With the war in Iraq roiling Congress, antiwar groups are targeting dozens of lawmakers – many facing tough reelection races in 2008 – in a bid to peel off enough Republicans to force President Bush to end the war there.
Organizers claim that breaks in GOP ranks over war strategy in recent weeks are a result of more heat from home – and that they helped to generate it. As debate resumes this week, they predict, more defections will occur.
"We're running a political campaign with a long horizon," says Tom Matzzie of MoveOn.org Political Action, who is managing the "Iraq Summer" campaign for Americans Against Escalation in Iraq (AAEI). "We'll gain more ... momentum over the next few weeks, and more Republicans will break."
Lawmakers say they're making up their own minds, independent of antiwar-group pressure. It may be coincidence that Sen. Pete Domenici (R) announced his opposition to Mr. Bush's war strategy two days after AAEI launched its campaign in his home state of New Mexico – despite the group's taking credit for the switch.
Seven Senate Republicans – six up for reelection in 2008 – voted last week against the Bush administration's position on a proposal to mandate longer time at home for US forces. If passed, the measure would have limited Bush's ability to redeploy units to a war zone.
Senator Domenici was not one of the defectors on that vote. But this week he is expected to back a proposal to require the Bush administration to revise US policy in accordance with the 2006 recommendations of the Iraq Study Group.
Antiwar organizers in his home state say that's not enough. "The ... amendment [on the Iraq Study Group] is not as strong" as one that sets a timetable for the redeployment of US forces out of a combat role in Iraq, says Greg Richardson, who is organizing the Iraq Summer campaign in New Mexico. "Over 70 percent of Americans no longer support the war, and Senator Domenici is out of touch," he said in a phone interview.
On Thursday, the House voted 223 to 201 to begin drawing down US forces in Iraq. Only four Republicans joined most Democrats on that vote, well short of the GOP votes needed to overturn a presidential veto.
But House Democrats plan to hold more votes on Iraq, which antiwar activists say provide grist for them. To counteract them, House Republican leaders sent their members home for July 4 recess with a briefing paper on the Iraq Summer campaign. The countermessage, said a GOP aide, is "it's not a groundswell of revolt, but an organized campaign by the MoveOn crowd to put pressure on" GOP lawmakers.
"This is a really big issue, and people are voting their conscience. They don't intend to be politically intimidated," says Rep. Tom Cole (R) of Oklahoma, who heads the House GOP reelection campaign. "Republicans broadly think that we should not be micromanaging the war from here or undercutting the mission, and that we should give the surge a chance to work."
The Iraq Summer campaign is modeled after the 1964 Freedom Summer civil rights project. It claims 100 organizers in 15 states and 40 congressional districts, plus a $9 million budget. The campaign launched July 4, but activists since January have pored over polls and lawmakers' statements to identify 60 members of Congress most likely to break with the Bush administration over the war.
It's too early to know whether it is making a difference, analysts say. "Some of these advertising buys they're doing are so small that I wonder how many voters actually see them," says Jennifer Duffy, who covers Senate races for the Cook Political Report. "They're creating a lot of noise, but I don't know that they can take that victory lap yet."
This week, the focus is on the Senate, where a $648.8 billion defense bill is the vehicle for war-related amendments. On Friday, GOP Sens. John Warner and Richard Lugar proposed one that would require the White House to develop a plan to redeploy US forces out of a combat role in Iraq by October. It does not set a timetable for implementation.
Topping the list of GOP senators whom antiwar groups see as vulnerable in '08 are Sens. Norm Coleman of Minnesota, John Sununu of New Hampshire, and Susan Collins of Maine.
In Maine, activists are stepping up organizing to move their two GOP senators into the antiwar column. Last week, Sen. Olympia Snowe said she supports a timetable for redeployment of US forces.
"If politicians can't see the light, they can feel the heat," says Tom Andrews, national director of Win Without War and a former US representative from Maine. After Snowe's announcement, "the pressure is increasing exponentially on Senator Collins," he says.
Collins notes that she and Senator Warner led Senate opposition in December to Bush's plans to "surge" 30,000 troops into Iraq. "The idea that a public-relations campaign is having some impact is absurd and contrary to the facts," she says.
In Minnesota, Senator Coleman faces a barrage of TV ads from antiwar groups. He voted in support of the amendment to put limits on troop redeployment, bucking the White House position. That vote "had nothing to do with pressure," he says, citing the fact that troops from Minnesota were among the first to see extended tours of duty in Iraq.
The antiwar ads against him "aren't reaching people," he says. "They haven't made any movement in the polls."
In September, after Gen. David Petraeus, the US commander in Iraq, and the US ambassador to Iraq, Ryan Crocker, give Congress a full report on the outcome of the surge, Coleman predicts there will be a shift in mission for US forces. "In September, we're going to make some hard decisions, and I'm prepared to make them then," he says.