2014 Midterms: ISIS and the Campaign Trail

Editor’s Note: As part of the 2014 Midterm Elections Series, experts across Brookings will weigh in on issues that are central to this year’s campaigns, how the candidates are engaging those topics, and what will shape policy for the next two years. In this post, Will McCants looks at how the recent rise of ISIS might impact the midterm elections.

The Islamic State’s marauding across large swathes of Iraq this summer put the Obama administration on the defensive, making the Islamic State or ISIS an inviting campaign issue for Republican candidates ahead of the midterm elections. Yet the furor about ISIS on the campaign trail over the past two months may ultimately bolster the president’s war on ISIS after the midterms. 

ISIS & The Campaign Trail

Republicans in Senate races against Democratic incumbents with foreign affairs or armed services committee assignments have seized on public concern about ISIS to link their opponents to Obama’s purported failure to man the wall, allowing the ISIS hordes to march out of Syria into Iraq. New Hampshire Republican candidate Scott Brown implausibly claims “radical Islamic terrorists are threatening to cause the collapse of our country” and accuses “President Obama and Senator Shaheen of being confused by the nature of the threat.” North Carolina Republican Thom Tillis chided Senator Kay Hagan for not taking the ISIS threat seriously, just like President Obama. The proof? She missed an Armed Services Committee meeting on new global threats days after President Obama referred to the Islamic State as a ‘jayvee team.’ Cory Gardner, Republican Senate nominee in Colorado has launched a similar attack against incumbent Democratic Senator Mark Udall, charging him with missing Armed Service Committee meetings and stating that ISIS “does not present an imminent threat to this nation.”

So far, the Democratic candidates in those races have lightly parried the attacks, perhaps bolstered by the high approval for President Obama’s response to ISIS. Sen. Shaheen responded to the Brown ad by pointing out her support for the airstrikes and her efforts to encourage the President to cut off ISIS’s money. Sen. Hagan rebutted Tillis’s accusations of absenteeism by highlighting her support for the President’s plan and her opponent’s own absenteeism and vague policy prescriptions for ISIS. Sen. Udall trumpeted his support for military action in Syria before President Obama acted and noted Gardner’s skepticism of U.S. involvement in Syria before ISIS overran Iraq.

Some Republican candidates for House seats have followed the lead—if not always the milder tone—of their counterparts in the Senate races. Republican Wendy Rogers, a former lieutenant colonel running against incumbent Kyrsten Sinema in Arizona, used footage of James Foley’s beheading in an ad criticizing her opponent for allegedly coddling terrorist prisoners.

Other Republican candidates have tried to tie ISIS to their opponents’ positions on immigration. Arizona Republican Andy Tobin has criticized incumbent Democrat Ann Kirkpatrick for her allegedly lax immigration policies, even citing the debunked claim that ISIS plans to enter the United States through Mexico. In an open-seat race in Michigan, one of Republican David Trott’s campaign ads opens with video of Ebola victims in Africa and the ISIS flag, links them to illegal immigration, then blasts his Democratic opponent Bobby McKenzie for supposedly writing that the U.S. government overstates the threat posed by illegal immigration. McKenzie was actually writing about Canada. (Full disclosure: Before he entered politics, I helped get Bobby a job as senior adviser for countering violent extremism at the U.S. State Department.)

Beyond attack ads, there have also been more substantive exchanges regarding ISIS. Minnesota Republican Stewart Mills has criticized Democratic incumbent Rick Nolan for trying to curtail the administration’s broad interpretation of its authorization to use military force (AUMF) against al-Qaeda. Yet Mills has also called on the president to seek a new AUMF for ongoing operations in Syria and Iraq. Rick Nolan was even more strident in demanding a vote. “Have we not had enough of imperial presidencies? Doing whatever they like? Anywhere in the world? When are we [Congress] going to step up and assume our responsibilities?”

ISIS & Public Opinion

Despite Republican campaigning on ISIS, the issue is not necessarily an effective line of attack against Democrats. Terrorism does not rank high on the list of things Americans worry about—according to a Gallup poll in September, only four percent rank terrorism as the most important problem facing the United States. The percentage increased only a point after the United States launched its air campaign against the Islamic State inside Syria. A CBS poll records more worry about terrorism—14-19 percent—and a Politico poll has 22 percent for terrorism, foreign affairs, and national security as the top of issues most concerning voters. But that still means three quarters of the country worry more about other things, especially the economy. And, at least according to the CBS poll, Republicans worry only slightly more than Democrats about terrorism.

Although Americans rank the threat of terrorism lower than other issues, they overwhelmingly support the Obama administration’s decision to carry out airstrikes against ISIS: more than 70% in CNN, Harris, and ABC/Washington Post polls. Voters are mildly concerned about terrorism but happy with what the president is doing to address it.

ISIS, Congress & Campaign Strategy

Given the national mood and impending elections, Republican and Democratic leaders of Congress were in no rush to vote on the president’s war against ISIS despite grumbling in their parties’ ranks that the president needs to seek a new authorization for the use of military force to continue his military actions in Iraq and Syria. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid delayed the vote until after the midterms in November despite the protests of prominent Senate Democrats like Virginia’s Tim Kaine, who demanded an immediate vote in September soon after strikes began. “The president shouldn’t be doing this without Congress. Congress shouldn’t be allowing it to happen without Congress.” New Jersey Democrat Robert Menendez argued “the President possesses existing authorities to strike ISIL in the short term, but that a prolonged military campaign will require a congressionally-approved Authorization for Use of Military Force (AUMF).”

Republican John Cornyn agreed the vote should not be delayed: “As the President involves the nation deeper in what could be a prolonged military campaign, he should seek a new Congressional authorization for the use of military force without delay.” More aggressively, Tennessee Republican Bob Corker  harangued Secretary of State John Kerry for his boss’s decision to not seek Congressional authorization. “To say that you’re going to do this regardless of what we say, you’re not going to ask for buy-in by the United States Senate or House of Representatives on behalf of the American people in a conflict that you say is going to be multiyear — some people say a decade — taking us into another country with a different enemy is exercising the worst judgment possible.” Maine Republican Susan Collins rebuked her Senate colleagues for not holding an immediate vote on the AUMF. “If the President intends to continue U.S. military strikes against ISIL, which he has said he plans to do, he should submit a specific request to Congress to do so. The Congress should then have a full debate with amendments and votes on an Authorization of the Use of Military Force, as it should have done today.”

In the House, Speaker John Boehner wants to delay voting on a new AUMF until the next session of Congress begins, while Democratic Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi prefers a vote in the lame duck session in November. Both are waiting until after the midterm elections to avoid forcing their members to take a difficult stand in the midst of heated races. Some Republican and Democratic members are not happy with the delay. Democrat Chris Van Hollen of Maryland tweeted that Boehner should “bring Members back to debate/vote on AUMF that supports current mission but ensures no ground troops. No Iraq War 2.0.” Michigan Republican Justin Amash grumbled, “It’s irresponsible & immoral that instead of debating & voting on war, congressional leaders chose to recess Congress for nearly two months.”

Although public support for the war means President Obama might be tempted to forego seeking a new AUMF, he is better off doing so. Given the prominence and tenor of debate about ISIS on the campaign trail and in Congress, the president will receive a new authorization. He will need it in the coming years as public interest in and support for the war inevitably declines.