Braley helps out on the grill in the Pork Tent at the 2014 Iowa State Fair in Des Moines, Aug. 7. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)
When Iraq popped up this week as an issue in the Iowa Senate race between Democratic Rep. Bruce Braley and Republican Joni Ernst based on her comments about troop levels in recent years, it marked something rare: an occasion where a national security debate surfaced in the 2014 elections for purely national security reasons.
Despite a whole host of places around the globe where security is a rising topic in the news — Iraq, Syria, Gaza, Russia — defense and foreign policy has largely been on the sidelines in congressional races. Even when it has been debated, it has usually been for other reasons, such as how it reflects on President Barack Obama’s performance. But because of that, and more, national security could still play a role in the 2014 elections.
For example, Democratic Rep. Ron Barber of Arizona recently touted his role in offering successful amendments to save the A-10 Warthog aircraft from retirement. Davis-Monthan Air Force Base in Tucson is a major training base for A-10 pilots.
Democratic Sen. Mark Begich has pointed to his role in avoiding job cuts at Eielson Air Force Base in Alaska.
And others have been airing ads highlighting their work to keep open various bases.
Even with strife in so many places around the world, it’s no surprise that national security isn’t on the front burner for 2014 candidates.
“We usually don’t see much unless we’re in the middle of a war,” says Stuart Rothenberg of the Rothenberg Political Report (and Roll Call), who regularly converses with congressional candidates. America’s involvement in the Iraq war is officially over despite recent airstrikes, and its role in Afghanistan is winding down. “Most candidates when they come in, we ask, ‘What are the two or three things you are talking about most?’ It’s jobs and the economy. They don’t bring up national security issues.”
And in the sparse number of times where national security has worked its way into the campaigns, “It tends to come up as a jobs issue, not a national security issue,” he says.
Norman Ornstein, a congressional and political expert at the American Enterprise Institute, a conservative think tank, adds: “These issues are rarely major motivators in an election unless you’ve got some disaster or crisis. They tend to be secondary to other things. What we’ve seen with some of the polling on this election is that there is no single issue that is dominating in any way.”
Besides the jobs aspect of national security, though, the subject has another aspect that has come up in the 2014 races. With Republicans eager to tie Democratic candidates to Barack Obama and his flagging approval numbers, his foreign policy decisions have played into the narrative they’re building about the president.
“The increasingly long list of scandals, crisis, and government incompetence (from Benghazi to the IRS, Obamacare to the debt, Bergdahl to negotiating with the Taliban, the V.A. to the situation in Iraq) have created an extremely toxic environment for Democrats,” the National Republican Senatorial Committee said in a recent memo.
But Rothenberg says this isn’t like in 2006 when the midterm elections were a referendum of then-President George W. Bush’s handling of Iraq.
Obama’s approval ratings for foreign policy recently hit the lowest marks of his presidency, according to one poll that got criticism over its sample selection. Yet that same poll showed that foreign policy ranked very low on the list for voters.
Still, “It’s clearly contributing to the inability of Obama to raise his approval rating above the low- to mid-40s,” Ornstein says. “It’s kind of ironic that voters pretty much approve of the policies Obama’s carrying out — although we may see some disagreement over his move into Iraq. They didn’t want greater involvement in Syria, they didn’t want greater involvement in Israel-Palestine. They’re happy with the Iraq and Afghanistan withdrawals. They’re liking the policies and not feeling comfortable with the leadership.”
Re-involvement in Iraq, Ornstein says, could depress Democratic turnout if base voters object to it. On the other end, Benghazi and other topics could fire up Republican to turn out, although Ornstein said it would be harder for GOP voters to be much angrier than they are now.
Even in races where candidates are focused more on national security compared to elsewhere, it’s not coming up much, such as in Colorado, where Democratic incumbent Sen. Mark Udall has been a leading voice in challenging the Obama administration over National Security Agency bulk data collection programs and over a Senate report on Bush-era Central Intelligence Agency interrogation methods.
Udall’s focus on the topic both reflects and arises from his civil liberties-oriented state. But Udall and his challenger, Republican Rep. Cory Gardner, are looking elsewhere for campaign grist, in part because there’s not a lot of daylight between their respective stances anymore.
And that points to another reason national security isn’t coming up much this campaign cycle.
“For an issue to be a wedge issue requires two sides where one side has a substantial advantage,” Rothenberg says. Many voters in both parties still aren’t enthusiastic yet about the notion of American intervention abroad after more than a decade of war. “You have to have two sides. There are sort of no sides.”
Ornstein says national security could yet play a role.
“As we approach the fall, as voters decide whether to vote or not, some of it is going to be determined by events,” he says. Those events could occur at home or abroad.
“Given the trouble spots in the world, the possibilities for other explosions, something could happen that’s not just an event in itself,” Ornstein adds. It would be an incident “where it involves Americans, and that’s what’s on people’s radar.”