Campaigns take focus off foreign crises

Posted: August 3, 2014 at 3:34 a.m.

WASHINGTON -- Crises in Gaza, Iraq, Syria and Ukraine have dominated the news this summer, but the events might as well be in a parallel universe for all the notice they are getting in this year's congressional campaigns.

Candidates are not raising such subjects in appearances or television ads, except for some Republicans who are broadly blaming President Barack Obama, strategists in both parties say. Nor are local reporters or voters asking about them.

The focus, as in most nonpresidential election years, is on domestic issues -- jobs, health care, and the right to abortion and birth control -- that are closer to home for voters fatigued by more than a decade of military engagement abroad. In 2010, Republicans capitalized on voters' disgruntlement with a spotty economic recovery and Obama's health care law to capture a majority in the House and increase their Senate minority.

The recent debate over what to do about the surge of Central American children illegally crossing the border from Mexico is no exception, despite its foreign roots. Voters see the border turmoil as a domestic issue, something happening here rather than "over there," according to party strategists and independent analysts.

"We're in an interesting time," said Jennifer Duffy, who analyzes Senate and gubernatorial races for the nonpartisan "Cook Political Report." "I'm not sure a decade ago what's going on in the world right now would be so ignored by the electorate. But I think that there's a lot of fatigue among voters, especially about war."

Duffy and David Wasserman, a Cook colleague who monitors House campaigns, said they had seen little reaction from candidates to the various international crises. Foreign policy and national security topics were not even among the top 20 subjects covered by 2014 political television advertisements through Tuesday, according to Kantar Media CMAG, which tracks such ads.

"Despite everything going on in the world, we're seeing almost none of it show up in campaign ads," said Elizabeth Wilner, senior vice president for politics at Kantar Media Ad Intelligence. "The closest you get to foreign policy or national security are ads that mention U.S. dependence on foreign oil."

Citizens for Responsible Energy Solutions, an independent energy group supporting incumbent Republican senators, recently bought television time in Tennessee to benefit Sen. Lamar Alexander in the state's Thursday Republican primary.

An ad opens with "International conflicts. The border crisis. America's security is threatened," before segueing to a pitch for Alexander and domestic energy sources.

Recent years have shown that foreign policy can be pivotal to the outcome of midterm elections when voters see a direct threat to national security or believe Congress can change the direction of foreign policy. But those conditions are absent this year.

In 2002, with the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks fresh in Americans' minds, the country at war in Afghanistan, and President George W. Bush seeking support to invade Iraq, Bush and congressional Republicans successfully made the midterm elections a referendum on which party could best safeguard national security.

They won House and Senate majorities.

But in 2006, voters disillusioned with the Iraq War gave control of Congress to the Democrats, who promised to use Congress' budget powers to bring the troops home.

Now, both parties are war-weary. In December, the Pew Research Center's quadrennial survey, with the Council on Foreign Relations, of Americans' attitudes found that for the first time in a half-century, a majority -- 52 percent, including similar percentages of Republicans, Democrats and independents -- agreed that the nation should "mind its own business internationally and let other countries get along the best they can on their own."

When foreign affairs have entered this year's midterm debate, they have generally been part of Republicans' broader indictment of the lame-duck president.

Lately, Republicans have criticized Obama as disengaged, saying that while the global fires burn, he spends too much time outside Washington to raise campaign money and stump for domestic causes such as job-creating infrastructure projects. Democrats, however, grouse to the White House if the president goes a day without talking about jobs or looks preoccupied with dead-end diplomacy.

A Section on 08/03/2014