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Obama’s war plan rattles Senate nominees

September 12, 2014

WASHINGTON (AP) — President Barack Obama’s plan to strike Islamic State militants is ruffling the usual left-right politics in several races that will decide control of the U.S. Senate in mid-term elections on Nov. 4.

Republicans who have criticized the president on a variety of issues for months have tamped down their rhetoric and, frequently, are avoiding taking a clear stand on his proposal. Some of the nation’s most endangered incumbent Senate Democrats, meanwhile, have expressed skepticism to portions of Obama’s plan, saying they fear a new plunge into a new Middle East war where supposed allies can become enemies.

Others want to talk about something else, or are trying to avoid talking about the issue at all.

The complexities, leading to mixed and cautious responses from both sides, mean the issue might not matter much at all come Election Day, when Republicans need a net gain of six seats to take control of the Senate. The Nov. 4 vote is called a midterm election because it falls halfway through a president’s four years in office. The vote will take place in a political climate that is deadlocked in partisanship worse than at any time in modern American history.

“I’m having a hard time seeing this as a game-changer,” said William A. Galston, a Brookings Institution scholar and former Clinton White House adviser. “A lot of people who would have said ‘hell no’ to the president’s speech were cheering him on.”

Republicans have made attacking Obama and his policies the cornerstone of their Senate campaign, especially as they target Democrats in states the president lost in 2012. They had in recent days stepped up their attacks on the president’s foreign policy, hoping to further tie vulnerable Democrats to an unpopular leader.

Despite that rhetoric, several Republican Senate candidates appear wary of taking detailed positions on the president’s proposal to fight Islamic State militants with air strikes and U.S.-armed Syrian rebels, but not American ground troops, since he laid it out in a televised speech Wednesday night.

New Hampshire Republican Senate nominee Scott Brown, a former senator from Massachusetts, sharply criticized Obama’s leadership in an interview Friday. But he declined to say whether he would vote to authorize more military intervention in the Mideast.

“I would need to listen to the generals on the ground and get their input and guidance as I have in the past,” he said. “When you’re ... making a decision to send people into harm’s way, you need to have all the facts and I don’t have those facts.”

In North Carolina, Republican Senate nominee Thom Tillis said the militants “are growing stronger each day because of President Obama’s failed foreign policy and lack of leadership.”

When it comes to combatting the militants, “no option should be left off the table,” said Tillis, who faces first-term Democratic Sen. Kay Hagan. Yet when asked about Obama’s proposal to arm Syrian rebels fighting a three-way war against both Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and the Islamic State group, also known as ISIS, Tillis’ campaign said he “has reservations about sending arms that could be seized by ISIS terrorists.”

Tillis tried to turn the focus Friday away from Obama’s proposal and toward the rise of the Islamic State group, which has killed hundreds of civilians in Syria and Iraq — including two American journalists beheaded on camera. Obama and Hagan, the Tillis campaign said in a statement, “have never had a strategy to eliminate ISIS, and they still don’t have one.”

It’s an allegation that Hagan, seeking re-election in a state Obama won in 2008 but lost four years later, strongly disputed. Her campaign cited an April 2013 hearing at which Hagan asked, “Is there a risk that the violence in Syria will spill across the border into western Iraq and strengthen al-Qaida in Iraq?” The group evolved into the Islamic State.

The same sort of shift has taken place in Colorado, where Democratic Sen. Mark Udall and his Republican opponent, Rep. Cory Gardner, have said in so many words that they support the Obama approach — air strikes and armed Syrian rebels, but no U.S. combat ground troops.


Riccardi reported from Denver. Associated Press writer Rik Stevens in Concord, New Hampshire, contributed to this report.

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