More than in any election in the past decade, Republicans are counting on terrorism fears to win votes – especially in races against female Democrats.
At least 60 terrorism- or national security-related ads have aired in congressional contests in such states as Georgia, Kentucky and North Carolina. They’re running with the most intensity since President George W. Bush’s 2004 re-election campaign, when the airwaves were full of ads depicting Democrat John Kerry as weak on national security, data provided by Kantar Media’s Campaign Media Analysis Group show.
Of the top five Democratic targets, four are women.
“There is a phenomenon that I haven’t seen in my lifetime, and that is this fear factor, whether it’s Ebola or the wars,” said Ed Rollins, a Republican who directed Ronald Reagan’s 1984 presidential re-election campaign.
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“If there wasn’t the overarching fear out there, you couldn’t run this without being painted as anti-woman,” Rollins said. “It’s a subtle or not-so-subtle way of saying: These candidates are not as strong as they should be.”
One ad attacking Democrat Michelle Nunn, who is running for an open U.S. Senate seat in Georgia, says she has admitted that a foundation she ran for six years gave money to groups linked to terrorists – a claim deemed “pants on fire” false by Politifact Georgia.
A spot criticizing Kentucky’s Alison Lundergan Grimes replays President Barack Obama stating his middle name – Hussein – as he takes his oath of office. Democrat Grimes is challenging Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell.
Last week Republican Thom Tillis, who’s challenging Senator Kay Hagan in North Carolina, brought Arizona Senator John McCain on to the campaign trail to criticize Hagan for missing Senate Armed Services Committee hearings.
“It indicates that she’s not well-informed,” McCain said, according to the Associated Press.
Heading into the final two weeks of the midterm congressional campaigns, the ad wars are punctuating the two parties’ closing arguments in contests that will determine who runs the U.S. Senate. Republicans need a net gain of six seats to win the majority.
In their ads, Republicans are seeking to redirect the conversation to national security concerns that are likely to surpass other issues for many independent female voters, said a party strategist with knowledge of the approach.
Bob Shrum, a Democratic Party strategist, rejected that explanation.
“I don’t think it’s just about moving women from thinking about women’s issues,” he said. “It’s about playing on stereotypes about women” being weak on security.
Republicans, who historically poll better than Democrats on national security, were given an opening to focus on the matter by the beheadings of journalists by Islamic State extremists and the U.S. airstrikes in Syria. Those events raise the specter of greater U.S. involvement in the Middle East.
As Democrats step up assaults on Republicans such as Representative Cory Gardner in Colorado’s Senate race for his record on gender issues, Republicans are seeking to narrow the rival party’s advantage with women voters by appealing to “security moms.” That’s a demographic that Bush effectively cultivated after the 2001 terrorist strikes.
One 2004 ad had an especially big effect in the crucial state of Ohio, said Shrum, who was then a senior Kerry adviser. It featured a girl whose mother was killed in the World Trade Center attacks praising Bush for trying to “make sure I’m safe.”
Unlike the Kerry campaign – which waited weeks to respond to criticism of his military service experience during the Vietnam War – Senate Democrats this year have swiftly countered.
“That’s a terrible lie and an insult to the millions of volunteers I worked with to make a difference,” Nunn says in a spot about the supposed terrorist funding by the institute she headed, which is tied to the Bush family. “President Bush’s son called it shameful.”
Incumbent Senators Hagan of North Carolina, Jeanne Shaheen of New Hampshire and Mark Udall of Colorado – all in tough contests to keep their seats – have also put up ads responding to attacks.
The Republican ads are playing into worries among many Americans that the U.S. is less secure because of recent crises.
A poll released yesterday by Politico showed that voters in the most competitive races are voicing growing concern about terrorism and the Ebola virus, and are skeptical about both political parties. Two-thirds of likely voters in those states said the U.S. has “lost control of its major challenges,” Politico said.
Many of the spots raising terrorism alarms are running in Senate battlegrounds against women candidates. Others are airing in states such as Colorado where Democrats are pressing a “war- on-women” theme – an effort to publicize Republican policies such as limiting access to birth control and abortion, and encompassing equal pay and violence against women.
The ads are sponsored by outside spending groups including Ending Spending Inc. and American Crossroads, as well as the National Republican Senatorial Committee and individual campaigns. The ad attacking Nunn was paid for by the NRSC and the spot aimed at Grimes was funded by McConnell’s campaign.
Terrorism-related ads have run more than 2,000 times against Grimes and Nunn and almost 2,000 times against Hagan, CMAG data show. By comparison, in Arkansas, where Democratic Senator Mark Pryor is on the ballot, and Iowa, where Democrat Bruce Braley is running for the Senate, such ads have aired just over 200 times.
Udall, who has hammered Gardner on women’s issues in their Senate contest, including the Republican’s support for curbing abortion rights, has been attacked 770 times in such ads.
At least one of the Republican groups spending the most on broadcast ads, American Crossroads, is focusing its final batch of commercials in Colorado on terrorism. Udall, who had missed a February hearing on Islamic State, was caught on camera saying the group didn’t present an “imminent threat” to the U.S. His comment came before the beheadings of the Americans.
A spot aimed at Hagan features a military mom named Nancy Anderson, who says her son is a U.S. Marine.
“It makes me so mad to see how the president’s weakness has allowed the Islamic State to grow,” she says into the camera. “And Senator Hagan, she just goes right along with him,” she said. “We can’t let our kids die in vain.”
Democrats argue that the attacks are unfair, saying Obama has kept the U.S. safe from another Sept. 11-type attack.
Ten years ago, Bush and his Republican Party tried to make the same case. “He was the president and he had protected the nation,” Shrum said. “It was a classic don’t change horses in the middle of the stream argument,” he said. “What’s going on this year is just to raise fears.”
The spots are also running in a number of House races and against men, including one in Minnesota that calls Democratic Representative Rick Nolan “dangerously liberal.” Another sponsored by the National Republican Congressional Committee warns that Islamic State terrorists “are actively working to come for us,” claiming that Nolan voted to release fighters held at Guantanamo Bay.
Yet with the Senate in play, most of the attention is focusing on contests for that chamber.
In Georgia, Politifact says the claim by Republican David Perdue that Nunn’s Points of Light institute funded terrorist groups is based on MissionFish, a business that Points of Light once owned that collected donations for about 20,000 charities.
One charity, Islamic Relief USA, that received money from MissionFish has partnered with the umbrella group Islamic Relief Worldwide. While Israel has accused IRW of having links to Hamas, a U.K. commission found no ties, according to Politifact. The U.S. and Israel have designated Hamas a terrorist group.
Republicans are trying to take advantage of one of the policy areas where voters still trust men more than women.
Americans prefer women to handle numerous policy challenges, including health care, education, Social Security and immigration, said Dianne Bystrom, an expert in women candidates and political ads at Iowa State University.
Men still hold a decisive advantage on terrorism and crime, she said.
“It’s something they’re going to try,” she said of Republicans, especially “in close races where women may not be seen as tough.”