Parties look to make $1 trillion in sequestration cuts a campaign issue

The $1 trillion in spending cuts under sequestration are emerging as a major issue in congressional races and the presidential campaign, as both parties think they have a winning hand heading into November.

The reductions in defense spending have been used in attack ads for races in military heavy states like Virginia, and President Obama and Mitt Romney traded barbs over the cuts in back-to-back foreign policy speeches this week.

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The word “sequestration” certainly doesn’t roll off the tongue to voters, but campaigns in both parties are banking that the $500 billion reduction to defense spending will still hit home over national security concerns and — perhaps more importantly — the potential loss of jobs.

The sequestration cuts of $ 1 trillion to both defense and non-defense discretionary spending over the next decade are set to take effect Jan. 2.

The cuts have been wrapped into the larger debate over taxes, where Congress remains deeply divided. Republicans have accused Democrats of holding the military hostage in order to win tax increases, while Democrats argue that it’s Republicans who are insisting on protecting tax breaks for the wealthy at the expense of the military.

“Right now they both think sequester is to their political advantage. Somebody’s wrong and the voters are going to tell us who it is,” said Mackenzie Eaglen, a defense analyst at the conservative-leaning American Enterprise Institute.

The fight over the cuts is beginning to play out in military-heavy states, and Virginia in particular.

In their Senate race, former Sen. George Allen (R-Va.) this week released an ad attacking former Gov. Tim Kaine (D-Va.) over the defense cuts, accusing Kaine of being complicit for supporting the 2011 Budget Control Act that raised the debt-limit and put sequestration in motion.

Kaine responded with a video of his own, claiming that Allen voted for increased deficit spending while “voting against our troops.”

Brad Dayspring, a former aide to House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-Va.) who now works for a pro-Cantor super-PAC, said Republican independent groups are likely to use sequestration as an issue in competitive House races in Virginia, North Carolina, Georgia and New York.

The group’s issue advocacy wing, YG Network, has already released ads about sequestration in five vulnerable Democratic districts, and it held a sequestration event on Capitol Hill this week with House Armed Services Chairman Buck McKeon (R-Calif.).

But the sequestration fight doesn’t just run along partisan lines, as challengers from both parties are eyeing the cuts as a vehicle to attack incumbent opponents for a broken Congress.

Wayne Powell, a retired Army colonel running a long-shot campaign against Cantor, plans to make the job losses from the cuts an issue in the campaign, said Dave "Mudcat" Saunders, a Democratic strategist working on the race.

“We'll bring it up, but in the context of Virginia as a military[-heavy] state. It’ll cost us 200,000 jobs,” Saunders said, referring to studies from industry groups that predict up to 2 million jobs could be lost from the cuts nationwide.

“The problem with the sequestration is you can’t explain it,” he said. “People don’t understand — when they hear the word sequester, they think it’s some guy they put in a cell to protect him.”

Scott Peters, a Democrat running against Rep. Brian Bilbray (R-Calif.) in a heavy military San Diego district, said that the sequestration cuts show the “failure of Congress to come up with a budget, a reasonable plan.”

“If people start getting furloughed and laid off in San Diego they'll start asking why, and it'll go back to this stupid fight over the debt ceiling that Republicans caused and the failed super-committee,” said Peters, whose race is considered a toss up.

The arguments being made in congressional races on sequestration thus far focus on the military cuts, but they are more about jobs than national security.

In lobbying Congress to make a deal, industry groups and defense contractors have warned of steep job losses under sequestration. Lockheed Martin threatened to issue layoff notices to all 123,000 of its employees just days before the election due to sequestration.

“The thing that sells best is the economy and jobs aspect of it,” Rep. Adam Kinzinger (R-Ill.) said at the YG Network event. “If we’re trying to talk about the issue and its importance, those are the things you lead on.”

The cuts have also emerged this month as an issue in the presidential campaign, after Romney attacked Obama on sequestration while the president made a campaign stop in Virginia.

Romney wrote an open letter to the president that ran in The Virginian-Pilot where he said that Obama’s “insistence on slashing our military to pay the tab for your irresponsible spending could see over 200,000 troops forced from service.”

Obama punched back against Romney and congressional Republicans during a speech at the Veterans of Foreign Wars convention this week, where he turned the Republican attack against him around by saying the GOP was protecting the wealthy over the military.

Sens. John McCain (R-Ariz.), Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) and Kelly Ayotte (R-N.H.) have been calling for the Obama administration to tackle sequestration for months, and next week they’re hitting the road to take their argument straight to voters.

Congressional Republicans have accused Obama of being AWOL in the sequester negotiations and debate.

The senators have a four-state, two-day tour of town hall meetings scheduled starting Monday, which includes stops in several military-heavy presidential battlegrounds: Florida, Virginia, North Carolina and New Hampshire.

"People don’t yet quite know yet what the sequester is, what the Budget Control Act is,” Dayspring said. “When Governor Romney and President Obama debate, and the sequester comes up, people will start paying attention and realize what it does.”