Five Primaries Where the World Matters

From immigration to defense spending to Israel, foreign policy is making a surprising showing this election season.

568898_100519_0_randpaul2.jpg
568898_100519_0_randpaul2.jpg

It's political season once again in the United States of America, with midterm elections due in the fall and a series of fierce primary battles already underway this spring. Most voters are clearly concerned with the state of the U.S. economy above all, but in a few key races, foreign policy is making a showing. And it's appearing in often surprising ways.

Consider Rand Paul's 24-point victory in Kentucky's Republican Senate primary on Tuesday, after which conservative pundit David Frum fretted that Paul's national security views will make him a "walking target" for Democratic attack ads in the general election. Paul, an ophthalmologist by training and the son of former Republican presidential candidate Ron Paul, has adopted a watered-down version of his father's isolationist agenda, calling for slashing the U.S. defense budget and scaling back the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. More controversially, he asserted that Iran's possession of a nuclear weapon wasn't a threat to the United States.

For a Republican Party that has long rewarded more hawkish views, Paul's victory was a watershed moment. His opponent in the primary, Kentucky Secretary of State Trey Grayson, attempted to score political points by attacking Paul's foreign-policy bona fides cutting an ad in February that painted his opponent as weak on national security. Clearly, the ad was not enough to overcome the wave of anti-government populism sweeping Kentucky, and perhaps the country.

It’s political season once again in the United States of America, with midterm elections due in the fall and a series of fierce primary battles already underway this spring. Most voters are clearly concerned with the state of the U.S. economy above all, but in a few key races, foreign policy is making a showing. And it’s appearing in often surprising ways.

Consider Rand Paul’s 24-point victory in Kentucky’s Republican Senate primary on Tuesday, after which conservative pundit David Frum fretted that Paul’s national security views will make him a “walking target” for Democratic attack ads in the general election. Paul, an ophthalmologist by training and the son of former Republican presidential candidate Ron Paul, has adopted a watered-down version of his father’s isolationist agenda, calling for slashing the U.S. defense budget and scaling back the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. More controversially, he asserted that Iran’s possession of a nuclear weapon wasn’t a threat to the United States.

For a Republican Party that has long rewarded more hawkish views, Paul’s victory was a watershed moment. His opponent in the primary, Kentucky Secretary of State Trey Grayson, attempted to score political points by attacking Paul’s foreign-policy bona fides cutting an ad in February that painted his opponent as weak on national security. Clearly, the ad was not enough to overcome the wave of anti-government populism sweeping Kentucky, and perhaps the country.

In other primaries, candidates have squared off over the treatment of enemy combatants, Arizona’s new immigration law, the U.S. relationship with Israel — even Vietnam.

ARIZONA REPUBLICAN SENATE PRIMARY

The candidates: Incumbent senator and former presidential candidate John McCain vs. former Congressman J.D. Hayworth

The issues: Guantánamo Bay, climate change, immigration

How it’s playing out: Less than two years ago, McCain stood on stage in St. Paul, Minnesota, and accepted his party’s nomination for president. But today, the Republican base in his home state seems to have turned on the veteran senator. He’s now facing a surprisingly robust primary challenge from radio personality-turned-politician J.D. Hayworth.

With Hayworth attacking from the right, McCain has staked out more conservative positions on a number of national-security issues. He has backed away from his support for closing the U.S. prison at Guantánamo Bay (Hayworth is an outspoken supporter of “enhanced interrogation techniques”),  come out against a cap-and-trade system to combat global warming, and defended Arizona’s controversial new immigration law — legislation miles away from the reform package he cosponsored with Ted Kennedy in 2007. McCain has even reached out to his estranged running mate, Sarah Palin, who described the famous iconoclast as “part of that Tea Party movement” at a recent rally.

Whichever way this race turns out, there will be repercussions for U.S. national security. McCain is the ranking member on the Senate Armed Services Committee and plays an influential role in national-security debates. If McCain is reelected, the wakeup from the right could make him less likely to reach across the aisle on issues like immigration and climate change. And if Hayworth pulls off an upset — McCain still has a double-digit lead, but so did Arlen Specter a few weeks ago — the GOP will have lost one of its most senior and well-known leaders on foreign policy.

