May 1, 2024 - Politics & Policy

Democrats enter panic mode as Gaza protests erupt

Illustration of a donkey's hoof smashing down on a red panic button with red light filtering all around.

Illustration: Aïda Amer/Axios

House and Senate Democrats' anxiety is spiking as pro-Palestinian protests on college campuses around the country kick into overdrive.

Why it matters: The protests are fueling a volatile political dynamic sparked by the Oct. 7 attack and the Israel-Hamas war just as the 2024 election comes into view.

  • "The longer they continue, and the worse that they get, the worse it's going to be for the election overall," one House Democrat told Axios.
  • The demonstrations, the lawmaker warned, are "bringing out [the public's] most conservative side."

Driving the news: In the last 24 hours, protests on college campuses from New York to California have escalated in severity.

State of play: Photos and videos of these campus protests made the rounds among horrified Democratic lawmakers on Tuesday morning.

  • Before the House Democrats' closed-door caucus meeting on Tuesday, "many people were talking about" the growing chaos on college campuses, one House Democrat said.
  • "Many people are super frustrated and concerned," the lawmaker added.
  • Republican operatives are already cutting ads tying Democrats to the videos, Axios' Stef Kight reported.

What they're saying: Rep. Annie Kuster (D-N.H.), chair of the center-left New Democrat Coalition acknowledged many Democrats "have been, kind of, holding back" on weighing in on the protests.

  • "It's complicated enough for us with the range of opinions and height of emotions we have, without weighing in on what [colleges] should be doing," Kuster said.
  • "It's hard because ... the more thoughtful approach is the more difficult approach. It's easier to pick a side and start yelling," said another senior House Democrat.

Zoom in: Asked about the protests in a brief interview at the Capitol on Tuesday, Sen. Sherrod Brown (D-Ohio), said he is "not going to talk about the politics of that. People always have the right to speak out and should."

  • Brown, who is facing one of the toughest 2024 Senate races, later followed up in a statement provided by his campaign: "There's no place for antisemitism or hatred in our state or in our country."
  • "Every Ohioan has the right to speak out and make their voice heard and need to do so in a way that doesn't threaten others," he added.

Between the lines: Asked if the protests are giving Democrats political heartburn, a House Democrat told Axios, "How could it not, right?"

  • "We need to remember that a vote for Trump or sitting out this election or voting third party is a vote for Netanyahu," the Democrat said.
  • Kuster told Axios: "It just has become this confrontation. And in certain states like Michigan, there are big Arab American populations, big Jewish populations, it's roiling all kinds of groups."

What to watch: Rep. Jan Schakowsky (D-Ill.) warned that protesters are "already planning on being" at the Democratic Convention in Chicago.

  • The Gaza issue is "looming" over the campaign, she said, and "if there is some sort of [ceasefire] in Gaza right now, that would be very helpful."
  • One House Democrat argued it's "just a question of focus" and that Democrats "have to talk about the issues where we're strong and trusted: Reproductive freedom, protecting Social Security and Medicare."
  • "If we leave a vacuum, you see the speaker come to Columbia because he knows … it drives a political wedge," the Democrat said.
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