The Israel conflict has divided Democrats. Will it affect North Carolina's 2024 elections?

The conflict in Gaza has aggravated sore spots for North Carolina Republicans and Democrats in different ways. And in a swing state known for tight races, neither side of the aisle can afford to lose many voters or donors.
Posted 2023-12-01T17:32:58+00:00 - Updated 2023-12-04T01:01:18+00:00
Some students rallied in support of Palestine and others in support of Israel on campus at UNC-Chapel Hill on Thursday.

In the North Carolina General Assembly, a dozen Democrats faced criticism following the Oct. 7 attack by Hamas on Israel for refusing to vote for an otherwise unanimous resolution calling for the U.S.’s “full and unequivocal support of Israel, financially and otherwise.”

The state Democratic Party has grappled with criticism from some of its members for not formally recognizing a proposed Jewish Caucus — an effort that predates the recent Israel-Hamas conflict but gained national attention because of it.

In town halls, municipal Democratic officials — the people who typically decide on things such as whether to resurface local tennis courts or how to maintain bike trails — are facing pressure to support resolutions that call for de-escalation in Gaza. Democratic members of the Carrboro Town Council, for instance, were split over a Nov. 14 resolution condemning Islamophobia and antisemitism while urging the Biden administration to call for an “end the current violence.” It passed by a vote of 4 to 3.

Violence occurring nearly 10,000 miles away has aggravated a longstanding sore spot for the Democratic Party, up and down government.

Democrats tout their party as a “big tent,” home to supporters of Israel and Palestinians. But as the armed conflict continues and tensions rise, it threatens to distract Democrats from issues they had hoped to campaign around, such as voting laws and reproductive rights. Party leaders’ responses have left some members feeling ignored or alienated. And, in a state known for its tight presidential and gubernatorial races, the party can’t afford to lose many voters.

“I'm sure nobody in the White House or in the Democratic Party is rejoicing in the fact that this has been dominating the news, dominating internal debate and discussion now for a couple of months,” said Asher Hildebrand, a political science expert at Duke University who worked as chief of staff for Democratic former U.S. Rep. David Price.

Even though Trump won North Carolina in 2020 and Democrats failed to win a single statewide race in the midterm elections, Democrats have been optimistic about their chances next year. They see the leading Republican presidential and gubernatorial candidates — Trump and Lt. Gov. Mark Robinson — as flawed, vulnerable opponents.

Biden came within 1.4 percentage points of matching Trump in 2020. Since then, Trump has been charged in four criminal cases, including for his role in trying to overturn the last presidential election results.

But to date, it’s Biden who has faced the most scrutiny. He requested $14.3 billion in assistance for Israel, the majority of which would go toward its air and missile defense systems. Then, as Israel’s military response claimed more Palestinian lives, the Biden administration has urged its ally to be precise in its attacks against Hamas.

Since the Israel-Hamas fighting broke out, Biden’s approval rating has fallen to the lowest level of his presidency, according to a national NBC News poll. Young Democrats are cooling on Biden and participating in demonstrations that call for a ceasefire in the region. That includes North Carolina, where protesters have gathered on highways and college campuses.

In a recent Bloomberg/Morning Consult poll of 700 North Carolinians, respondents said they trusted former president Donald Trump to handle the war more than they trusted Biden. Nearly half of respondents said the Israel-Hamas war will be a “very important” consideration for them as they vote for president next year.

Republicans, meanwhile, have reveled in North Carolina Democrats’ squabbling, using it as ammunition to paint the party as soft on terrorism, disloyal to the country’s allies, and even antisemitic.

Staking out a position that satisfies all Democrats seems virtually impossible. Expressions of support for Israel can be interpreted as disregard for Palestinians. Nuanced criticisms of Israel’s defense strategy are often met with accusations of antisemitism. And pressure continues to build, even on lawmakers who have no direct influence on foreign policy decisions. Many Democrats have little to gain — but a lot to lose — by speaking out on the issue.

“Making both sides satisfied with an acknowledgement of what both are dealing with feels like a no-win proposition at this point,” said Michael Bitzer, a political science professor at Catawba College in Salisbury.

Longstanding tensions

Foreign policy issues rarely play a significant role in the state’s political discourse. North Carolina isn’t home to large Jewish or Islamic populations compared to other swing states like Michigan, where a recent poll found declining support for Biden among Muslim and Arab Democrats.

But there are some Democrats reconsidering their support for Biden because of his administration’s support for Israel.

Nida Allam, a Durham County Commissioner, is the first Muslim woman ever elected to public office in North Carolina. She says she knows Durham residents whose family members have been killed by Israeli counterattacks. They’re upset with how much financial aid has gone toward Israel, given how its attacks have killed Palestinian civilians.

“We feel like we don’t have a voice,” Allam said of Muslim Democrats. People have pointed out that a Republican president’s response would be the same or worse, she said. Trump, who polls show leading the GOP primary, recently announced that he’d bar immigrants who support Hamas and send officers to crack down on pro-Hamas protests.

Being told to choose between Biden or a Republican candidate feels like “being told to choose between our rights here in the U.S., and the lives of those in Palestine,” she said.

