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Here’s Why the Midterms Are Not a National Security Mandate

Don’t expect a sudden, dramatic shift in direction on national security in Congress after Tuesday night’s midterm elections. By Molly O’Toole

Don’t expect a sudden, dramatic shift in direction on national security in Congress after Tuesday night’s midterm elections. On Wednesday morning, the U.S. military will still be barraging the Islamic State from the air in Iraq and Syria, doctors and soldiers will still be deploying to West Africa, and Washington will still be Washington — that is, dysfunctional and gridlocked.

President Barack Obama’s foreign policy has been in the spotlight in the run up to November, as the administration was inundated with a spate of foreign policy crises from the rise of the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria and Russia’s invasion of Ukraine to Ebola’s arrival in the United States and threats at home. Republicans capitalized on the crises, playing up a narrative that the administration is indecisive and lacks a clear strategy. They sought to tie vulnerable Democratic candidates to the president (with some resistance), putting Obama’s policies on their ballot.

Though foreign policy and national security don’t tend to be priority issues for voters in midterms, the beheadings of American journalists by the Islamic State and the increasing involvement of U.S. troops in Iraq and Syria have brought the threat home to many in the United States.

Obama has been low-key on the campaign trail. Many political observers take his relative quiet in the elections — as well as some vulnerable Democrats keeping their distance — as an acknowledgement that his endorsement would be something of a hindrance.

The ultimate makeup of the next Congress may take days or even months to finalize, but even as the results continued to roll in Tuesday night, the Republicans secured the Senate majority, according to the Associated Press.

Republicans needed to gain six seats in order to take at least a 51-seat majority, and as of Wednesday afternoon, they had gained seven, for a total of 52. But with the Democrats ultimately giving up Senate control, even given the number of Republican pickups, the GOP won’t be able to snag enough seats to give them a majority backed by a national security mandate.

Just before midnight, Republican challenger Thom Tillis defeated incumbent North Carolina Democrat Sen. Kay Hagan, clinching a GOP majority for the Senate. Hagan, a member of the Senate Armed Services committee, came under fire in her tight race for missing a closed-door briefing on the Islamic State for a fundraiser.

Sen. John McCain of Arizona, the senior Republican member of the powerful Armed Services Committee, will now take the gavel. While Republicans, including McCain, are sure to call for more decisive military action in response to a number of crises, the parties are not so far apart on defense as campaign ads may imply.

Early in the night, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell defeated challenger Alison Lundergan Grimes in Kentucky. If the GOP takes control, McConnell, as likely majority leader, will set the tone for the next Congress, and decide which bills – including key defense measures – come to the floor for at least the next two years.

“You will be heard in Washington,” McConnell told supporters in his victory speech, but he continued that the election was about voters losing faith in government, though he blamed the administration. “We can do better as a nation.”

Republicans also picked up a seat from another Armed Services committee incumbent, Democrat Sen. Mark Udall, D-Colo., who has been a vocal defender of civil liberties on the Intelligence Committee. Intelligence Chairwoman Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., is expected to hand the gavel over the Sen. Richard Burr, R-N.C., a staunch defender of surveillance in the name of counterterrorism, who would likely take the committee in a very different direction.

Democratic Sen. Jeanne Shaheen, also a member of the Armed Services Committee, held on against former Massachusetts Republican Sen. Scott Brown, who recently retired after serving almost 35 years in the Army National Guard. During the campaign, Brown hit Shaheen for not being serious on national security. Just days before the election, McCain accused his colleagues Hagan and Shaheen of lacking seriousness on national security.

But other Republican veterans earned expected victories. In Arkansas, Rep. Tom Cotton, an Ivy League-educated Army officer who served in Iraq and Afghanistan, defeated incumbent Democrat Sen. Mark Pryor, whom he hit during the campaign for flip-flopping on key national security votes, such as training and equipping moderate Syrian rebels, a key prong of the Obama administration’s strategy against the Islamic State

In Iowa, Joni Ernst, a lieutenant colonel in the Iowa National Guard, made her service central to her campaign. Ernst, who will serve as the first woman senator for the state, declared victory against Rep. Bruce Braley just before midnight, ultimately winning by 8 points.

The GOP also picked up Montana and South Dakota, which were considered shoo-ins for the Republicans. Democrats had to replace their candidate in Montana well into election season when Sen. John Walsh, the only Iraq War veteran in the Senate, announced he would not be running in the wake of revelations he had plagiarized a paper for the U.S.Army War College.

Veterans Campaign, which helps prepare veterans to run for public office, said Congress could have less than 100 veterans for the first time since the 1950s. Last week, the group projected that the House could have 76-86 veterans and the Senate could see 17-22 veterans in office. On Wednesday afternoon, the number of veterans in Congress hovered just above 100.  

A few races remain too close to call, and could extend the final count. Louisiana heads into a runoff, which will be decided on Dec. 6. Virginia also remains unexpectedly close and has not yet been decided.

In Alaska, polls don’t close until 1 a.m. EDT, and the count could take days, even weeks, as it did in 2008. Polls favorDan Sullivan, a lieutenant colonel in the Marine Corps Reserves, who has worked in Washington as an Assistant Secretary of State and a member of former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice’s National Security Council staff.

When Congress returns Nov. 12, it is short on time to pass crucial, must-pass defense legislation, pushed off until after the elections: the National Defense Authorization Act; the authorization for the Pentagon train-and-equip program for moderate, vetted Syrian rebels; and all of the appropriations bills, which, according to several top aides, will likely be tucked into a behemoth $1 trillion plus spending bill, including the $550 billion defense funding request with nearly $60 billion for Overseas Contingency Operations.

The train-and-equip program and the continuing resolution to fund the government both expire on Dec. 11. An omnibus budget measure would likely fund the government well into the next Congress, until the fiscal year ends in October.

Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Martin Dempsey said they will need to ask Congress for more money than initially requested for the fight against Ebola and the Islamic State, and soon. Several senators have also indicated they want to hold a debate on a new Authorization for the Use of Military Force  against the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria before the new Congress. And according to several reports, the Obama administration is weighing executive action on hot-button issues such as immigration, Iran’s nuclear program and Guantanamo – moves Republicans such as Texas Sen. Ted Cruz have pledged to oppose. But in the end, for the next two years, Obama still has veto power.

Before the final count, both parties are already shifting to 2016, when much of the Tea Party wave that swept into office in the 2010 midterms faces reelection, and the GOP faces persistent demographic disadvantages in the presidential election with former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton likely to top the Democratic ticket — meaning whatever minimal mandate the midterms may represent for Republicans, it is likely to be short-lived.

CORRECTION: A previous version of this story said Veterans Campaign projected late Tuesday that Congress would have less than 100 veterans after the midterm elections. Days before the election, the group projected that the House could have 76-86 veterans and the Senate could have 17-22 veterans in office.