Senate races

Pulling rank

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As voters’ attention turns to national security worries, the military backgrounds of top GOP hopefuls are an asset for Senate Republicans.

The GOP has long polled better on terrorism and security concerns, but now the party has faces and experience to speak on those issues, as Republicans aim to take back control of the Senate.

Chief among them are Rep. Tom Cotton (R-Ark.), who served in the Iraq and Afghanistan wars, and state Sen. Joni Ernst (R-Iowa), who served in Iraq as a lieutenant colonel with the Iowa National Guard.

{mosads}Others include Alaska Republican Dan Sullivan, a lieutenant colonel in the U.S. Marine Corps Reserve, and Scott Brown, a retired Army National Guard colonel, running in New Hampshire.

Republicans are trying to “nationalize” the upcoming election and “piggy back” off of the president’s low approval ratings on foreign policy and national security, according to GOP strategist Ford O’Connell.

He predicted that the new conflict in the Middle East, including the U.S.-led military campaign against the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS), would be the “wild card issue” that could decide races where the candidates are separated by only a few percentage points.

“If they can’t tag President Obama on ISIS, they can point to themselves and say, ‘Trust me I was once part of the military,’ ” O’Connell said, citing Ernst and Cotton specifically.

“It’s no surprise the GOP are trumping up their candidates” now, when Republicans have enjoyed a decades-long “generic edge” on national security, according to Kyle Kondik of the University of Virginia’s Center for Politics.

He said Democrats didn’t want the upcoming midterm elections to focus on foreign policy, citing the “policy playbook” the party used when Congress was in session earlier this month to hold Senate votes on pocketbook issues like student loans and equal pay for women.

“There’s no atmosphere in the media atmosphere for that stuff, when you’ve got all these foreign policy crises,” he told The Hill.

Nowhere has the push been more apparent than in Iowa, where Ernst, a state senator, has released several ads highlighting her war record, as she seeks to replace retiring Sen. Tom Harkin (D) and become the first female combat veteran in the U.S. Senate.

“There’s no better message than mother, conservative, soldier. That’s like the triple whammy,” GOP strategist Richard Grenell, who served as a spokesman for four U.S. ambassadors to the United Nations, told The Hill.

In New Hampshire, Brown, a former Massachusetts senator, has made foreign policy a cornerstone of his campaign against incumbent Sen. Jeanne Shaheen (D).

Last month, he released an ad charging that Shaheen is “confused about the nature of the threat” from Islamic militants.

“Anyone who turns on the TV these days knows we face challenges to our way of life. Radical Islamic terrorists are threatening to cause the collapse of our country,” Brown says in the spot, standing in front of an American flag.

Meanwhile in Alaska, recent polls show Sen. Mark Begich (D) trailing Sullivan. One of Sullivan’s first general election ads featured him running in a Marines T-shirt.

And in Arkansas, Cotton has gone so far as to cut an ad featuring his old drill sergeant to blunt attacks from Sen. Mark Pryor (D).

Grenell said when a candidate is trying to convince voters that they are “battle-tested” military service is a “sure way to prove your credentials.”

“It’s really important to show leadership skills, to show that when you’re under pressure, you know how to think clearly,” Grenell said. “It’s the idea of the 3 a.m. phone call.”

Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee Communications Director Justin Barasky dismissed the idea that the GOP would cruise to victory in November based on a single issue.

“Voters look at the full records of the candidates on the ballot, and in every race, that means Republican Senate candidates who hold various positions that simply aren’t acceptable to voters — like privatizing social security, ending Medicare as we know it, and blocking access to common forms of birth control,” he said in a statement to The Hill.

Former Rep. Patrick Murphy (D-Pa.), the first Iraq War veteran elected to Congress, said the emphasis on military service could indeed decide some of the close races.

“I think when there is uncertainty in the world, people will gravitate toward military candidates, and that could make a couple point difference in an election,” he said.

And for a once war-weary electorate — which helped Democrats make gains in 2006 and 2008 — the renewed security focus is a bit ironic.

“Vulnerable Democratic incumbents who came into the office riding the anti-war sentiment at the time have flipped and are now sounding like Republican hawks,” O’Connell said.

Tags Jeanne Shaheen Mark Begich Mark Pryor Tom Cotton Tom Harkin

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