Hagel opponents look to continue fight in 2014

Chuck Hagel may now be secretary of Defense, but conservative groups that attacked the former Nebraska senator during his confirmation fight are claiming victory anyway, arguing he is in a weakened position and had to change his views to get confirmed.

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And if Hagel strays from the promises he made on Iran, Israel and nuclear weapons, the groups say they could make vulnerable Democrats pay in 2014 for their votes supporting Hagel.

“The high-profile nature of the confirmation process has certainly tied a number of senators who will be facing voters at the ballot box in the future to his performance,” said Ryan Williams of Americans for a Strong Defense, one of the outside groups that released TV ads criticizing Hagel.

“If Chuck Hagel makes any comments that are out of the mainstream regarding our relationship with Israel, if he tries to implement devastating cuts to military that Barack Obama has signaled, senators like Mark Pryor (D-Ark.), Mary Landrieu (D-La.), Kay Hagan (D-N.C.) and Mark Begich (D-N.C.) are going to be held responsible,” he said, referencing Democrats viewed as top GOP targets in 2014.

Hagel’s backers say the notion he will be weakened as Pentagon chief is overblown. The outside groups that criticized the Defense secretary during his confirmation fight badly manipulated his positions and took quotes out of context, his supporters argue.

They also say they will continue to defend Hagel if political groups go on the attack again.

“We’re going to support his efforts and we’ve got his back, and if people come after him, we’re going to be there to take that on to whatever extent we can,” said Harold Schaitberger, general president of the International Association of Fire Fighters, a union that bought ads in support of Hagel.

Hagel was confirmed as Defense secretary this week on a near-party line 58-41 vote, with just four Republicans voting for President Obama’s pick for Defense secretary, along with every Democrat. The final confirmation vote followed a bruising confirmation battle that saw him face the first-ever filibuster of a defense nominee.

A number of outside groups jumped into the fight with ads attacking and defending Hagel, whose confirmation took on a campaign-like feel.

Critics included the American Future Fund, which spent nearly $20 million on the 2012 presidential race, former GOP presidential candidate Rick Santorum’s Patriot Voices and Americans for a Strong Defense, an entity that was only created in January.

Bill Kristol criticized Hagel on two fronts: through his conservative Weekly Standard magazine and as chairman of the Emergency Committee for Israel, another group that ran ads against Hagel.

“This battle against Chuck Hagel is over. The fight for a principled-pro-Israel foreign policy goes on,” Kristol said in a statement on Hagel’s confirmation.

The groups pounced on Hagel’s past statements and positions, such has his contention that the “Jewish lobby” intimidates people in Washington. They also knocked him for voting against unilateral sanctions against Iran and calling the Pentagon “bloated.”

Hagel received public backing from a number of veterans groups and informal coalitions of former national security and retired military leaders that endorsed him.

One of the more interesting groups that jumped into the fight was the International Association of Fire Fighters, whose bright pro-Hagel advertisements bannered D.C.-based newspaper websites.

Schaitberger said his union has supported Cabinet appointees before, but this was the first time it spent money on advertisements to support a presidential nominee.

His group decided to get in the Hagel fight because he had supported their issues when he was in the Senate.

“We felt like we needed to help balance what we felt was a lot of misplaced opposition pieces and advertisement messages that were arising against the senator,” Schaitberger said. “He had a track record of support, and we’re loyal.”

It remains to be seen whether Hagel’s performance running the Pentagon will actually make its way into a Senate race. The 2014 elections are still 20 months away, and some polls found a majority of people tuned out of the fight that captivated the Beltway, as they didn’t have an opinion of Hagel.

That said, respondents had a negative view of Hagel in a February poll from the Pew Research Center after his favorables were on the plus side in January.

Hagel’s tenure is less than a week old, but he is already staring down $46 billion in sequestration cuts to the Pentagon, which he vowed on Friday would cause pain but not threaten U.S. military power. The dispute over Iran’s nuclear program also remains on the horizon, as diplomatic talks resumed this week.

Even before Obama nominated the former Nebraska senator, Hagel was attacked by Republican senators and outside groups in an effort to dissuade Obama from picking him. Once Hagel was selected, his critics had an uphill fight to stop his confirmation, one they ultimately lost.

Williams said that despite the confirmation vote, Hagel’s critics were successful because they forced him to change his views on issues like Iran and Israel. The high number of "no" votes — rare for a Defense nominee — also puts him at the Pentagon with no political capital, he said.

“He had to adapt his positions in order to win votes, and it pushed him into the mainstream on some views,” Williams said. “Going forward, there are a number of groups that will continue to hold him accountable to make sure he doesn’t flip back.”

Hagel supporters say that his positions did not change during the confirmation process — they were just distorted by his critics.

Senate Armed Services Chairman Carl Levin (D-Mich.), who pushed Hagel’s confirmation through committee over Republican objections, said that the arguments from outside groups actually hurt the opposition because they were so ridiculous.

“I though they were so far over the top in some of the things they were doing — there were so many faults, inaccurate statements — they ended up hurting themselves as much as helping themselves,” Levin said.