How strikes against the Islamic State play out in US midterms

National security is shaping up as a rising concern among voters heading into 2014 midterm elections, especially among swing voters known as 'Walmart moms.' Will slamming the president for 'no strategy' on the Islamic State work for Republicans?

Brian Snyder/Reuters
Republican US Senate candidate Scott Brown speaks during a visit to the Harris Hill Senior Center in Concord, N.H., on Monday. He just launched a web ad attacking President Obama and US Sen. Jeanne Shaheen (D) of New Hampshire on national security.

Perfect timing? Or off base?

On Tuesday, the day after the US and its Arab-country allies launched air strikes against Islamic State and other terrorist targets in Syria, former Sen. Scott Brown (R) launched a web ad criticizing the administration’s handling of the terrorist threat.

He said President Obama and Sen. Jeanne Shaheen (D) of New Hampshire – whose seat former Senator Brown is seeking – “seem confused about the nature of the threat.” It is one among several recent GOP ads criticizing the president and his Democratic rivals on national security, especially in the wake of the president's "we don't have a strategy yet" comment last month.

But after Monday’s airstrikes, Rep. Peter King (R) of New York is urging support for the president and his strategy against the Islamic State (IS), also known as ISIS or ISIL.

True, he and others have been calling for airstrikes for weeks and months, but now it’s being done and “whatever happened in the past, that’s behind us,” Representative King said Monday night on Fox News’s “The Kelly File.” He added: “What’s important now is, as Americans, we go forward and support the president and urge him to continue … until ISIS has been devastated.”

Indeed, that was the message last week from Congress, which, in an unusual bipartisan vote, gave the president authority to train and arm a moderate Syrian opposition to fight the Islamic State.

No question, national security has risen as a concern among voters as the Nov. 4 midterm elections approach.

Videotaped beheadings of American journalists by IS, as well as young migrants from Central America streaming over the US southern border this summer, have caused the issue to “pop” among the electorate, Rep. Greg Walden (R) of Oregon, told a Monitor breakfast Friday. Representative Walden, as chairman of the National Republican Congressional Committee, is in charge of winning more seats for House Republicans. On Friday, the NRCC released four ads that painted Democrats as weak on terrorism and border security.

But the security concerns among voters are broader than terrorism and the border, find two pollsters in recent focus groups of so-called “Walmart Moms” – crucial swing voters defined as having at least one child at home and shopping at Walmart.

“Security really did pop in the focus groups, but it wasn’t just ISIS,” says Margie Omero, of Purple Strategies. “There was also a lot of concern about school shootings, crime, violence, Ferguson, overall instability.”

Her counterpart for the September focus groups, Neil Newhouse, partner of Public Opinion Strategies, agrees, calling voters “unsettled.” These ads, he wrote in an e-mail, “are clearly meant to tap into that sentiment.”

But will they make a difference in these midterms? 

National security played a major role in the midterms of 2002, when 9/11 was still clearly visible in the rear-view mirror – helping to tip the Senate to Republican control under GOP President George W. Bush. It again played a role in 2006 – this time against Republicans and President Bush as voters punished him for the Iraq war and his handling of hurricane Katrina, handing control of the House and Senate to Democrats.

This time around, something like ISIS is not likely to be as salient as in 2002, says Ms. Omero. Additionally, Walmart moms don’t want to see politicians play politics with this issue, she says.

These moms want to see candidates first come up with a plan, second “put politics aside,” and third “demonstrate that they understand” what moms are facing, she adds, looking at their broad set of concerns.

"It’s quite possible that security and safety and this whole group of issues may be salient for a lot of folks, moms in particular," says Omero.

But swing voters such as Walmart moms want politicians to work together to solve these problems. When they look at these ads, she says, they will look through that lens.

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