Rep. Rick Nolan staunchly opposes U.S.-led military intervention in Iraq and Syria and has loudly criticized plans to arm Syrian rebels. And that anti-war stance has helped make the Minnesota Democrat a top target in the midterm elections.
Yet, despite attacks by national Republicans, the fight against the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant doesn’t appear to be a pivotal issue in Nolan’s reelection race.
Like other dovish Democrats, including Rep. Carol Shea-Porter in New Hampshire and Dan Maffei in New York, Nolan isn’t losing traction — at least not yet — for opposing President Barack Obama’s decision to arm and train moderate rebels in Syria. All three Democrats voted against Obama’s plan to do so in September. But so far, that decision doesn’t seem to be playing a key role in their competitive campaigns.
Domestic issues, from the economy to health care, are playing a much larger role.
That’s not for lack of Republican trying, though. In several Senate races, including New Hampshire and North Carolina, national Republicans are tarring vulnerable Democratic senators for not opposing ISIL with enough vigor, and the attacks may be having some effect.
In Minnesota, the National Republican Congressional Committee has released two ads targeting Nolan for being soft on terrorism as part of a nationwide campaign attacking vulnerable Democrats.
But in Nolan’s 8th Congressional District, ISIL discussion has been surprisingly rare, even though the two candidates disagree.
Nolan’s opponent, Republican Stewart Mills, says he backs U.S. airstrikes in Syria, while Nolan, whose anti-war roots run back to Vietnam, argues the U.S. should stay out of the fight.
“Launching airstrikes on another country, by any standard, by any definition, is an act of war,” Nolan said in a House floor speech the week of the vote on Syria military aid. “Have we not had enough of imperial presidencies doing what they want in the world?”
During a recent debate, Mills said he supports U.S. airstrikes and working with regional allies to “crush the threat.” But it was the one issue in the debate in which the candidates did not attack each other over their differences. Mills has spent more time on the campaign trail talking about guns and mining than ISIL.
“This is just not an area where either side sees the best punch,” said Larry Jacobs, an expert in state politics at the University of Minnesota. “It’s not that they don’t have differences — and they do … [but] it’s not kind of a hot issue that’s breaking decisively for one side.”
Nonetheless, ISIL is a significant issue in many midterm races. Republicans are using the militant group’s rapid rise and the new U.S.-led military campaign to put Democrats on the defensive. Already, the fight has gained significant public traction: A recent NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll found it was the No. 1 issue for Republicans, with 41 percent calling it the most important factor for their vote.
Most of the Republican attacks related to ISIL seek to connect Democratic candidates to Obama’s unpopular foreign policy and accuse Democrats of being weak on national security issues. Seeking to defy that characterization, many Democrats have backed U.S. airstrikes in Iraq and Syria.
But there remain anti-war Democrats, who broke with Obama and voted last month against his plan to arm moderate Syrian rebel groups. And many of those candidates simply aren’t feeling the heat.
In New Hampshire, the ISIL campaign has sparked a fierce battle between Democratic Sen. Jeanne Shaheen and former Republican Sen. Scott Brown, while House competitors Shea-Porter and former Republican Rep. Frank Guinta are treating the issue mostly as an afterthought.
After voting against the Syrian military aid last month, Shea-Porter said she supports U.S. airstrikes but opposes U.S. plans to arm the “so-called Syrian ‘moderates.’”