WASHINGTON (AP) — In the latest Republican campaign ad, a lone militant walks across a barren land with the black banner of the Islamic State group. It’s part of the party’s move to cast Democrats as weak on terrorism.
Six weeks to the Nov. 4 Election Day, the once back-burner issue of national security is suddenly at the forefront amid rising American fears and the U.S. military’s expanded campaign to destroy extremists in Iraq and Syria. The Republicans, more trusted by the American public in recent national polls to deal with foreign policy and terrorism, is using the threat as a political cudgel against Democratic House and Senate candidates.
National security rarely decides elections, especially congressional races, and jobs and the economy remain the overriding issue for voters this year. The Republican effort is part of a broader approach of linking Democrats to an unpopular President Barack Obama, whose approval ratings on handling foreign policy and dealing with terrorism have plummeted since U.S. forces killed Osama bin Laden in 2011.
Just 41 percent approve of Obama’s handling of terrorism while 50 percent disapprove, according to last week’s New York Times/CBS poll, which gave the president worse marks than Republican President George W. Bush in 2006. At the same time, Republicans had a hefty double-digit advantage of 52-31 percent on the question of which party is more trusted in dealing with terrorism and a 49-37 percent edge on foreign policy.
“Radical Islamic terrorists are threatening to cause the collapse of our country,” Scott Brown, the former Massachusetts senator trying to unseat first-term Sen. Jeanne Shaheen in neighboring New Hampshire, says in a commercial. “President Obama and Sen. Shaheen seem confused about the nature of the threat. Not me.”
A national Republican ad against two-term Rep. Dan Maffei calls him “dangerously wrong for our security” over black-and-white images of extremists. Another National Republican Congressional Committee ad describes Rep. Rick Nolan as “dangerously liberal.”
Democrats dismiss the notion that national security will be a defining issue in November.
“First of all, Americans expect both parties to rally against our enemies abroad, not to divide ourselves here at home for partisan gain,” Rep. Steve Israel, chairman of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, said in an interview. “In fact, it’s rather contemptible that while our troops are defending our security, Republicans are more concerned with their electoral security. And we can use that as an issue.”
Sen. Carl Levin, a Democrat and chairman of the Armed Services Committee, bemoaned “too much partisanship in security issues,” at a breakfast with defense reporters Wednesday.
The political response to Obama’s Mideast strategy is hardly clear-cut.
In the immediate aftermath of joint U.S. and Arab airstrikes on Islamic State targets in Syria on Monday, Republicans and Democrats rallied behind the president. Last week’s debate and votes in Congress over arming Syrian rebels underscored that the political fault lines have changed, uniting Republican isolationists and Democratic liberals. It is a reflection of a wary and weary nation after more than a decade of war in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Shaheen backed arming and training the Syrian rebels, voting in favor of a measure giving Obama the go-ahead. A day later, Brown told a New Hampshire group he supported the Syrian program as well.
Republicans have found a growing concern about the terror threat among female voters, whose support for Democrats has proved crucial in presidential and congressional elections.
The gender gap was critical to Obama’s re-election in 2012 as the Democratic president won 55 percent of female voters to 44 percent for Republican Mitt Romney.
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