Terror politics return to campaign trail
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Republicans are pivoting to national defense on the campaign trail, using rising public fears about terrorism as they look to move the needle in a number of races. 

In contests across the country, GOP candidates are criticizing President Obama for his handling of the growing threat of the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS), with some warning of additional vulnerabilities from an unsecured border.


“National security has risen up in this election, and it's because of how close it's come to the campaign and also the fecklessness of how the president has dealt with it,” said Republican strategist Brad Blakeman, a veteran of President George W. Bush’s administration. 

“There's a lack of confidence from the president, a lack of resolve, and Democrats who'd normally be more dovish are taking a more hawkish stand because the electorate is demanding it,” Blakeman continued. 

In key Senate races in Alaska, Arkansas, North Carolina and New Hampshire, Republicans are seeking to tie Democrats to a president polls show is no longer trusted on defense, giving them further ammunition to win six seats needed to flip the Senate. 

And on Friday, the National Republican Congressional Committee launched ads in four districts all hitting Democrats on national security. 

This week’s vote to approve training and arming some anti-ISIS Syrian rebels put members of both parties on the spot, though it ultimately passed with bipartisan support.

Most Democrats in tough races supported Obama’s plan, along with a majority of Republicans. But the few who voted against it are already taking heat, including Sen. Mark BegichMark Peter BegichAlaska Senate race sees cash surge in final stretch Alaska group backing independent candidate appears linked to Democrats Sullivan wins Alaska Senate GOP primary MORE (D-Alaska) and Reps. Dan Maffei (D-N.Y.) and Rick Nolan (D-Minn.). 

Public sentiment has changed even from a year ago, when there was little support even for airstrikes in Syria. But the beheadings of two American journalists captured the nation’s attention in a way few other stories have. An NBC/Wall Street Journal poll released last week found that 94 percent of Americans had heard about them, higher than any other news event in the past five years.

That same poll found that 47 percent of Americans thought the country was less safe now than at any point since the Sept. 11 attacks — up from 28 percent a year ago — and just 32 percent of the public approved of Obama’s handling of foreign policy.

A CBS/New York Times poll from last week found 57 percent of Americans thought the president wasn’t being tough enough in his handling of ISIS. 

Democrats privately admit the issue isn’t what they want to be focused on this close to the election, and the longer they’re forced to talk about ISIS and Obama, the worse it will be for them on Election Day.

The political fight over ISIS has become the most pronounced in a trio of states where armed forces veterans are challenging Senate Democrats.

In Alaska, Begich has been vocal about his opposition to arming the rebels, voting against Thursday’s resolution after taking to the Senate floor to denounce it. A spokesman warned in a statement it could move “our nation closer to putting American boots on the ground. 

His GOP opponent Dan Sullivan, a Marine veteran who served under former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice in the State Department, immediately fired back.

"The Obama Administration has yet to clearly lay out such a strategy and has consistently shown weakness overseas. Mark Begich has been enabling this weak approach by only focusing on what we shouldn't do and taking options off the table – this encourages our enemies,” Sullivan said in a statement saying he would have backed the funding for Syrian rebels.

Some Democrats are nervous that Begich’s vote might haunt him. Alaska has a strong contingent of non-interventionist libertarian-leaning voters, but also has a large number of veterans and several military bases.

 “I really don't know what Sen. Begich is thinking,” said one Democratic strategist who knows Alaska well. “The attack ad on him is going to be so easy to do.”

In New Hampshire, former Sen. Scott Brown (R-Mass.), who served in the Army National Guard, has been pushing a proposal to revoke the citizenship of Americans fighting abroad for terrorist groups. He’s leaned hard on the issue, recently campaigning with Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) in the state to attack Sen. Jeanne Shaheen (D-N.H.) on foreign policy. 

Rep. Tom Cotton (R-Ark.), another Marine veteran, has made his service central to his campaign and has been critical of Sen. Mark Pryor (D-Ark.) for his earlier opposition to arming the rebels.

In a web ad this week, the Republican’s campaign warned of a “world in chaos,” saying Arkansas needs a senator who “will stand up to President Obama” and his foreign policy “weakness.”

Former United Nations Ambassador John Bolton’s (R) super-PAC is launching a $5 million digital ad blitz hitting Sens. Kay Hagan (D-N.C.) Pryor and Shaheen, saying Obama is “a better strategist for aiding ISIS than eliminating it” and saying supporting the senators is “a big risk for America.”

National Democrats maintain they’re not worried about the attacks, pointing to past elections that were a rebuke to the Bush administration’s foreign policy. 

“There is broad agreement that ISIL must be destroyed and will be destroyed. The difference is that Republicans want to take the advice of Dick Cheney and launch another ground war in another Middle East country without a plan. This debate only highlights what voters already believe – the Republican Party is not capable of governing right now,” said Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee spokesman Justin Barasky.

The issue is popping in a number of House races as well.

The NRCC launched ads on Friday saying Maffei is being “dangerously wrong for our security,” accusing Nolan of voting “to cut funds for the fight against Al Qaeda,” knocking Rep. Ron Barber  (R-Ariz.) on border security, and hitting Iowa state Sen. Staci Appel (D) for saying in a debate last week that she “would not be urging taking away [suspected terrorists’] passports.”

House Democrats fired back, charging the GOP was “playing politics with national security.”  

“It is repugnant that Republicans would try to exploit this threat to divide Americans at a time when our nation should be united,” Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee Chairman Steve Israel (D-N.Y.) said in a statement. “

Republicans admit that even they’re surprised the issue has become so salient — but that the pre-October surprise is playing into their hands. 

“We're seeing a big uptick on national security issues," NRCC Chairman Greg Walden (R-Ore.) said Friday.

 "There's just this growing sense that things are a little out of control," he continued. “That points to a real, real problem for all concerned, especially Democrats.”