The party’s ties to Israel was a top issue for Allam when she ran for Congress last year. She lost the Democratic primary to U.S. Rep. Valerie Foushee, who received substantial financial support from a pro-Israel lobbying group.

According to logos on the flyer, the event supporting Palestine is endorsed by around 20 groups, including Refund Raleigh, North Carolina Green Party, Meals for the Masses, Coalition Against Racism, YAP!, Black Workers for Justice, the Union of Southern Service Workers, Socialist Alternative, Voices for Justice in Palestine, UNC Chapel Hill SJP and the North Carolina Environmental Justice Network.
According to logos on the flyer, the event supporting Palestine is endorsed by around 20 groups, including Refund Raleigh, North Carolina Green Party, Meals for the Masses, Coalition Against Racism, YAP!, Black Workers for Justice, the Union of Southern Service Workers, Socialist Alternative, Voices for Justice in Palestine, UNC Chapel Hill SJP and the North Carolina Environmental Justice Network.

Foushee’s embrace of the group, which also supported Republicans, prompted the state Democratic party’s progressive caucus to rescind its endorsement of her. Foushee is now facing pressure from progressives to call for a permanent ceasefire. A group called the Mothers for Ceasefire made sure to note in a press release that Foushee is running in the 2024 primary in March.

U.S. Rep. Kathy Manning, the state’s only Jewish member of Congress, has praised the Biden administration’s work to prevent escalation in the region, as well as its concern for civilians in Gaza.

“We have been assured [by Israel] that they are taking all possible steps to go after Hamas and the terrorists [and] to try to avoid, to the greatest extent possible, civilian casualties,” Manning told WRAL in an interview. She added that Hamas fighters often make it hard because they embed themselves amongst civilians.

Manning said she’s disturbed by a rise of antisemitism in the U.S. and she’s concerned that the conflict issue has only increased hatred for Jewish people in the U.S. She cited Jewish students being harassed on college campuses, Jewish businesses being vandalized, and a Jewish man dying after an altercation with protesters in Los Angeles. “This is the kind of thing we saw in Germany in the 1930s and we should all be alarmed about it,” she said.

Manning was one of the three North Carolina Democrats — including U.S. Reps. Don Davis and Wiley Nickel — who on Nov. 7 voted to censure U.S. Rep. Rashida Tlaib, D-Michigan, for statements she made about the Israel-Hamas war. She was condemned for "promoting false narratives" about Hamas' attacks and for "calling for the destruction of the state of Israel." Opponents called her statements antisemitic.

Tlaib accused her detractors of distorting her words, noting that her criticism of Israel has focused on the country’s government and its leadership under Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

The governor’s race

Tlaib and other critics of the censure effort have said it speaks to a rise of Islamophobia. And Allam recently pointed to an interaction with Brian LiVecchi, Lt. Gov. Mark Robinson’s chief of staff and general counsel, as an example.

Allam posted on social media that she’s been tempted to run for higher office and included an image of pop star Rihanna flipping her hair. LiVecchi responded: “She should probably be wearing a hijab so she doesn’t tempt any men to immorality. That would be Sharia, right? She also shouldn’t drive a car, travel outside her home without a male family member, or decide whom she wants to marry, right?” To some readers, the comment appeared directed at Allam.

LiVecchi didn’t respond to WRAL’s request for comment before this article was published. After the article was published, he told WRAL that his comment was directed at the image of Rihanna, not Allam.

Facing accusations of antisemitism as he seeks the state’s highest executive office, Robinson has taken extraordinary steps to show his support for Israel in its fight with Hamas.

With Democratic Gov. Roy Cooper out of the country, Robinson — who in past social media posts called reports of the Holocaust "hogwash" and implied that the widely accepted figure of 6 million Jews killed by the Nazis is false — surprised state lawmakers on Oct. 12 by using his role as acting governor to call for a week of solidarity with Israel. Days later, he joined a Christian political group on a three-day trip to Israel.

Critics have accused Robinson of trying to distract from his controversial comments, which could affect him in the general election. The leading Democratic gubernatorial candidate, Attorney General Josh Stein, is Jewish.

A race between Stein and Robinson could resemble Pennsylvania's gubernatorial race last year.

Democrat Josh Shapiro beat Republican Doug Mastriano by highlighting the latter’s views on abortion, gay marriage, and climate change. Shapiro, who is Jewish, also attacked Mastriano for his ties to a social media site owner who had made antisemitic remarks.

“Those comments are a problem … as are a million other things that he’s said,” Doug Heye, a Washington-based Republican strategist from North Carolina, said of Robinson. “And it’s why Republicans are nervous about Stein.”

In a statement to WRAL last week Robinson’s campaign spokesman, Michael Lonergan, said: “The Democrats have a brazen antisemitism problem in their party and they are desperate to hide this by trying to distract with some old Facebook posts taken out of context.”

Longergan noted that the only members in the legislature who didn’t vote for the resolution supporting Israel were Democrats and that Robinson’s “first item as acting governor was to support Israel.”

“To call Lt. Gov. Robinson antisemitic is absurd,” he said. “He stands with Israel and the Jewish people, as do the vast majority of North Carolinians.”

