Pundits are asking how the Paris terrorist attacks will affect the 2016 election. But for a group of high-powered election spending groups, they don’t just want to know the answer, they want to be the answer.
Since the attacks, foreign-policy-focused groups aligned with both Democrats and Republicans have begun devising plans to use the tragedy as a political cudgel—in some cases, the shift in strategy was already under way.
By the time the chaos in Paris had subsided, the political nonprofit for John Bolton, President George W. Bush’s ambassador to the United Nations and a staunch neoconservative, was running pre-Paris-planned newspaper and online ads in early primary and caucus states focused on national security.
VoteVets, a group that supports progressive military veterans who run for office, is defending—and fundraising for—Louisiana Democrat John Bel Edwards ahead of a runoff election increasingly about Syria and France.
And 4DPAC, a center-left group that advocates for a strong military presence that advances the United States’s values of “Diplomacy, Democracy, Development, & Defense,” has been detailing its positions in press releases and media interviews while outlining plans—some new and some not—for navigating this changed political landscape.
“It is really bad that I most often get to go on television or talk to the media when horrible tragedies happen,” 4DPAC President Jim Arkedis said. “…There are big debates going in the national security and foreign policy world, and we have to understand that even though we’re pushing a larger world view and vision, there are strategic and tactical opportunities that we have to be prepared to respond to.”
His group is also responding to Republicans’ proposals, putting out a statement that pivots from current events to candidates’ reactions: “4DPAC condemns the horrific loss of life in Paris and endorses a swift military response against ISIS. … Calls from several U.S. governors to halt the relocation of Syrian refugees to their states are misguided and serve only to fuel xenophobia.”
Arkedis said 4DPAC has been planning since before Paris to ramp up its assessment of candidates in January. Should those candidates share the group’s values (and stand a chance of winning), they’ll receive direct contributions from funding pulled from recurring small-dollar donors.
VoteVets, Chairman Jon Soltz said, plans to put pressure on politicians such as Sens. John McCain of Arizona and Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, both of whom advocated for giving weapons to Syrian rebels that have ended up in the hands of ISIS. He said they’ll also hold presidential candidates “accountable for just complete nonsense,” citing Carly Fiorina’s hawkish stance on Russia or Ben Carson’s assertions that China is involved in the Syrian civil war. He said the group would “dig into” gun control as a matter of national security, referencing domestic attacks on Forts Hood and Dix as well as an al-Qaeda video explaining gun-show loopholes.
“I don’t feel vindicated,” Soltz said. “I just think this [the Paris terrorist strike] is completely predictable.” He later added: “I think you’ll see what we always do, which is spend millions of dollars holding accountable politicians that, you know, don’t support the positions that we think work.”
After a summer and early fall dominated by discussion of economics, immigration policy, and Donald Trump’s seemingly endless string of mini-feuds, the groups hope for renewed attention on their issue—as well as increased support for their policies and candidates. A national Bloomberg Politics poll released Thursday found a plurality of adults (21 percent) considered ISIS the country’s most pressing issue.
That opens up a rare opportunity for people like Bolton, who had a frenetic schedule on Monday. He made the rounds on Fox News and prolifically tweeted about upcoming TV appearances and his op-ed posted on Fox News’s website.
“I just absolutely disagree with the conventional wisdom of the political class—the operatives and the commentators—who say that people don’t care about foreign policy,” Bolton said. “I think that’s what they think in Washington. I think the people are way ahead of their so-called political leaders.”
And while Bolton and Soltz don’t agree on much, they do agree voters care about national security.
“I think people are paying attention to what’s happening in France, and I think people paid attention [to] what happened when the airplane came down … two weeks ago,” Soltz said. “…From what we’re seeing in [poll] data that’s not necessarily released, … ‘security moms’ are back, and … national security … will play a larger role in this election since any election since 2006.”
Groups have to decide, however, how closely they’re willing to link their appeals for support to the killing of at least 129 people—lest they be accused of exploiting the attacks for personal gain. That is a fine line to walk.
In VoteVets’s case, it raised money via email to supporters not off Paris directly, but off what they see as politicization by Republican Sen. David Vitter of the Syrian refugee crisis as a way to attack Edwards ahead of their runoff election Saturday.
“This is our response to the ridiculous—I mean, what does David Vitter know about national security? Nothing,” Soltz said. “He voted for the Iraq War. He voted for a war that created ISIS. So we’re not going to sit here and allow Republicans to … undermine his [Edwards’s] credibility on national security. We’re going to fight back. That is our response to their attack ad on the heels of the terrorist attack. So that’s defense.”
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Zach Cohen is a web producer for National Journal Hotline. Before joining National Journal in 2014, he interned at The Washington Post, Time Magazine, USA Today and PBS MediaShift and wrote about politics and government for New Voices. Zach was born and raised in New Jersey and got his bachelor's degree in international relations from American University, where he served as editor-in-chief of The Eagle, the school newspaper.