directly impacted by this,” she says. “Some people might say local governments or local voices don’t mean anything, but we know the power that we have.”

Michigan's Democratic primary comes as Biden struggles on multiple fronts. A recent Gallup poll found that his approval rating had slid down to 38%, and key polls are showing him losing to or in an incredibly tight race with Donald Trump, the presumptive Republican nominee. Concerns are percolating about the 81-year-old President's mental acuity and fitness for the job. And his Administration is dealing with crises on both domestically and abroad, from surging migrant crossings at the U.S. border with Mexico to the war in Gaza. The Biden Administration bypassed Congress to send millions of dollars of weapons to Israel, and is still seeking approval to send an additional $14.3 billion in aid as Israel bombs Gaza in responses to an Oct. 7 attack by Hamas.

Michigan has been a key battleground state in past presidential elections. In 2016, the state swung red for the first time in decades when Donald Trump won the state by only 10,000 votes. Biden won the state by roughly 150,000 votes in 2020.

Elabed, who is the sister of Rep. Tlaib, notes that the state’s Muslim and Arab population had a key role in securing Biden’s win in the state in the last election, but support from the roughly 200,000 registered Muslim voters in the state is no longer a given in 2024. “This feels like a huge betrayal to our community," she says.

Nura Sediqe, an assistant professor of political Science at Michigan State University, says that support of key voting blocs, including young voters and Muslim and Arab voters, is critical to Biden’s success.“They're feeling the dissatisfaction of their vote being taken for granted,” she says. “In a state like Michigan, that could be precarious for President Biden.”

The Biden campaign argues the President is working "to earn every vote in Michigan."

"His investments in infrastructure and green energy have created thousands of union jobs. He walked the picket line with UAW. He is standing up for reproductive rights, an issue that motivated hundreds of thousands of Michiganders to flip the statehouse in the midterms," Lauren Hitt, a senior spokesperson for Biden for America, told TIME in a statement. "He recently met with voters at a black-owned Business in Detroit to talk about his Administration's efforts to create record small Business growth. And, he is working tirelessly to create a just, lasting peace in the Middle East."

Sediqe says that the movement in Michigan could indicate how the issue might impact Biden’s chances for re-election on a national level. “Young Americans overwhelmingly support a ceasefire,” says Sediqe, who notes that young Democrats might not show up to vote in the election if they feel dissatisfied with elected officials. “This is definitely a test case that will send a signal to the administration and the DNC about what [voter turnout] may look like.”

A little over 10% of Congress supports a ceasefire, compared to 66% of Americans, and 70% of voters under 45, according to an October poll from Data for Progress, a progressive think tank. A Reuters/IPSOS poll from November found that 68% of respondents agreed with the statement that "Israel should call a ceasefire and try to negotiate."

Organizers say that the uncommitted vote is not a campaign against Biden, but rather a call to action. “We've been boycotting, we've been rallying, we've been calling and emailing our elected officials to almost no avail,” says Mara Matta, who has been leading phone banking efforts. “We want Biden to feel the risk of losing Michigan and the general election to prompt a potential reassessment of this financing and backing of Israel's war in Gaza.”

For Elabed, a longtime Democrat who mobilized her friends and family to vote for Biden in 2020, Biden’s response in the upcoming months is paramount to how she views her vote. “The bare minimum for me to even think about what support could look like for Joe Biden in November," she says," would be a support of a permanent ceasefire and ending unchecked and unconditional Military aid to Israel.”

Correction, Feb. 26

The original version of this story misstated Nura Sediqe's university affiliation. She is an assistant professor at Michigan State University, not at the University of Michigan.

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