Growing anxiety about global threats from the Islamic State to Ebola has given national security issues an outsized influence in the midterm elections that few predicted, but Republicans are seeking to capitalize on. The GOP is trying to tie Democratic candidates to a narrative of President Barack Obama that has gained momentum in recent weeks: weakness on foreign policy has threatened America’s international standing and national security. Some Democratic candidates have responded to the angst by adopting a more hawkish tone and distancing themselves from the president.
The stakes are high. The GOP needs a net gain of just six seats to take the Senate, which in turn could impact national security strategy for years to come.
In Iowa, Republican candidate Joni Ernst has been canvassing the state in a close race against Democratic U.S. Rep. Bruce Braley for retiring Sen. Tom Harkin’s seat. “Iowans pay very close attention to what’s going on in the world,” Ernst, who is a lieutenant colonel in the Iowa National Guard, told Defense One. She said at campaign events a number of people have expressed concern about the Islamic State and questioned whether terrorists could exploit the U.S. border. “I do believe it is going to be one of the issues they consider [in this election],” she said.
The Iowa race encapsulates the tone of a number of tight races across the country – such as Arkansas, New Hampshire and Alaska — in which national security has become a decisive issue. In the wake of a spate of foreign policy crises, public opinion has shifted from widely perceived war weariness to a greater openness to military action abroad, giving a boost to several Republican candidates with military backgrounds just under 20 days from the Nov. 4 elections.
Among the handful of up-for-grab states that could flip the Senate, most lean red and went for GOP nominee Mitt Romney in 2012. And an ABC News/Washington Post poll released Wednesday showed not only Obama’s lowest approval rating ever – 40 percent — but also the weakest polling for the Democrats in 30 years, with more than half of Americans viewing the Democratic Party unfavorably.
“Foreign policy has become a really important issue on the campaign trail because I believe the American people are seeing the consequences of a lack of leadership on the world stage,” Sen. Rob Portman, R-Ohio, vice chairman for finance for the National Republican Senatorial Committee, told Defense One. “Many of our candidates have served in the military, and I believe all of our candidates’ message of a strong and more secure United States resonates with the American people.”
Ernst is touting her military experience as a sterling national security credential, honing her message in recent days to focus on defense issues. Ernst served in Iraq in 2003, commanding a company that ran convoys through Kuwait into southern Iraq, according to her campaign. If she wins, she would be the first female combat veteran elected to the Senate.
“They see me as someone who has actually served with boots on the ground, not just as a soldier, but as a leader … somebody who has credibility,” she said. “On foreign policy, I think the president has failed abominably. Braley is right there with him.”
Ernst said she supports Obama’s air strikes in Iraq and Syria, but she strongly disagrees with taking “boots on the ground” off the table. Obama “needs to listen to his military advisors,” she said, adding that he did not push hard enough to keep U.S. troops in Iraq and has cut defense spending.
Though Ernst raised the specter of Islamic State fighters crossing the U.S. southern border and her own campaign bio describes her as terrified, she pushed back against the observation that Republican messaging is playing into the unease. “We’re talking about the Iowa way versus the Washington, D.C., way,” she said. “We’re not using fear tactics, what we are using is good Iowa common sense.”
Beyond Iowa, the grim national security landscape is strengthening the bids of other Republican military veterans in close races in Arkansas, New Hampshire and Alaska.
Rep. Tom Cotton, in Arkansas, is an Ivy League-educated Army officer who served in Iraq and Afghanistan. Former Massachusetts Sen. Scott Brown, now running in New Hampshire, recently retired after serving almost 35 years in the Army National Guard. Dan Sullivan in Alaska is a lieutenant colonel in the Marine Corps Reserves, and 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. These veteran candidates are leveraging their experience in campaigns to unseat vulnerable Democratic incumbents — Sens. Mark Pryor of Arkansas, Jeanne Shaheen of New Hampshire and Mark Begich of Alaska.
“Groups like the Islamic State collaborate with drug cartels in Mexico,” Cotton said late last month. “They could infiltrate our defenseless border and attack us right here in places like Arkansas.”
Brown has gone further, melding Ebola, the Islamic State and the immigration debate into one perfect-storm fear tactic. “We have a border that’s so porous that anyone can walk across it,” he told WGIR radio this week. “I think it’s naive to think that people aren’t going to be walking through here who have those types of diseases and/or other types of intent, criminal or terrorist.”
Government officials have repeatedly rebuffed such claims. Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson reiterated to the Association of the United States Army on Tuesday, “We’ve seen no specific credible intelligence that [ISIS] is attempting to use any sort of disease or virus to attack our homeland.”
A number of GOP challengers are using the crisis of confidence in the Obama administration’s handling of national security issues to declare Democratic opponents guilty by association.
Between them, Pryor, Shaheen and Begich have served for years on the Armed Services, Veterans Affairs, Homeland Security and Appropriations committees, leaving plenty of record for opponents to scrutinize. Several votes this summer have become something of a litmus test in the campaigns for national security “seriousness,” as Cotton put it.
“I learned leadership in the streets of Baghdad and the mountains of Afghanistan,” Cotton said in the first Arkansas Senate debate on Monday night. “Sen. Pryor simply isn’t tough enough to stand up to President Obama and put Arkansas first.”
Pryor initially blocked a bill to aid Syrian rebels, but eventually voted at the end of September to authorize the program to train and equip moderate Syrian opposition. The White House framed the vote as an endorsement of its strategy against the Islamic State. Cotton’s campaign has framed Pryor’s shift as flip-flopping.
Brown says Shaheen and Obama “seem confused about the nature of the threat,” and that the senator votes with Obama “99 percent of the time.” Shaheen has responded that Obama is not on the ballot, but she also voted for the train-and-equip authorization, and has gradually stepped up her rhetoric on the Islamic State. “I support those airstrikes,” she said last month, “I think it’s important for us to take the fight to ISIL, and I’m very pleased that we had support from five Middle Eastern countries, Arab countries, in doing that.”
But, she added, “I don’t believe we should go into either Syria or Iraq with another fight like happened in 2003 during the Iraq War.”
Of the group of vulnerable Democrats from red states seeking re-election, only Begich voted against the train-and-equip program, expressing his concern the U.S. could be assisting rebels who could later turn against us. Begich campaign spokesman Max Croes highlighted incumbency as a benefit, rather than a liability, noting Begich “used his clout” to keep F-16s at a Fairbanks, Alaska, base, as well as bring new squadrons there.
“Sen. Begich believes we need to eliminate ISIS and supports use of American leverage and air strikes,” Croes told Defense One. “Sen. Begich opposes putting American boots on the ground and sending millions to unknown groups of rebels when our allies are not clear and America would be would committing to another open ended conflict. American lives are too important to risk.”
Justin Barasky, communications director for the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, said Democrats have been “decisive and forthright on how to handle this threat [of the Islamic State],” while “Republicans are torn between agreeing with Democrats or having no clear position at all.”
“The difference is that Republicans want to take the advice of [former Vice President] Dick Cheney and launch another ground war in another Middle East country without a plan.”