In the wake of President Bush's presidency, foreign policy was long a thorny subject for Republican candidates to discuss, with many struggling to balance their interventionist instincts with lingering memories of the unpopular Iraq war. But fresh concerns about deteriorating global security and President Obama's response to it have emboldened the party's hawks, including one Republican senator facing a competitive reelection next year.
Sen. Richard Burr of North Carolina already is promising that national security—not the economy, congressional dysfunction, or the culture war—will be his most important issue in 2016. And he's confident growing public concern over global security will help him win reelection—just as he says it helped GOP candidates at the tail end of last year's midterm contests. His new chairmanship of the Senate Intelligence Committee gives him a larger profile on these issues, and he's betting that the rise of the Islamic State, Russia's invasion of Ukraine, and concerns about Obama's negotiations with Iran over a nuclear-arms treaty have reversed the political calculus. They believe Republicans should no longer fear a debate about which party is better on foreign policy.
"Given 2014 ended up being an election about national security in the last three weeks, that gives me every reason to believe that foreign policy [and] national security will probably be the single biggest issue in the next election," Burr told National Journal in an interview.
It's a bold declaration, especially for a senator who polls show still isn't particularly well-known in his home state. But his campaign is armed with data from the last Senate race in North Carolina underscoring how potent national security has become to voters. National polls also show that the Republican Party now holds a sizable advantage over Democrats over the question of which party the public trusts more to handle foreign policy, while Obama receives increasingly low marks from the public.
"Potentially, you're going to go into the next election with the Democratic nominee and possibly the Democratic Party saying, 'Don't blame me for the failed foreign policy of the last administration,'" Burr said. "That's going to be the reference point. I don't think it's going to be what happened in 2003 or 2004 when it's fresh in 2014 and 2015."
The two-term incumbent is one of the Senate's most vulnerable members in 2016, confronted with both middling approval ratings and running in a state where rapid demographic change is making it more winnable for Democrats—especially in presidential election years. North Carolina is expected, as it was in 2008 and 2012, to be a major battleground during the White House race.
But Republicans scored a major victory there in last year's Senate race, when Republican Thom Tillis engineered a come-from-behind victory over then-Sen. Kay Hagan. And GOP strategists say the lessons of that campaign will be put to good use again in Burr's effort—especially with a key bloc of voters.
Paul Shumaker, Burr's senior political adviser who worked on the Tillis campaign, said last year's victory was partly a consequence of ISIS's emergence on the campaign trail after the terrorist state beheaded two American citizens in the late summer. The GOP campaign suddenly had a new way to reach the upscale, suburban women who formed the foundation of Hagan's coalition, which they did effectively with a TV ad charging that she skipped an Armed Services Committee hearing on ISIS to attend a campaign fundraiser.
Shumaker said at one of the all-women focus groups conducted by the campaign, at least one participant was incredulous when shown the ad.
"She said, 'I want to know if it's true. I was going to vote for her before tonight, but if that's true, I can't vote for her, I have an 18-year-old son,'" Shumaker said. "All of our research, everything shows how that moved the needle."
Any campaign that contends foreign policy is the election's most important issue will inevitably draw criticism that it's oblivious to what voters always care most about: the economy. Shumaker vows that the campaign will focus on economic dissatisfaction, but added that recent economic growth in North Carolina—the state has outperformed the national average in job growth—has tempered voter anger over the issue.
"Where we have to do best in our suburban base areas, our economy is rocking," he said. "Look at the Research Triangle part, look at the I-85 corridor. Yes there are economic problems. Absolutely. But when you break the state down, the economy in North Carolina is turning a tide, doing pretty well better than a lot of other parts in the country."
Democrats retort that it's folly for Republicans to think an improving economy means foreign policy has displaced it as the public's top priority. Average voters are still worried their pay isn't keeping pace with things like college and health care costs, said John Anzalone, a pollster on Hagan's 2014 campaign. (Hagan is the top choice of many Democrats to run again against Burr.)
"I hope these guys run their campaigns trying to scare people on foreign policy," he said. "Because it's ridiculous."
Democrats also have countered that the Republican overreach on foreign policy gives them an opening to strike back. They hit Burr for signing a letter from Arkansas Sen. Tom Cotton to the Iranian leadership warning them that Obama doesn't have unchecked autonomy to strike a nuclear-arms deal. Burr said he doesn't regret signing the letter.
And the public, while skeptical of negotiations with the Iranians, overwhelmingly prefers talks to military involvement, according to a survey this week from Quinnipiac University. The balance for Republicans such as Burr is to criticize the direction of the talks while making it clear he doesn't support a military attack.
"I don't think anybody in America believes that we're on the verge of shipping a couple of hundred thousand troops somewhere to fight a war," he said. "There may be some who would like us to do that, but a majority of the American people think that is in our rearview mirror."