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Republicans face risks picking off voters disaffected with Biden on Israel

Since the war between Israel and Hamas broke out last month, Muslim and Arab American voters in key swing states have suggested they will never back President Joe Biden again, while the president’s support among younger voters appears to be taking a hit. There has even been a movement to leave the top of the ballot blank in 2024 as a protest against the president, whom they see as being too uncritical in his backing of the Israeli government as casualties mount in Gaza.

In turn, Republicans see an opportunity to take advantage of new divisions among elected Democrats, left-wing activists and core Democratic constituencies — but not by making direct appeals to voters who want to see Biden soften his stance.

That’s “because they’re so far-left on this issue,” one national GOP strategist told NBC News. “And Republicans, I just don’t even see how you could possibly maintain your pro-Israel stance while appealing to them. We could do as much as we could to throw some gas on the flames. But if their issue with Biden is they think he’s too close, I don’t see how Republicans can circle all the way around.”

Biden and many Democrats have been walking a tightrope on Israel — dismissing calls for a cease-fire and expressing support for the Israeli response, while pushing for additional humanitarian aid to the Gaza Strip and temporary pauses in the fighting. Republicans, on the other hand, have tightened their embrace of the Jewish state and condemned calls for restraint.

While cautioning that there is still ample time before the presidential election, Republicans see this issue as one that can benefit them in the near and long term. Multiple Republicans said they hope to be able to target moderate Jewish voters who have traditionally supported Democrats but may now be feeling dismayed by anti-Israel protests. Already, Republicans are hitting vulnerable Democratic senators on Israel.

And, as a second national Republican strategist said, the party does see room to target Muslim American voters who hold more socially conservative views and are upset with Biden’s handling of the war.

Prior to the Sept. 11, 2001, terror attacks, Muslim Americans supported Republicans in larger numbers. More recently, former President Donald Trump faced significant blowback for instituting a sprawling travel ban that barred nationals from several Muslim-majority nations from entering the country — restrictions he has vowed to expand in a second term.

“There’s an angle for us to make inroads with Jewish voters who are disaffected by what they see,” this person said, adding: “And then there’s also an opportunity with Muslim voters to some extent, not on the issue of Israel, because we’re never going to stand with them on the Palestine issue, but there is an opportunity on some of these social issues where they’re socially conservative.”

This person echoed other Republicans who spoke with NBC News in saying they saw far greater risk in putting any distance between the party and Israel than any potential electoral benefits they could reap.

As to whether there is any risk in the GOP hugging Israel too tightly, this person gave a simple response: “No.”

The Biden campaign did not respond to a request for comment.

An NBC News survey released Sunday found that the president’s response to the war is facing disapproval in a number of demographics — though not all from voters who believe he is siding too closely with Israel. The poll showed that 34% of voters approve of Biden’s handling of the war while 56% of voters disapprove. Additionally, 47% of voters believe Israel’s response in Gaza is justified while 30% say they feel it is not.

Biden’s response is viewed critically by voters in both of those camps, with 51% of voters who believe the Israeli response is justified disapproving of Biden’s handling of the war, while 66% of voters who believe Israel’s response is not justified disapprove of Biden’s actions.

A majority of Democrats (51%) and voters who say they will cast ballots for Biden next fall (57%) say they approve of his handling of the war. His numbers drop significantly in other demographics, with just 31% of independents, 22% of Republicans and 20% of voters under 34 approving of his handling of the war. Of those latter groups, a plurality of independents, 47%, and most Republicans, 68%, believe Israel’s response is justified. Among those young voters, just 31% believe the response has been justified.

A plurality of young voters surveyed backed Trump over Biden. The result, which was within the poll’s margin of error of plus or minus 3.1 percentage points, would be a sharp reversal from recent electoral history if it came to pass.

The impact could be felt particularly in a state like Michigan, where some Muslim and Arab Americans said they won’t back Biden next time around. Biden won Michigan — with an estimated Muslim population of 240,000 — by 150,000 votes in 2020. 

Nada Al-Hanooti, the executive director of Emgage Michigan, a group focused on political outreach to Muslim Americans, previously told NBC News that Biden “cannot win without the Muslim vote, point blank.”

Curt Anderson, a national Republican strategist, laughed at that idea and said Biden faces a much more substantial risk by aligning with the pro-Palestinian protesters and alienating moderates.

“I hope they believe that,” said Anderson, who has previously worked on GOP efforts in Michigan, adding he does not believe there are enough of those voters to make a dent. “It’s just not real. It’s an imagination.”

“If they feel a need to cater to those people, which they will feel that need because it’s the most hardened activist, liberal, whacked-out base of people, any catering they do to them is going to hurt them in the middle,” he added. “And that I’m 100% for.”

The GOP presented a virtually unanimous front on Israel during this month’s presidential primary debate, with all five candidates on stage expressing full support for Israel’s campaign against Hamas. Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis said he would tell Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyau to “finish the job once and for all with these butchers,” while former U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Nikki Haley called on the U.S. to support the country with “whatever they need, whenever they need it,” adding a call to “finish” Hamas.

Several candidates vowed to deport foreign students who joined protests and espoused views they saw as pro-Hamas. So too did Trump, the GOP front-runner, at a nearby rally last Wednesday, saying: “To all the resident aliens who joined in the pro-jihadist protests … we put you on notice come 2025: We will find you and we will deport you.”

Speaking with NBC News after the debate, Republican National Committee Chairwoman Ronna McDaniel said one of the most important outcomes of the event was to send a message to the electorate about where the party stands on Israel.

“Our party is not divided on this issue,” she said. “But the Democrat Party is.”

But while the party enjoys a strong sense of unity on Israel, the message has not always been in lockstep following the Oct. 7 attacks, in which about 1,200 Israelis were killed. In the days that followed, Trump told a rally crowd that Netanyahu “let us down” regarding his administration’s effort to kill a top Iranian general. And he said Hezbollah, a militant group that has clashed with Israel near its border with Lebanon, was “very smart.” What’s more, Vivek Ramaswamy, a 38-year-old businessman turned GOP presidential contender, was widely criticized by rivals ahead of the Oct. 7 attack for saying the U.S. should cut off aid to Israel after 2028, which he said would no longer be necessary by then.

Since the attacks, Ramaswamy has approved of the Israeli response, saying at the Republican Jewish Coalition Summit in October that he “would love nothing more than for the [Israel Defense Forces] to put the heads of the top 100 Hamas leaders on stakes and line them up on the Israel-Gaza border.” But he has also expressed worry over the U.S. becoming too involved in the conflict, potentially triggering a broader regional war.

Asked whether Ramaswamy thinks Republicans should target voters who think Biden has sided too closely with Israel, Tricia McLaughlin, a senior Ramaswamy adviser, said the candidate’s “sole obligation is to the citizens of our nation,” adding that his foreign policy agenda is not anti-Israel but “pro-America.”

“America First is not isolated to just Republicans or Democrats,” she said.

Republicans who spoke with NBC News said Ramaswamy’s position, which they saw as aligned with right-wing commentators like Tucker Carlson, was not gaining traction among the party at large.

But even as the war overseas causes political turmoil in the U.S., the first Republican strategist said they ultimately believe that a year from now, “everyone kind of comes home to their respective bases — unless this is going to be a permanent shift.”

“Biden, I think, has played it pretty well so far,” this person said. “I don’t think he stands to lose anything from the middle. The only question is how big is this faction on his left who he might lose.”

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