Proposed Jewish Caucus

Robinson has accused North Carolina Democrats of being antisemitic because some within the state party organization voted against the recognition of a new Jewish Caucus, saying in a Nov. 14 statement that it’s an example of Democrats’ “refusal to stand with Israel and the Jewish people against terrorism.”

“It is time for top Democrats like Josh Stein and others to call out the radical, repeated antisemitism in their party,” Robinson said.

Anderson Clayton, chair of the state Democratic party, says Robinson and others are misrepresenting the Jewish Caucus situation.

The Jewish Caucus launched its push for recognition before Hamas’s Oct. 7 attack on Israel. On Nov. 12, the party’s executive committee voted 17-16 against recognizing the caucus. Sixteen members abstained. Some members who withheld their support for the Jewish Caucus were concerned that the group had yet to meet all of the party’s requirements, Clayton said. Party leaders “remain committed to helping the Jewish Caucus achieve recognition,” she said.

Personal feuds among members may have also played a role in the vote — perhaps stoked by the heightened conflict in the party, according to people familiar with the caucus and its formalization efforts.

Prior to the vote, Matt Sadinsky, a former leader of the proposed caucus, was accused of making Islamophobic comments about one of the party’s members — drawing a rebuke from the party’s Asian American and Pacific Islanders Caucus. Sadinsky didn’t respond to calls seeking comment.

Stein said he met with Clayton “to express my disappointment with the results of the vote and to find a path forward.”

“We must embrace North Carolina Jewish Democrats who feel isolated during a time of rising antisemitism and come together to focus on our priority — defeating Mark Robinson, who has a well-documented history of antisemitic comments,” he said in a statement.

Clayton told WRAL last month that she was confident that Democrats wouldn’t let internal disagreements affect their ability to rally voters next year.

On Sunday, the party’s executive committee voted on the proposed Jewish Caucus again – this time approving it 31-4.

Effect on 2024

Political experts hesitate to say whether the internal drama will play a significant role in North Carolina’s elections.

Recent polling doesn’t provide enough insight into voters’ minds for political analysts to make confident predictions about what will happen in next year’s elections, said David McLennan, director of the Meredith Poll.

“In polling, we hate uncertainty,” McLennan said. “There is way too much with these issues.”

And something else could happen before the 2024 general elections that has “just as much of an impact” on the election, said Bitzer, the professor at Catawba College.

“When it comes to the general public’s attention, it’s domestic concerns first, second, third, with foreign affairs usually far in the distance of public importance,” Bitzer said.

Heye, the Republican strategist, said the key for Democrats will be placating young voters. Demonstrations on college campuses not only suggest fracturing within the party, but they could spook voters who are concerned about civil unrest.

Hildebrand, the Duke professor and former Democratic aide, said his students have expressed a “very deep sense of frustration” on the issue.

“If we are headed for a Biden-Trump rematch, which will again be decided by a small number of voters in a small number of swing states, any diminishment of support among young voters is going to matter,” Hildebrand said. “That's the part of this that alarms me, politically.”

It’s unlikely that a North Carolina voter will switch their vote from Democrat to Republican over the Israeli-Hamas issue alone, said Chris Cooper, political science and public affairs professor at Western Carolina University. What’s more likely, Cooper said, is voters staying home or withholding their vote for a specific candidate whose stance on the issue offended them.

“The reality is that the same people who are likely to know the details of individual politicians' positions on a single issue are precisely the kind who are least likely to be undecided,” Cooper said.

“Let's say a Democrat is filling out a ballot and they come across one candidate who took a position they didn't agree with on the Israeli-Palestinian issue,” Cooper hypothesized, “I can imagine the voter skipping over that office and completing the rest of the ballot.”

A ‘tricky position’

State Rep. Pricey Harrison, D-Guilford, said she received such pushback in May after she was the only House member to vote against a resolution that recognized Israel’s 75th anniversary.

“A few folks said they would never vote for me again,” Harrison said.

Harrison doesn’t believe the legislature needs to weigh-in on the issue at all, she told WRAL in an interview. She’s been concerned for how Israel treats Palestinians since she visited the area in 1985.

In October, Harrison was one of the 12 Democrats who declined to vote for the legislature’s resolution supporting Israel. The language of the resolution seemed to give Israel Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu carte blanche to “obliterate Gaza” if he wanted to, she said.

Harrison says she takes time to explain her position to anyone who’s interested. But “it’s a tricky position to take, to be perceived as anti-Israel on any level,” she said.

Still, Harrison said she’s not worried about divisions within the party muting turnout for Democrats in next year’s election, citing election results from Nov. 7. Voters in Ohio enshrined abortion rights into their state constitution, Kentucky reelected its Democratic governor, and Democrats took back control of Virginia’s state legislature — all amid the chaos in Gaza.

Harrison hopes those who are discouraged by the U.S. support of Israel can find some level of comfort in knowing that some in the Democratic Party do publicly advocate for Palestinian lives.

And she hopes they remember that — whether it’s foreign policy or voting rights issues or climate change — the alternative “would be so much worse.”