CALIFORNIA REPUBLICAN SENATE PRIMARY

The candidates: Former Congressman Tom Campbell vs. Former Hewlett-Packard CEO Carly Fiorina

The issues: Israel, immigration

How it has played out: Campbell has come under withering criticism as the two Republican contenders have raced to challenge incumbent Senator Barbara Boxer for being insufficiently pro-Israel. According to the Weekly Standard, Campbell introduced an amendment to cut foreign aid to Israel and was one of only 34 members to vote against a resolution supporting Jerusalem as Israel’s capital during his time in the House of Representatives. Campbell has also been harmed by revelations that Sami al-Arian, a former professor at the University of South Florida convicted of being a member of the Palestine Islamic Jihad, had donated $1,300 to his campaign, and that Arian had been instrumental in collecting contributions for Campbell’s previous campaign in 2000.

Fiorina seized on this opportunity to attack her opponent’s commitment to Israel. “What is clear is that Tom Campbell and I couldn’t disagree more when it comes to policy regarding our nation’s relationship with Israel,” she asserted. “I am an unwavering supporter of Israel and believe strongly that the United States should continue to support and defend the country.”

The two candidates have both voiced approval for Arizona’s new immigration law, which provides law enforcement with increased power to detain those suspected of being in the country illegally. It has been Fiorina, however, who has come out swinging in support of the law. “The people of Arizona did what they felt they had to do,” she told CNN. “[W]hat we ought to be talking about is the federal government needs to secure the border.”

FLORIDA REPUBLICAN SENATE PRIMARY

The candidates: Governor Charlie Crist vs. Former State Representative Marco Rubio

The issues: Terrorism, immigration, Cuba

How it’s playing out: This primary is actually a foregone conclusion following Crist’s decision to leave the Republican Party and run as an independent, but the Florida race has been a fascinating one in terms of how national-security issues will affect the midterm elections. The young and relatively inexperienced Rubio burst onto the national scene in February with a speech at the Conservative Political Action Conference in which he pledged to do “whatever it takes … to defeat radical Islamic terrorism,” including trying terrorism suspects “in front of a military tribunal in Guantánamo, not a civilian courtroom in Manhattan.” The speech transformed Rubio into a Tea Party favorite and a legitimate challenger to the moderate veteran Crist.

Rubio, a son of Cuban exiles, has to walk a delicate line on immigration issues as he tries to appeal to both the Republican Party base and Florida’s large Hispanic community. He initially came out against the Arizona immigration law but now says he supports it after amendments were made.

U.S.-Cuba relations are always a factor in Florida politics, and this race for the seat of former Senator Mel Martinez, the first Cuban-American elected to the Senate, is certainly no exception. Both candidates support continuing the economic embargo against Cuba. Rubio opposes the Obama administration’s loosening of travel restrictions for Cuban Americans, saying that Raúl Castro’s government uses “exile travel as a way to fund its repressive regime.” Crist has been somewhat noncommittal on the issue. The influential U.S.-Cuba Democracy PAC lobbying group has endorsed neither candidate, instead backing Rep. Kendrick Meek, the presumptive Democratic nominee.

CONNECTICUT DEMOCRATIC SENATE PRIMARY

The candidates: Attorney General Richard Blumenthal vs. businessman Merrick Alpert

The issues: Vietnam War service

How it’s played out: Questions about service during the Vietnam War have proven embarrassing for a number of prominent baby-boomer politicians, including Presidents Bill Clinton and George W. Bush, both of whom avoided service. But rarely has a politician been spectacularly exposed as Blumenthal who, according to an explosive article published in the New York Times earlier this week, has repeatedly misrepresented his own military service.

“We have learned something important since the days that I served in Vietnam,” he said in a speech in 2008. “And you exemplify it. Whatever we think about the war, whatever we call it — Afghanistan or Iraq — we owe our military men and women unconditional support.”

The problem is, Blumenthal never went to Vietnam, instead entering the Marine Reserve in 1970 after five deferments. Blumenthal has admitted that he has occasionally “misspoken” about his service, but reiterated that he is proud to have served in the Marines. Long-shot challenger Alpert was quick to try to capitalize on Blumenthal’s woes, calling him “a coward” and “a liar.”

While the most obvious beneficiary of the Blumenthal fracas is Republican front-runner and professional wrestling entrepreneur Linda McMahon, it has also given new life  to former Congressman Rob Simmons, a Vietnam and CIA veteran who was an influential member of the Armed Services and Homeland Security committees while he was in the House of Representatives. Nineteen-year Senate veteran Chris Dodd, whose seat these candidates are seeking to fill, is best known as a leading Democratic voice on financial policy, but also sits on the Foreign Relations Committee and is a leading proponent of foreign aid and the U.S. Peace Corps. Dodd is also an influential voice on Latin America issues.

Joshua E. Keating was an associate editor at Foreign Policy.

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