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Republicans are winning the political fight on ISIS

Zack Beauchamp is a senior correspondent at Vox, where he covers ideology and challenges to democracy, both at home and abroad. Before coming to Vox in 2014, he edited TP Ideas, a section of Think Progress devoted to the ideas shaping our political world.

Domestic politics have dominated the past two elections, in 2010 and 2012. But, now, foreign policy is back. Since at least early September, a number of Republicans have been emphasizing the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) as an increasingly prominent campaign issue.

Typically, Republicans are using the issue to accuse Democrats of being weak on ISIS, though at times by hyping up ISIS to be even scarier than it actually is. And Democrats, rather than challenging the narrative, are playing defense.

The Republican position: Democrats are too weak to stop ISIS

Republicans across the country have a remarkably consistent message on ISIS. Ads from candidates in key races as well as national organizations, such as the National Republican Senatorial Committee (NRSC), consistently say that ISIS is a major threat to American security. It's such a large threat, in fact, that weak Democrats can't be trusted to combat it.

Republican Senate candidate Scott Brown of New Hampshire, for example, ran an ad saying that "radical terrorists are threatening the collapse of our country." Brown's opponent, Sen. Jeanne Shaheen, is "confused about the nature of the threat."

These ads frequently tie local Democrats to Obama and his foreign policy choices on ISIS.

"In the Middle East, radical terrorists are on the march, destabilizing our allies, beheading Americans, and crucifying Christians," Arkansas House member and Senatorial hopeful Tom Cotton says in an ad. "President Obama admits he underestimated them ... we need a senator who will hold the president accountable and make America safer." In other words: Democrats are too close to the weak Obama, and so can't be trusted in the Senate.

These ads are increasingly common. The NRSC is airing them in close Senate races around the country, spending millions on the apparent theory that a "weak on terror" message will give the party an edge in the 2014 elections.

Often, the ads exaggerate the immediate threat posed by ISIS. There is no evidence that ISIS is plotting attacks from across the Mexican border, as some, including Cotton, are claiming. The National Republican Congressional Committee is running this ad in Arizona implying that Democratic weakness on border security could help ISIS infiltrate the United States:

Democrats are running as Republican-lite on ISIS

The reaction among many Democrats has been to bolster hawkish credentials on ISIS, a remarkable shift from the more anti-war platforms that have been features of the party since 2004.

"A host of Democratic Senate hopefuls who rode anti-war sentiment into office in the past decade are running for reelection now as hawks, staking out hard-line positions on the latest upheaval in the Middle East," Politico's James Hohmann writes.

Hohmann notes that virtually every vulnerable Senate Democrat voted in favor of authorizing aid to Syrian rebels ostensibly tasked with fighting ISIS, something many Democrats have been touting in campaign ads. Sen. Kay Hagan (D-NC), for example, was a vigorous Iraq war opponent — but is now arguing that she's a stronger supporter of military action against ISIS than is her Republican challenger.

Perhaps the most interesting senate race in this respect is Colorado's. Democratic incumbent Mark Udall said in a debate that ISIS "does not present an imminent threat to this nation" to the United States. That's largely consistent with what the US intelligence community and non-government experts say they believe.

But the NRSC has hit Udall hard. "Really?," the ad says of his assessment. "Can we take that chance?"

In response, Udall abruptly turned toward hawkishness. In an ad that appears to now be deleted from his YouTube channel, the senator's campaign described him as "determined to defeat ISIS, with full support for America's airstrikes in Syria and Iraq." Rather than leaning into his earlier statement on ISIS, he ran from it.

Republicans, then, are so far setting the tone for how campaigns will debate and discuss ISIS. There isn't much of a debate over how strong the American response to ISIS really should be — just whether Obama's current policies are strong enough.

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