Russia invasion of Ukraine could play unusual role in midterms

Russia’s deadly invasion of Ukraine could throw a wrench into the midterms as voters scrutinize President Biden’s efforts to counter aggression from a global superpower and U.S. adversary.

Foreign policy rarely touches down-ballot elections. But Russia’s moves in Europe, and the U.S.’s response, could have domestic implications that hit Americans’ pocketbooks and would come on top of already high gas prices and record inflation — issues voters rank among the most important.

Additionally, deep networks of immigrants from Eastern Europe reside in some of the nation’s most critical battleground states, and the president’s approval rating, a predictor of his party’s midterm performance, remains low.

“This is going to be a backdrop to a lot of the elections now,” said Dave Pepper, the former chair of the state Democratic Party in Ohio, a key swing state with the country’s fifth-highest population of Ukrainian residents.

Some Democrats believe Biden is well-positioned to explain his decisions on Ukraine and defend the increasingly severe sanctions he is levying against Moscow. The president this week called Russia’s invasion a “brutal assault on the people of Ukraine” and a “premeditated attack.” He placed new economic and technology sanctions on the country on Thursday, and officials said they still have options on the table. 

Pepper speculated that Biden’s posture on the crisis — and the isolationist response from some GOP candidates — could create an opening for down-ballot Democrats in November’s elections.

Ohio Republican Senate candidates Josh Mandel and J.D. Vance have questioned why the U.S. is focused on the foreign conflict while domestic issues mount. Vance went as far to say on a right-wing podcast that he doesn’t “really care what happens to Ukraine one way or another,” before walking back the statement.  

Other Ohio GOP contenders, including Jane Timken, Mike Gibbons and Matt Dolan, have called for economic retaliation against Russia.  All the candidates have condemned Biden’s handling of the situation.

“I wasn’t really thinking about the race in this way, but all of a sudden my own heritage is relevant in how I vote,” Pepper said, referring to how Midwest residents who have a connection to Eastern Europe may perceive the crisis.

He added, “It does add a wrinkle.”

Biden and aligned Democrats are desperate to avoid a repeat of the chaotic U.S. pullout from Afghanistan last year, for which the president still receives criticism — and which Republicans have claimed gave Russian President Vladimir Putin the green light to move on Ukraine.

While Democrats denounce the conservatives aligned with former President Trump, who praised Putin during his term in office and in statements last week, many are fretting about how the geopolitical realities of the invasion could hit working populations in the U.S. over the next eight months. 

Recent polling shows Americans’ faith in Biden’s ability to handle the situation is low. A Harvard CAPS-Harris Poll survey obtained by The Hill on Friday found 37 percent of Americans said they were confident in the administration’s ability to effectively counter Russia, while 63 percent said they were not confident. The same poll found Biden’s approval rating at a record low 38 percent.

“Voters believe the Biden administration can and should do more to protect Ukraine,” said Dritan Nesho, co-director of the poll.  “They see the sanctions so far as too weak and ultimately ineffective, and a majority say the United States should defend Ukraine in case of a full Russian invasion — including a majority of Democrats. A stronger posture appears to be both the right policy and good politics for the administration.”

Biden and Democrats may need to balance voters’ desire to push back on Russia and the domestic consequences of doing so. 

Russia’s invasion of Ukraine is likely to make gas prices surge in the West, with the United States expected to take a major hit. While Biden suggested on Thursday that the U.S. may release oil from its strategic reserve in an effort to offset the rising cost at the pump, Democrats acknowledge the president’s limited reach and are preparing accordingly. 

“In the short term, partially if gas prices shoot up and the stock market becomes volatile, you’re going to see numbers looking a little worse for Democrats simply because it’s a political market reaction to these indicators,” said Ivan Zapien, a lobbyist and former Democratic National Committee official.

Biden entered the White House last year with no illusions about getting on solid footing with Putin, whom prior administrations beyond Trump have tried to appease. As former President Obama’s No. 2, Biden’s global policy docket included Russia, which some believe helped prepare him to delicately navigate what has been a brutal and bloody several days. 

If history is any indication, there’s room for Biden to advance his public perception in a time of crisis. But that comes with complications. 

“Foreign affairs, when it’s removed and it’s happening someplace else, traditionally, historically has not had a huge impact on midterm races,” said Chris Stirewalt, a senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute. 

In a new piece for The Dispatch, Stirewalt outlines a number of notable exceptions.

While the 1974 elections took place in the wake of the Watergate scandal, the Yom Kippur War, which led to an oil embargo from the Organization of Arab Petroleum Exporting Countries, sent gas prices through the roof when Americans were already plagued with high inflation. Democrats won four seats in the Senate and 49 seats in the House. 

He also argues that Democrats suffered losses in ’94 partly as a result of a U.S. humanitarian mission in Somalia, which was considered a major miscalculation under then-President Clinton. 

“These things can penetrate, but they have to function at a very large scale,” Stirewalt said. “What has happened in Ukraine has already penetrated.” 

Democrats argue that the U.S. response to the Russian invasion of Ukraine gives Biden an opportunity to lead on foreign policy.

“Here’s a second chance for him to show — not just him, his entire administration — his administration is doing really well at using the global stage diplomatically,” said Zapien. 

Administration officials are working the phones, using military aircraft to travel to meetings with people and talk about how to confront the situation together, Zapien said, a contrast from how the situation around Afghanistan unfolded.

“To the extent that he sold himself as a foreign policy expert, this platform is a better one to judge him on than Afghanistan,” he said. “They’re both fair game but this is not one decision, this is a series of conversations and decisions made jointly with our allies in a very precarious situation.”

And the White House has opportunities to pivot attention away from the Ukraine crisis. On Friday Biden announced his nomination of Judge Ketanji Brown Jackson to the Supreme Court. And next week he will deliver the State of the Union and have a chance to tout the accomplishments of the past year and sell his future plans.

Tags Barack Obama Bill Clinton Donald Trump Joe Biden Vladimir Putin
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