LANSING, Mich. (AP) — Democrats in Michigan have warned the White House that President Joe Biden’s handling of the Israel-Hamas conflict could cost him enough support within the Arab American community to sway the outcome of the 2024 election in a state he almost certainly can’t afford to lose in his bid for reelection.
The situation has prompted the White House to discuss ways to alleviate tensions with some of the state’s prominent Democrats, including several who have been vocal critics of the president about the war.
“The message has been relayed. We’ve had calls with the White House. We’ve had calls with DNC officials,” said Abraham Aiyash, the third-ranking Democrat in the state House of Representatives, referring to the Democratic National Committee. “We’ve been clear in saying the humanity should matter, but if that is not a calculation that you’re going to make in this moment, recognize that there will be electoral reverberations to this.”
Michigan was a critical component of the so-called blue wall of states that includes Wisconsin and Pennsylvania that Biden returned to the Democratic column, helping him win the White House in 2020. Since then, Democrats have felt more confident about their standing in Michigan, particularly after Gov. Gretchen Whitmer notched a commanding 10-point reelection victory last year.
But a cross current of developments in recent months has tested the party. Beyond the war, Michigan was shaken by a showdown between the autoworkers’ union and the Detroit Three automakers. Former President Donald Trump visited the state during the strike and Biden, who has longtime ties to unions, became the first sitting president to join a picket line.
Now that the strike is resolved, the war may have a more lasting political impact for the president. In 2020, Muslim voters nationally supported Biden over Trump 64% to 35%, according to AP VoteCast.
Aiyash, the Democratic floor leader in the state House, said Arab American leaders who have spoken to the White House “are worried” about the implications for 2024 and have relayed those concerns to Biden. Other prominent Michigan Democrats have shared similar concerns.
“Certainly none of us want to see part two of a Trump disaster presidency. But we also are not going to just passively give Joe Biden a second term if our concerns are not even dignified through a response,” Aiyash said.
Michigan holds the largest concentration of Arab Americans in the nation and over 310,000 residents are of Middle Eastern or North African ancestry. Many in the community are pledging to coalesce against Biden’s reelection campaign unless he calls for a ceasefire in the war.
He has been reluctant to do that, emphasizing Israel’s right to defend itself after the Oct. 7 attack and casting doubt on estimates provided by the Gaza-based Ministry of Health on the number of Palestinians who have died in the region in the ensuing conflict.
That stance changed slightly Wednesday when Biden responded to a protester calling for a ceasefire at a fundraiser in Minnesota by saying there should be a humanitarian “pause” in the Israel-Hamas war.
“A pause means give time to get the prisoners out,” he said.
Nearly 30 Arab American leaders and activists convened in the Detroit suburb of Dearborn on Oct. 16 to discuss the Biden administration’s response to the war. One attendee, Hussein Dabajeh, has begun forming a political action committee that will boycott Democratic candidates who fail to speak out against Israel’s retaliatory strikes.
Dabajeh and other community leaders have said that while many Arab Americans may not support a Republican candidate such as Trump, they would leave the top of the ticket blank. Trump won Michigan by just over 10,000 votes in 2016, and tens of thousands of Michigan voters opted to not vote in the presidential race that year.
Anger over Democrats’ response to the war was on full display this past weekend in Wayne County, home to the largest bloc of Democratic votes in the state and the source of much of the pushback. A day after thousands of people gathered in downtown Detroit to call for a ceasefire, Gov. Whitmer had a Sunday appearance in Dearborn canceled after a protest was planned outside the event.
Whitmer, a co-chair of Biden’s reelection campaign, said in a statement that her appearance would have “distracted” from the event. Jakaku Tayeb, the board chair for the HUDA Clinic, who organized the Sunday event, said the decision to cancel the governor’s appearance was mutual but that her statements regarding the Israel-Hamas war have “upset our community and we didn’t want to lose our community support.”
Wayne County’s large Muslim communities helped Biden retake the state for the Democrats in 2020 by a roughly 154,000-vote margin. Biden enjoyed a roughly 3-to-1 advantage in Dearborn, where nearly half of the city’s 110,000 residents are of Arab descent.
“People are openly saying that the Biden administration and Democrats who agree with his position on the war do not deserve our votes next year in the election. That’s come across very clear from community activists and people who are on the ground,” said Dawud Walid, the executive director of Michigan’s Council on American-Islamic Relations.
A senior Michigan Democratic Party official said Biden’s handling of the war has emerged in the state as a “huge” problem and could become more vexing if the war stretches on and the death toll in Gaza continues to rise. The official spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss sensitive party concerns.
The state Democratic Party has also begun having internal discussions and outreach on how to ease political tensions with the Arab American community and work towards unifying all Democratic constituencies, according to a source familiar with discussion who spoke on the condition of anonymity.
Electoral college math has narrowed in recent presidential elections, making it hard to envision a scenario for Biden to win reelection that doesn’t include Michigan. Republicans have made significant gains in Florida and Ohio, both of which were considered crucial swing states until recently.
Biden personally met with Muslim leaders from across the country last Thursday and his administration announced Wednesday that it is developing a national strategy to combat Islamophobia. The initiative is meant to bring together lawmakers, advocacy groups and other community leaders with the administration in order to “counter the scourge of Islamophobia and hate in all its forms,” the White House said.
“President Biden continues to work closely and proudly with leaders in the Muslim and Palestinian communities in America, to listen to them, stand up for them, and fight back against hate,” said Ammar Moussa, a spokesman for Biden’s campaign.
AP Director of Public Opinion Research Emily Swanson in Washington contributed to this report.