By now the GOP was supposed to be well on its way to taking a solid Senate majority, along with another big chunk of the House. Things aren’t turning out that way: all the Senate races that were supposed to by settled by now instead remain neck and neck; the states the GOP was eyeing for expansion, like Minnesota, have turned back to the Democrats; and new vulnerable states like South Dakota and Kansas have opened up.
To make matters worse, the standard bludgeons that the GOP used in 2010—namely spending and the economy—have been subsumed by progress. The unemployment rate has dipped below 6% in half the time Mitt Romney promised he would effect as president, while the deficit continues to plummet (actually faster than is good for the economy). Meanwhile Obamacare has been effectively neutralized as a campaign issue.
This has left the GOP with nothing but fearmongering. Thanks to distant but dramatic enemies like ISIS, which present searing optics that burn through sober analysis, and the eternal nebulousness of the U.S. border, Republican candidates have had no shortage of fodder for grainy ads warning that the world is about to descend into dystopian chaos unless they’re elected to lead it.
1. The ISIS Beheading Club
Just days after ISIS released its horrific video showing the beheading of American journalist James Foley, GOP challenger Allen Weh was using it to scare up votes. In an ad attacking New Mexico Senator Tom Udall, Allen Weh intercut clips of Obama talking about the personal sacrifices he’d make for the office and Udall praising Obama’s “diplomatic path” with a still from the video showing Foley’s executioner brandishing his knife.
After harsh criticism, Weh defended the ad the next day. “Out of respect for the Foley family, no picture of James Foley was used,” a campaign spokesperson said, using an interesting definition of respect. “Tom Udall’s feigned outrage over the inclusion of a now familiar image of this Jihadi terrorist, who is clearly the face of the evil that threatens our nation.”
The ad was a desperate ploy from a candidate unlikely to win his race, but it set the tone for the GOP ads to come. Another GOP candidate, Wendy Rogers, used footage that included images of Foley in her ad before surreptitiously editing it out. Still, the campaign defended the ad despite swarms of bad press.
The inclusion of the Foley video is even more noxious given Foley’s family’s plea not to spread it. "Please honor James Foley and respect my family’s privacy,” a family member asked after the video was released. “Don't watch the video. Don’t share it. That's not how life should be."
2. Scott Brown
With little to recommend his actual campaign, Scott Brown has taken up the mantle of “national security.” Brown has been hitting the claim hard in the past few weeks, running ads accusing opponent Jeanne Shaheen of skimping on protecting America by leaving our border exposed to Islamic militants.
This is a rich claim given that Brown skipped every single one of his national security meetingson defending the border when he was on the Senate Homeland Security Committee, including one titled “Border Security: Moving beyond the virtual fence.” So either the border somehow became a dangerous porous militant free-for-all in the months since Brown left the Senate or he didn’t care about its national security impact until it was no longer his responsibility.
Despite Brown’s chutzpah in making the claim, the “OMG ISIS on the Border” narrative formed a template for ads around the nation. The National Republican Congressional Committee seized on it for an ad in Arizona against Democratic representative Ann Kirkpatrick.
“Evil forces around the world want to harm Americans every day,” a scary voice proclaims over footage of advancing militants. “Their entry into our country? Through Arizona’s backyard.”
There’s no evidence that “evil forces,” even so loosely defined, are anywhere near Arizona’s backyard, but the ad plows ahead anyway, accusing Kirkpatrick of voting against sending the National Guard to the border, an odd claim given that border security has been significantly beefed up under the Obama administration.
4. Dan Patrick
Texas Lieutenant Governor candidate Dan Patrick is more specific. “While ISIS terrorists threaten to cross our border and kill Americans, my opponent falsely attacks me to hide her failed record on illegal immigration,” Patrick says in the hurried ad.
Of course ISIS is a regional group, and can threaten all it wants. Intelligence officials don’t believe it has any capability to strike via the U.S.-Mexico border, and warn that if ISIS does get designs on a homeland attack it will likely be through U.S. citizens who join the fight and fly back to the U.S. That doesn’t make for a good attack ad against Leticia Van de Putte though, so Patrick goes with the claim without evidence.
Patrick also attacks Van de Putte for opposing Governor Rick Perry’s plan to send the National Guard to the border, something that was opposed by local law enforcement agencies as well, but was nonetheless done at significant cost so Perry could look good ahead of a 2016 presidential run.
5. David Perdue
At least Arizona and Texas border Mexico. Over in Georgia, David Perdue is running to replace retiring Republican Senator Saxby Chambliss by accusing opponent Michelle Nunn of being a sponsor of terrorism who would open up the borders to ISIS. “If a county can’t protect its borders,” Perdue asks in an ad called “Secure our Borders, “what can it protect?”
Perdue’s claim of the “border breakdown” is based on a sentence fragment from a report from the Texas Department of Public Safety that warns nameless militants “could” breach the border, while the “supporting terrorism” claim was based on a 1,000-chain guilt-by-association move linking Points of Light, a charity established by George H. W. Bush to an Islamic charity that once had a bank account that so on and so forth. The claim earned four feared Pinocchios from Washington Post fact checker Glenn Kessler, and was so outlandish that Neil Bush, chairman of Points of Light, which had endorsed Perdue, called it “shameful and disrespectful.”
“It really makes my blood boil to think that someone would make that kind of an allegation, whether it’s an independent political group or a candidate for office,” Bush said. “Anyone who makes that claim needs to understand the facts and then they need to denounce those claims. To attack an organization founded by my father, whose integrity is unimpeachable, to smear our organization for political gain, is in my opinion shameful.”
And that’s from a Perdue supporter.
6. Cory Garnder
Not every GOP candidate has looped the border into their fearmongering. For some, merely the specter of ISIS is enough to make them sound the alarm.
See, for instance, Cory Gardner’s attack on Colorado Senator Mark Udall, in which he accuses the Democrat of leaving America vulnerable to ISIS attacks. His smoking gun: a clip of Udall saying, "I said last week that ISIL does not present an imminent threat to this nation and it doesn't.”
Never mind that this comports with the intelligence community, which doesn’t believe ISIS has the desire or means to attack the United States. And never mind that Udall uses these assessments to wisely question whether the United States should once again commit thousands of troops to military operations in the Middle East — the exact sort of misguided foreign adventurism that gave rise to ISIS in the first place. In the GOP’s world, anybody who doesn’t call Islamic extremists the gravest existential threat the U.S. has ever faced is guilty of opening the gates and inviting the barbarians in.
7. Thom Tillis
Ditto Thom Tillis, whose underperforming campaign tried to hit at North Carolina Senator Kay Hagan for missing a solitary Senate Armed Services Committee meeting on ISIS.
Hagan’s campaign quickly shot back that Hagan had chaired three subcommittee hearings on just that topic, while pointing out that Tillis literally does not know what he would do about ISIS. Sure enough, Tillis told the Charlotte Observer that he would have voted to arm the Syrian rebels, but only because the bill was attached to a larger spending resolution.
“I actually don’t know if we should or shouldn’t,” Tillis told the paper. “I would have to know that these arms would not get in the hands of people who would want to take over the Middle East.” Maybe he should attend one of Hagan’s subcommittee hearings to learn more.