Progressive push to end Ukraine war risks backlash

AP-Jose Luis Magana
Demonstrators hang Ukrainian flags while celebrating the country’s 31st Independence Day and protesting Russia’s invasion of Ukraine outside the White House in Washington, Saturday, Aug. 27, 2022. (AP Photo/Jose Luis Magana)

A push by 30 House progressives led by Rep. Pramila Jayapal (D-Wash.) to establish a cease-fire in Ukraine risks a backlash against Democratic candidates running in states with substantial Ukrainian American populations, Democratic strategists are warning.  

Jayapal and liberal colleagues including Reps. Ro Khanna (D-Calif.), Ilhan Omar (R-Minn.) and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.) swiftly retracted the letter but damage may have been already been done, according to veteran Democrats such as James Carville.

“We do congenitally stupid things,” famed Democratic strategist Carville said of the effort by progressive Democrats to push President Biden to seek a cease-fire in Ukraine at a time when many experts believe Ukraine is doing a good job beating back the Russian invasion.

“We got people in Ohio, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin” running for Senate and House seats, Carville noted. “There are huge Eastern European and Ukrainian voters in the Midwest and we had this unbelievable issue and then 30 of these — I don’t know who came up with this idea. Of course, now they’re trying to backtrack it.” 

“I don’t know, it’s really, really depressing,” Carville added.  

In addition to the toss-up Senate races in the three states, there are also a bunch of competitive House races in those states. The non-partisan Cook Political Report rates two House seats in Ohio and three House seats in Pennsylvania as toss-ups.  

Ohio and Pennsylvania in particular have large populations of Ukrainian American voters, strategists in both parties say.  

A Senate Democratic strategist pointed out that Eastern European and Ukrainian voters are important to winning counties in Northeastern Ohio.  

The source said voters in that part of the state had shifted away from Republicans recently because of eroding Republican support for the war in Ukraine, which was reflected by House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy’s (R-Calif.) vow that Republicans will not write a “blank check” for Ukraine if they win the House majority.  

“Ukrainians in Ohio and more importantly the Poles in Ohio understand that when [Ohio Senate Republican candidate] J.D. Vance says I don’t care about what happens in Ukraine that’s against everything that made them ‘Reagan Democrats,’” said the Democratic adviser.  

Vance, who is leading Rep. Tim Ryan (Ohio), the Democratic candidate, by only a few points in the Ohio Senate race, got into trouble with Ukrainian American voters after admitting in a podcast interview earlier this year: “I gotta be honest with you. I don’t really care what happens to Ukraine one way or another.”  

But now Democrats are on defense after Jayapal and 29 of her liberal colleagues asked Biden to bring the war to a speedy end, which would likely leave large swaths of Ukrainian territory in Russian hands.  

Russian President Vladimir Putin has illegally annexed four regions of Ukraine — the areas of Donetsk, Luhansk, Kherson and Zaporizhzhia — and is expected to insist on keeping most of his territorial gains as part of any cease-fire or peace deal.  

Jayapal and her colleagues quickly retracted their letter to Biden after being met with a storm of criticism from fellow Democrats, but Democratic strategists worry about the lingering effect on Senate and House races.  

Jayapal admitted the letter “created the unfortunate appearance” that Democrats were “somehow aligned with Republicans who seek to pull the plug on American support for President Zelensky and Ukrainian forces.”  

Ryan, who faces a tough road to victory in Ohio, a state that former President Trump won in 2016 and 2020, needs to win over working-class voters of Ukrainian and Eastern European origin who live along the Eastern edge of the state who swung to Trump in the last two presidential elections.  

“Ethnic voters in Ohio play an outsized role, especially in areas where Trump built his coalition,” said Matt Dole, an Ohio-based Republican strategist. “From Cleveland down through Youngstown there’s the old Steel Belt where there were a lot of Reagan Democrats, Blue Dog Democrats and a lot of them were Polish, Ukrainian and Eastern European.  

“Those folks are still active voters and they have come into the Trump coalition,” he added. “They know Tim Ryan and Tim Ryan is counting on them to cross over and vote for him as a Youngstown guy. They could play a role in the race.”  

Dole said the debate over continued support for the war in Ukraine may play an outsized role in the election.  

Ryan has represented the old industrial town of Youngstown for nearly 20 years in Congress. His district also includes Akron, a rubber and tire manufacturing hub.  

He called on colleagues to continue supporting Ukraine last month when he voted for a short-term funding measure that provided $12.3 billion in military and economic aid to Ukraine.  

“Ukraine can and will win this war with the support of the United States and our allies, and we need to make sure they have the necessary weapons and equipment to drive Russia out completely and defend freedom,” he said.  

His opponent, Vance, has since backed away from his statement that he doesn’t care about the fate of Ukraine, declaring “we want the Ukrainians to be successful.”  

Pennsylvania is another midterm battleground where Ukrainian American voters could prove decisive in a close race, such as the bruising contest between John Fetterman, the lieutenant governor, and celebrity doctor Mehmet Oz. 

Pennsylvania has the second largest Ukrainian population of any state in the country with more than 120,000 people of Ukrainian heritage, trailing only New York. Ohio ranks number five among states.  

Many Pennsylvanians of Ukrainian heritage live in small towns in Schuylkill County, in the eastern part of the state.  

Terry Madonna, a senior fellow for political affairs at Millersville University and who previously served as the director of the Franklin & Marshall College Poll, said signs that liberal Democratic support for the war in Ukraine is eroding could hurt Fetterman.  

“I think it would,” he said. “That would be difficult for either candidate to oppose American support for Ukraine.”  

He said the townships with large percentages of Ukrainian American residents are “small, rural townships” that have tended to be more Republican than Democratic in recent elections.  

He said most “working class voters” in those areas “historically were Democrats but in recent years have voted Republican.” 

Justin Buchler, a professor of political science at Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland, said there’s not much data that breaks down the ethnicity of voters around Ohio so it’s hard to know for sure how the debate over Ukraine may play out in the Senate and House races.  

“We don’t have numbers on ethnicity down to that level of granularity,” he said. 

He agreed that “we’re seeing some cracks within the Democratic Party on Ukraine,” pointing to Jayapal’s letter.  

“Whether or not it’s damaging to the Democratic Party nationwide or in Ohio or Pennsylvania, foreign policy does not tend to swing elections,” he said. “Most voters probably couldn’t point to Ukraine on a map. 

“It’s certainly not helpful to the Democratic Party to see divisions within the party going into a midterm,” he added.  

Tags 2022 midterms Biden James Carville JD Vance John Fetterman Mehmet Oz Ohio Pennsylvania Pramila Jayapal russia Russian invasion of Ukraine Tim Ryan Tim Ryan ukraine Ukrainian Americans war in ukraine Wisconsin

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