CONCORD, N.H.— After weeks of headlines about international turmoil in the Middle East and elsewhere, foreign policy has undeniably become a part of the midterms—and nowhere is that more salient than in New Hampshire.
Republican Senate candidate Scott Brown was set to deliver a major foreign policy speech Wednesday morning in Manchester, just a day after releasing a direct-to-camera TV spot on the topic. Where other GOP campaigns are making oblique references to international turmoil in their TV ads or issuing statements on the president’s lack of leadership on ISIS, Brown has made foreign policy and national security a centerpiece of his campaign heading into the final six weeks before Election Day.
It’s a move that Republicans think could be crucial to harnessing the national mood and using it to the GOP’s advantage, not only in Brown’s tough race against Democratic Sen. Jeanne Shaheen but in the state’s competitive House races as well.
In his speech, Brown will criticize both President Obama and Shaheen for what he’ll call a foreign policy characterized by “confusion.”
“We’re at a dangerous moment for our country and our friends. It’s starting to feel like the world is on fire, with so many crises getting worse, so many adversaries gaining ground,” Brown will say, according to prepared remarks. “We expect our president to stay ahead of threats, and the Congress to help him do so. And if President Obama and his team had met even that minimal standard, then I believe that the global security picture would look a lot better than it does right now.”
“So far as I can tell, [Shaheen] never even mentioned ISIS in public until last month,” Brown plans to say. “This is a member of the Foreign Relations Committee we’re talking about, and it’s been nothing but silence on the most urgent national security threats that we are facing.”
The issue is a particularly significant one here for a handful of reasons—first and foremost that the two beheaded American journalists, James Foley and Steven Sotloff, have ties to the state. Foley grew up in Rochester, N.H., where his family still lives; Sotloff attended the Kimball Union Academy, a boarding school in Meriden.
“Not only are you seeing it on nightly news and national newspapers—it’s on the local news all the time, there are interviews with family, interviews with friends, local charities popping up that have been spurred” by the journalists’ deaths, said GOP consultant Jamie Burnett. “It’s scary to people … this is on their minds.”
Granite State politicians on both sides of the aisle paid homage to Foley and Sotloff when asked about the importance of defeating ISIS.
“We all saw in New Hampshire very personally the threat from ISIS, with the murder of Jim Foley and Steven Sotloff, both of whom have ties to New Hampshire,” Shaheen said Friday. “So I think it’s important for us to go after those terrorists and go after [their] murderers.”
Former GOP Rep. Frank Guinta, who’s running for his old seat in New Hampshire’s 1st District, said he is “being asked about [foreign policy] quite a bit” as he campaigns across his district and named it as one of the top three issues in his race.
“People in New Hampshire … are frustrated and war-weary like, I think, most of the country,” he said. “But on the other hand you have ISIS that are savages—and I think people know that. They’ve beheaded two Americans … one of the Americans they beheaded, his family lives here in Rochester.”
Foreign policy is also coming up because it’s key to the GOP strategy of making these races referenda on President Obama, not on Democratic congressional incumbents. In New Hampshire more than anywhere else, the national environment and views toward the president tend to influence the outcome of federal elections: New Hampshire has tossed out incumbents in 2006, 2008, 2010, and 2012—Shaheen won her Senate seat in an upset against John Sununu in 2008, for example—and is seen as particularly susceptible to the swings and waves that result from the national political environment.
And as the polls between Shaheen and Brown have tightened this month, national public opinion has continued turning away from Obama. He’s far underwater here in New Hampshire, too: In last week’s CNN poll, just 38 percent of likely voters said they approved of the president, compared with 60 percent who disapproved.
Shaheen, on the other hand, still remains personally popular even as polls have tightened. The CNN poll, which finds her and Brown tied at 48 percent each among likely voters, also gives her a 54 percent favorability rating.
If the race is a referendum on Shaheen, a popular former governor with deep ties to the state, it will be tough for Brown to beat her; the more the race becomes a referendum on Obama, with Shaheen as a supporter of his policies, the more inroads Republicans will be able to make.
“People are seeing problems with what President Obama has done everywhere: certainly Obamacare is a problem, you have problems with immigration and now you have problems with foreign policy,” said former GOP Gov. John Sununu, a Granite State icon. “The state needs a senator that recognizes how important the ISIS crisis is.”
Brown has been making foreign policy a centerpiece of his campaign for weeks. He began releasing Web videos on the topic just after Labor Day, and foreign policy was a part of his speech accepting the GOP Senate nomination the night of the Sept. 9 primary. Brown’s new TV ad, which stresses that foreign crises are bringing “challenges to our way of life” from “radical Islamic terrorists,” also says Obama and Shaheen “seem confused about the nature of the threat.”
Speaking to a group of seniors in Concord on Monday, Brown said that “the world’s on fire right now” and that Obama and Shaheen are contributing to a “lack of leadership.”
“Anything they can do to tie Senator Shaheen to President Obama they’re going to do, and rightfully so,” said New Hampshire-based GOP strategist Jim Merrill. “They see this as an opportunity to project strength, project confidence, and project leadership.”
Democrats both nationally and in New Hampshire say Brown’s focus on the issue, particularly as the U.S. launched airstrikes in Syria, is divisive and deceptive.
“There seems to be a lack of coherence to Scott Brown’s approach,” said Doug Wilson, a former Assistant Secretary of Defense for Public Affairs who’s now a senior fellow at the Truman Project. “If I were to characterize his approach to foreign policy, I would say it’s extremely opportunistic at the moment.”
He added that Shaheen has a reputation as “an articulate voice on foreign policy” in her positions on the Armed Services Committee and the Foreign Relations Committee.
Kathy Sullivan, a former state Democratic party chairwoman, said Brown is using “fear tactics” on foreign affairs issues.
“This is a man who has not shown good judgment on these issues,” she said. “These are serious topics and they need to be discussed seriously, but I don’t hear Scott Brown talking about them seriously.”
Shaheen’s response, when asked about Brown’s criticism of her on foreign affairs issues, is to tout her experience on the subject—and note that Brown hasn’t offered up any concrete solutions of his own.
“What he hasn’t told you is what his alternative plan is,” Shaheen said after an event in Hampton, N.H., last weekend, adding that the United States should continue airstrikes and work to build an international coalition to battle the militant group. Asked about Brown’s criticism of her on foreign affairs, Shaheen told National Journal: ”I’m happy to put my foreign policy credentials up against Scott Brown’s any day.”