Candidates in military districts tailor message to Afghanistan withdrawal

Candidates in military districts tailor message to Afghanistan withdrawal
© Greg Nash

Candidates in areas with high concentrations of military voters are tailoring their messaging around the U.S. withdrawal in Afghanistan ahead of the 2022 midterms, betting that Americans’ usual apathy to foreign policy issues won’t apply to voters more likely to have a direct connection to the mission that’s become engulfed in chaos. 

International policy typically remains a sidebar issue at the ballot box. But the tenuous nature of the situation on the ground — and the Biden administration’s scramble to respond in a way that pleases all sides — could change that.

As images of Afghan civilians desperately trying to escape Taliban control flooded the national media this week, candidates and elected officials have sought to detail their own experiences on the front lines of the country’s long-running battles and tried to reassure communities of military voters that they’ll be taken care of.

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“These heroes have a home in Virginia,” Virginia Democratic gubernatorial candidate Terry McAuliffe, the state’s former governor, wrote on Twitter. “Thank you to all who are working to safely evacuate our allies out of harm’s way.”  

Striking a similar tone, McAuliffe’s Republican opponent, Glenn Youngkin, also attempted to publicly prove his commitment to veterans, tweeting: “As your governor, there will never be a time you are not in the forefront of my mind.”

The race to become Virginia’s top statewide executive is already starting to illustrate how foreign affairs can indeed spill over into a domestic down-ballot race. 

“If I’m Glenn Youngkin, you need to be holding roundtables for veterans, military events and making sure that the voters of Virginia know you are going to be with them,” said Anthony Pileggi, the general consultant for Virginia Republican congressional candidate Taylor Keeney’s campaign.

Military voters have proved to be a crucial voting bloc in Virginia, with roughly 10 percent of residents having served in the armed forces, according to the Census Bureau. The commonwealth is also home to 27 military bases.  

In the swing state that President BidenJoe BidenManchin to vote to nix Biden's vaccine mandate for larger businesses Congress averts shutdown after vaccine mandate fight Senate cuts deal to clear government funding bill MORE won for Democrats in 2020, a number of members of Virginia’s congressional delegation also come from a military background, including Rep. Elaine LuriaElaine Goodman LuriaAbortion rights group endorsing 12 House Democrats Group aligned with House GOP leadership targeting nine Democrats on spending vote The Hill's Morning Report - Presented by Facebook - Rising prices undercut Biden agenda MORE (D-Va.), a Navy veteran whose tenure involved serving as an officer for two decades. Virginia’s 2nd Congressional District, an area that includes Virginia Beach and Hampton Roads, is home to the world’s largest naval base. 

“A lot of people who live, specifically in VA-02, know someone who has been deployed to Afghanistan,” said a former Virginia Democratic Party spokesperson, addressing the political connection between Luria and the vast military network of constituents around her. 

“Democrats statewide, from congressional to the statehouse up to the governor, need to comprehensively realize that veterans are feeling … like their service was invalid, which is so problematic and not correct,” the former spokesperson said.  

Even as Democrats say there’s a case to be made that ties Biden’s tough but necessary approach to veterans’ experiences, Republicans are getting quick on the offensive.

A day after the Taliban entered Kabul, Biden laid out what he believes to be the right strategy for his administration to ultimately bring the war to an end, saying explicitly: “I do not regret my decision to end America’s war fighting in Afghanistan.”

For members of the GOP and other outside critics, Democratic candidates who promoted their military track records during the last midterm cycle are now linked to Biden’s position.

“Every single voter can see that President Biden’s handling of the situation in Afghanistan has been an unmitigated disaster,” said National Republican Congressional Committee spokesperson Mike Berg. 

While Berg and fellow Republican critics believe Biden’s handling of America’s longest war will inherently trickle down to upcoming races, some outside observers say it’s too early to glean major takeaways from the situation at this point, other than that it is likely to have an imprint.  

“The standing of a Democratic incumbent president is going to have some effect politically on races this year in different parts of the country,” said Mark Rozell, a public policy professor at George Mason University.  

In 2018, 62 military veterans launched Democratic congressional bids, a huge show of force for the party’s effort to reclaim the House. During that cycle, women received particular attention and Democrats successfully recruited over a dozen female veterans to their bench. 

Since taking office, Rep. Abigail SpanbergerAbigail Davis SpanbergerWith Build Back Better, Dems aim to correct messaging missteps Sunday shows preview: New COVID-19 variant emerges; supply chain issues and inflation persist On The Money — Biden sticks with Powell despite pressure MORE (D-Va.) has been one of the most outspoken new members about her role protecting America’s foreign policy interests.  

“A lot of outside candidates like Abigail Spanberger ran on national security credentials and now you see a lot of members like Abigail Spanberger in the middle of a national security crisis who are silent at best or provide empty rhetoric if they’re not silent,” Pileggi said. 

Spanberger, who worked as a case officer in the CIA and is a member of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, has publicly called for hearings to be held on the matter on Capitol Hill. 

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She has also aired concerns over the ability to bring the 18,000 Afghan allies still left on the ground in the country to the U.S. and said her office is working to help Americans and Afghans escape.  

Like many Democrats, however, she defended Biden’s decision to withdraw U.S. troops as commander in chief.

“After 20 years, it has always been an important priority to end our military mission there and bring our troops home and I think that decision can be decoupled from the discussion related to the actual execution,” Spanberger said in an interview with the ABC affiliate in Richmond. “Certainly, it is absolutely tragic and heartbreaking.”

One Democratic operative with knowledge of congressional recruitment suggested that the strategy to retain the House is multitiered. Beyond making cogent points about ending foreign wars, the strategist said that candidates will have to be well-versed in other forms of attacks. 

“For Democratic candidates it’s going to be about communicating that we understand the sacrifice families make when their loved ones patriotically choose to protect our freedoms by wearing the uniform,” said the operative familiar with candidate operations. “Voters want to send people to Congress who understand the weight of engaging in foreign conflicts as well as the threats to our homeland that led to the insurrection on Jan. 6.” 

But even within the Democratic Party, the plan for talking about the withdrawal on the trail is mixed.  

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In one contest, Rana Abdelhamid, a Muslim woman who is challenging Rep. Carolyn MaloneyCarolyn MaloneyFormer Washington Football Team cheerleaders, employees to protest outside stadium Oversight panel eyes excessive bail, jail overcrowding in New York City Senators call for Smithsonian Latino, women's museums to be built on National Mall MORE (D-N.Y.) from the left, sought to redirect the public’s attention back to a moment in 2001, when Maloney tried to make a political statement about the soundness of invading Afghanistan that Abdelhamid said was personally offensive.  

The Justice Democrats-backed candidate said her identity was “weaponized” as a rationale for more foreign wars. 

“Growing up facing anti-Muslim violence after 9/11 and watching Congresswoman Carolyn Maloney wear a burqa on the floor of Congress to advocate for the invasion of Afghanistan was deeply harmful,” Abdelhamid told The Hill on Wednesday. “I saw my identity as a Muslim woman weaponized to justify American wars. That narrative and gendered Islamophobia shaped my organizing and eventually my run for Congress."

“Real leadership and accountability is recognizing the harm of parading in a burqa in Congress to call out the ‘oppression of Muslim women’ to justify voting for a war that cost thousands of lives — including Afghan women. Right now, we should be doing everything we can to expedite the refugee resettlement process," she said.