Israel war presents test for rising Democratic stars

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Gavin Newsom, Gretchen Whitmer, Kathy Hochul (AP Photo/Rich Pedroncelli, File)<br/><br/>(AP Photo/Hans Pennink, File)<br/><br/>(AP Photo/Paul Sancya, file)

Israel war presents test for rising Democratic stars

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The war in Israel has offered several Democratic governors mentioned as possible successors to President Joe Biden the chance to demonstrate their readiness for the White House.

While some have been surprisingly swift in their responses as governor, others have been criticized for missing the mark, spelling trouble for their presidential ambitions.


“It would be important to them in a presidential campaign in 2028 to establish their foreign policy bona fides, and this certainly is an opportunity to do it, with the nation’s attention focused on the war in the Middle East,” Democratic strategist Brad Bannon said.

Fellow strategist Rich Luchette agreed, pointing out that “foreign policy experience is an important issue for Democratic primary voters. That’s part of the reason that it’s been more than 30 years since Democrats last nominated a sitting governor for either president or vice president.”


Gov. Josh Shapiro (D-PA) is just the third Jewish governor of Pennsylvania and boasts a high approval rating in the pivotal swing state.

Following the attack, he said, “I think this is a moment where we all need to come together to recognize what is so clearly wrong, the acts of Hamas, and what is right, and that is Israel, our key ally’s right to defend herself in the face of this barbarism.”

“This is not a moment for moral equivalency,” he added, condemning the attacks decisively.

He additionally ordered flags to be flown across Pennsylvania at half-staff on the Tuesday following the Saturday Hamas attack.

Not only did the governor join others in flying flags at half-staff, but he attended a 1,000-person rally near Philadelphia within days of the attack, joining Pennsylvanians to mourn Israel’s losses.

Furthermore, when he faced backlash for supporting Israel from Muslim groups in the state, his office reiterated his support for Israel.

But not every rising Democrat has been so forceful in their response.

Gov. Gretchen Whitmer (D-MI), sometimes rumored as a primary challenger to Biden, was slammed for her response. After Israel’s unprecedented attack, she posted on X, formerly Twitter, “I have been in touch with communities impacted by what’s happening in the region. It is abhorrent. My heart is with all those impacted. We need peace in this region.”

The vague post, which omitted mention of Israel entirely, drew fierce criticism.

She backtracked to reporters the following Monday, saying she is “unequivocally supportive of Israel.”

Her wobbliness stood in stark contrast to Biden’s own response, which was credited as bold by those across the board. The president reiterated the United States’s unwavering commitment to Israel, and reports indicated that he vetoed any hint of vague language in his remarks when aides presented drafts of speeches and statements.

Bannon claimed Whitmer’s statement “wasn’t strong enough.” He noted that Michigan has “a fairly high concentration” of citizens that are of Palestinian descent,” which he explained could have influenced her broad response.

It was “probably an attempt to say something that wouldn’t offend the Palestinian voters in Michigan,” Bannon said.

But “when you try when you try to offend no one, you’ll also please no one,” he claimed.

“The ongoing crisis in Israel presents a unique set of circumstances for governors from the standpoint of constituent service,” Luchette said. “Lots of folks across America have family or friends living in Israel, and the governors who are taking action today are doing what they can to meet the needs of their constituents.”

Both Govs. J.B. Pritzker (D-IL) and Gavin Newsom (D-CA) released relatively strong statements following the attacks. They each specifically denounced the terrorist attacks on Israel in their responses. But after issuing their statements, the two Democrats retreated below the radar on Israel’s escalating war. However, both escaped the public backlash that Whitmer faced.

Pritzker and Newsom each boast larger numbers of Muslim, though not necessarily Palestinian, citizens than Michigan. Muslims in the U.S. have been found to support the Palestinians in Gaza over Israel overwhelmingly, with a 2021 survey showing this support at a 10-to-1 ratio. California is home to the second largest Muslim population in the U.S., while Illinois is home to the third. Michigan houses just the sixth highest number of Muslim citizens.

Neither Newsom nor Pritzker shies away from larger policies that transcend their states’ borders.

After remaining relatively quiet, Newsom made an impromptu trip to Israel on Thursday ahead of a previously planned China trip in which he will discuss climate change. Per his office, the governor visited a medical center in Tel Aviv, where he met with survivors and their families. He also reportedly met with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu before departing.

As for their responses compared to Whitmer’s, Bannon said it was fair to say the two met the moment better than the Michigan governor.

The relative silence since their initial statements, he said, could be explained by an understanding of the growing sympathy for the Palestinian cause in the party, particularly among young Democrats.

“There are almost as many Democrats that sympathize with the Palestinians as do with the Israelis, and that is especially true with younger Democrats, who are very sympathetic to the plight of the Palestinians,” he said. “If you’re running for a Democratic presidential nomination, you got to take that into account.”

As the Democratic governors grapple with how to respond to such a crisis, Luchette noted that “they are doing work that crosses into an area that’s usually not a major part of their job and presents new challenges for them to address.”

One of the most forceful responses to the terrorist attack has come from Gov. Kathy Hochul (D-NY), whose state boasts the largest Jewish population in the country. Hochul’s reaction to news of the attack on Israeli citizens was swift, coming immediately on Oct. 7. She consistently reiterated her stance firmly with Israel in the following days. The governor additionally made quick work of protecting the many synagogues and Jewish communities in her state.

Hochul joined other governors in showing support for Israel by lighting official buildings in the colors of the country’s flag and even raised the Israeli flag over her residence. She also flew flags across the state at half-staff.

But the governor took her response a step further, starting with a phone call with Israeli President Isaac Herzog, to whom she recommitted New York’s unwavering support. She then met with Israeli Ambassador to the United Nations Gilad Erdan, before announcing that she would be making her own trip to Israel as it fights a war with Gaza.

Hochul arrived in the country on Wednesday where she once again reaffirmed New York’s support. “There is a deep, direct connection between New York state and Israel that has always been there, a bond steeled over decades,” she said before her flight. Her trip overlapped with Biden’s own, underscoring the usually federal nature of such a visit.

While in Israel, the governor spoke with civilians evacuated after the Hamas attack, including the families of those being held hostage in Gaza. She also planned meetings with several local Israeli officials and various diplomats.

And while she sought to cement her commitment to Israel amid attacks by Hamas, she made a point of noting her sympathy for Palestinians suffering in Gaza as well. She claimed that her strong stance against the terrorist group “does not mean that I’m not full of compassion for the innocent civilians who have lost their lives and are in harm’s way right now in Gaza. It’s not one or the other.”

Hochul’s choice to travel to Israel amid the war was “a strong statement,” Bannon said. “I think it puts her on a map.”

Her name hadn’t previously been floated in Democratic circles as a future president, and her ambitions remain relatively unknown. But if she is trying to make her mark, this is a step in the right direction, he explained.


All in all, Bannon said, “Democratic governors’ response to this crisis in the Middle East is a great opportunity for them to establish their foreign policy street cred. And one way or the other, Gov. Hochul made a very strong impression.”

He added: “On the other hand, Gov. Whitmer’s statement was so broad as to be meaningless.”

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