Republicans Seek Midterm Advantage From Afghanistan Withdrawal

  • It’s latest issue GOP is criticizing Biden, Democrats over
  • Questions about how potent it will be by November 2022

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America’s withdrawal from Afghanistan is already playing a role in Republican efforts to win back control of the House and Senate, with GOP campaign committees highlighting news coverage of the chaotic scenes at the Kabul airport in videos and other messaging.

It’s the latest issue Republicans are labeling a Joe Biden crisis, along with a jump in illegal crossings at the southern border, a threat of inflation due to increased government spending, and higher gas prices. They’re also blaming the president for failing to support Israel’s government, Cuban dissidents, and U.S. energy workers, according to a video from the National Republican Senatorial Committee that calls it Biden’s “Agenda of Abandonment.”

Republicans are hammering on these themes and seeking to hang the president’s problems around the necks of congressional Democrats, who are clinging to slim majorities in both chambers. But it isn’t clear to strategists in either party whether voters will be focused on these issues when they go to the polls next year, rather than economic and health care issues touted by Democrats.

“The good news for the Democrats is the midterms are still over 14 months away, but there’s no question this is a major political problem that undermines public confidence in the president’s ability to lead,” Republican consultant Brian Walsh said.

If Republicans raise enough doubts about Biden’s leadership on Afghanistan and other issues, they could drag down congressional Democrats next year, said Walsh, who compared the Afghanistan withdrawal to President George W. Bush’s much-criticized response to Hurricane Katrina. That took place at the same point of the 2006 election cycle, when Republicans lost 30 House seats and their majorities in both chambers.

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Photo by Stefani Reynolds/Bloomberg
President Joe Biden speaks at the White House on Aug. 31 following the conclusion of the United States’ evacuation effort in Afghanistan.

Rep. Jim Banks (R-Ind.), head of the Republican Study Committee, said in an interview that “without a doubt” the Biden administration’s handling of the withdrawal is increasing the odds that Republicans take back the House.

“The midterm election will be a true show that the American people want something different — they want leadership, and they’re not getting it,” Banks said.

Democrats Tout Domestic Wins

Democrats—who control the 50-50 Senate with the vice president’s tie-breaking vote and can lose no more than four seats to keep the House—plan to run on an improving economy and efforts to control the coronavirus pandemic and address health care in general. They also point to legislative accomplishments that include a pandemic relief bill passed on a party-line vote early this year, a still-in-progress bipartisan infrastructure bill, and an even larger bill with increases in spending on social programs.

Jazmin Vargas, a Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee spokeswoman, listed tax cuts for families, infrastructure investments that lead to better paying jobs, and lowering health-care costs as issues on which Republicans are on the wrong side.

“Those issue areas are going to be top of mind for voters during the 2022 midterms, and they’ll hold every GOP Senate candidate accountable,” Vargas said.

Democratic fortunes are intrinsically tied to how voters view Biden, who defended the United States’ evacuation effort Tuesday following its conclusion. Biden’s approval rating dropped 4 percentage points in the RealClearPolitics polling average in August.

Rep. Cheri Bustos (D-Ill), a former Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee chair who isn’t seeking re-election next year, said in an interview that Biden “is on the verge of making something great happen in this nation” by helping pass the infrastructure and social spending bills.

Bustos isn’t concerned about his job ratings, which “are going to go up and going to go down, what, a million times between now and Election Day,” she said.

Staying Power

The Afghanistan withdrawal “will forever be a stain on our nation’s history” due to Biden’s poor judgment and leadership, the NRSC said in releasing a video featuring scenes of helicopters fleeing the American embassy and the airport chaos. A series of NRSC press releases the past two weeks condemned Democratic Senate incumbents and candidates for failing to distance themselves from Biden and for failing to hold him accountable on Afghanistan.

The videos have run on social media platforms. The NRSC hasn’t announced any plans to sponsor paid campaign ads focused on Afghanistan, according to committee spokeswoman Katharine Cooksey.

Democratic strategists maintain Afghanistan is unlikely to be as big an issue when the midterms are held more than a year from now.

The idea that the Afghanistan withdrawal will hurt Democrats in 2022 “isn’t based in reality,” Will Fischer, a senior adviser to the Democratic PAC VoteVets, said in an email. “Frankly, we’d encourage Republicans to run on more Forever War, and see how they do.”

Martha McKenna, a Democratic media consultant and former top campaign committee official, said voters ultimately will give Biden credit for keeping his promise to end the war, even though the messy withdrawal from Afghanistan has dominated recent headlines.

“Anyone predicting midterm outcomes based on news events would be better off focusing on their fantasy football draft,” McKenna said.

As the Afghanistan withdrawal dominated the news, however, some Democrats criticized Biden. Democratic leaders of the of House Foreign Affairs and Armed Services committees said they will hold hearings in the coming weeks to examine what went wrong.

Rep. Elissa Slotkin (D-Mich.), who represents a swing district and previously served as an intelligence and national security official, said in an interview last week: “While most Americans, certainly most Michiganders, probably still agree that we needed to get out of Afghanistan, no one likes to see these pictures of our military being handed babies and taking off with 800 people on their plane.”

To contact the reporters on this story: Kenneth P. Doyle in Washington at kdoyle@bgov.com; Emily Wilkins in Washington at ewilkins@bgov.com

To contact the editors responsible for this story: Kyle Trygstad at ktrygstad@bloombergindustry.com; Zachary Sherwood at zsherwood@bgov.com

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