Foreign policy and the Middle East as a major issue in the midterms? A few months ago, it would have been almost laughable—but with overseas news dominating the headlines and on voters' minds, Republicans see the issue as the final piece in the puzzle for using fears about President Obama's tenure against Democratic candidates in key races.
In the battle for Senate control in November, Republican strategists say GOP candidates can use foreign policy to help tell a story about Obama—and, by extension, Democratic Senate candidates—as incompetent and providing insufficient leadership for the country.
"If you'd asked us two or three months ago what kind of role is foreign affairs going to play in this election, nobody would have said it was going to play a role," said GOP pollster Neil Newhouse. "But now you see current events taking over and impacting voters' concerns—it's current events that have forced this issue onto the front burner."
Foreign policy was never expected to be a top issue in this year's midterms, which thus far has been dominated by health care and economic issues. It's typically not something voters want to hear much about even in a presidential race, let alone the midterms, and candidates tend to shy away from using fast-moving current events in TV advertising.
But voters are really paying attention—and their opinions on the issue aren't good for the president or for his party. Obama's big ISIS speech Wednesday night came just a day after an NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll found his approval rating on foreign policy had plummeted to 32 percent. Voters gave Republicans an 18-point advantage on the issue of foreign policy, up 11 points from this time last year. And a whopping 94 percent of those surveyed said they had seen or heard about the beheadings of journalists James Foley and Steven Sotloff—more than any other news event NBC/WSJ had tested in the last five years.
"The developments of the last month, particularly the ISIS developments, have really permeated the frontal lobe of the American political consciousness," said GOP strategist Phil Musser. "And so when issues, whether they're domestic or international, break through in that kind of way in the final throes of an election year—inevitably they become part of the narrative."
The GOP argument goes something like this: the summer's foreign policy headlines, with the rise of ISIS in the Middle East and Russia's encroaching power in Ukraine, are—coupled with economic concerns, the border crisis, and Obamacare—further proof of Obama's incompetence as chief executive. Democratic candidates in key races, particularly incumbents who've frequently voted with Obama, will support his initiatives overseas. Therefore, voters who want to change the course of the country's leadership should vote against Democratic candidates this fall.
That was the central theme of two recent ads from Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, who's facing off against Democrat Alison Lundergan Grimes in Kentucky.
"These are serious times," a narrator says in one, as news footage of ISIS, national unemployment, and the border crisis flash across the screen. "In Kentucky, we have a proven leader—when somebody in Washington can't do the job, shouldn't Kentucky have a senator who can?"
Elizabeth Wilner of Kantar Media, which tracks political advertising across the country, said that the number of TV spots featuring foreign policy or ISIS has been fairly small thus far but is expected to grow.
"You certainly can't call it a flood, but we're starting to see a trickle—it's likely, particularly after the president speaks, we're going to see more," she said. "It certainly does look like a broad line of attack Republicans are going to start using against Democrats for the next two months."
Democrats' responses to the situation have been varied. Some incumbents with tough reelection battles, like Sen. Kay Hagan of North Carolina and Sen. Jeanne Shaheen of New Hampshire, have criticized the president's handling of the situation; others have trod carefully on the issue, avoiding spending too much time talking about Obama's actions.
The National Republican Senatorial Committee has been playing up the importance of foreign policy, sending out a memo to reporters Wednesday with polling proving the importance of foreign policy this fall.
"Is foreign policy going to stay as hot as it is right now? I don't know," NRSC Executive Director Rob Collins said Tuesday at an event at the National Press Club. "But we have to prepare for it."
The man in charge of leading Senate Republicans to a majority added that among moderates and other voters outside of the GOP base, there was a "creeping" sense that the president was not a strong foreign policy leader. He said it's the kind of issue Republicans are comfortable talking about, and could help the party's candidates make their closing argument to voters.
That's especially true of four veterans in the GOP's Senate lineup this year: state Sen. Joni Ernst in Iowa, Rep. Tom Cotton in Arkansas, Dan Sullivan in Alaska, and Scott Brown in New Hampshire. All four have served in the Middle East, which strategists say gives them additional credibility to talk about national security and foreign policy issues.
Brown, who's running for Senate in slain journalist James Foley's home state of New Hampshire, has focused on the issue in recent weeks, running a Web video on foreign policy and calling on Congress to revoke the citizenship of American-born ISIS fighters. He also talked foreign policy as he accepted the GOP Senate nomination Tuesday night.
"There is no plan, either, to meet a crisis abroad that could quickly reach inside the United States if we do not act. Terrorists are slaughtering innocent people across Iraq and Syria, including innocent Americans," Brown said. "For all of this, the president has been slow to move, and so far his foreign policy has been unsteady and incoherent."
Ernst has had similar criticism of Obama's lack of leadership, saying last week that there is "no excuse for not having a strategy in this region." Cotton has been stressing the danger of ISIS all summer, and in July asserted that it "may be a greater danger today to Iraq than al-Qaida was on Sept. 10, 2001."
What's happening abroad is on voters' minds—at least, anecdotally.
On Wednesday night, focus groups of "Walmart moms"—defined as working- and middle-class women who have shopped at Walmart at least once in the past month and have at least one child under 18—in Little Rock, Ark., and Des Moines, Iowa, mentioned ISIS and overseas conflicts unprompted. Asked to describe the world today, many said it is "not safe," "scary," or "a lot of unrest."
"I think we needed to take action and [Obama] just really sat back—and this is a pretty big deal, I think it does affect the American people," said one Des Moines participant, Louisa.
Newhouse, whose firm Public Opinion Strategies helped conduct the groups, said he was "surprised" by the extent to which international events have contributed to voters' feelings of unease.
"It almost seemed like they believe things have kind of gone to hell in a handbasket overseas and that we don't have as a good a handle on it as we should," he said of the focus-group participants.
For candidates, there's a difficult balance to strike between using the issue to beat the drum against Obama and getting too far in the weeds on actual strategy proposals. Most GOP strategists agree that the way to talk about foreign policy this fall is to make it a broad argument about leadership and stay out of such details as whether or not the U.S. should put troops on the ground.
"I don't think that many Republicans are going to rush out there with detailed foreign policy initiatives in their own campaigns," said GOP pollster Wes Anderson. "I don't think there's any market for it—what voters want to hear is that somebody is going to take initiative and show leadership."
That's particularly true because events in the headlines are constantly changing, and what seemed like a good policy prescription one week could be completely out of favor the next.
"Fast-moving stories, whether they're domestic or foreign, are always risky stories for politicians to be staking out positions on in something like a TV ad," Wilner said. "Because once you take a position in an ad, you're tied to that position."
Democratic pollster Mark Mellman said there's a disconnect between Republicans' argument about Obama and foreign policy and what Democratic candidates can actually do on the issue.
"The reality is that President Obama's going to be the president regardless of what happens in this congressional election," he said. "So arguing that this somehow will affect President Obama's foreign policy is foolish."
Alex Roarty contributed to this article