Topics: Barack Obama

Syria debate presents political quagmire for candidates

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Politics,Barack Obama,Senate,Hillary Clinton,Mitch McConnell,Syria,Campaigns,PennAve,Rebecca Berg,Tom Cotton,Mark Pryor

Congress' debate over whether to authorize military strikes against Syria has thrust some candidates in the 2014 mid-term elections into an unforeseen political quagmire, Republicans and Democrats alike.

Progressive Democrats, including members of the Congressional Black Caucus, widely oppose military intervention, but are under pressure to back the president. Red-state Democrats risk voter blowback if they vote with Obama, who remains unpopular back home.

Hawkish Republicans fear that if they vote for a military option they believe is necessary, they'll be seen by GOP voters as having surrendered to Obama. Conservative Republicans must consider whether their votes against intervention in Syria will make them look weak or disengaged.

The tricky policy terrain has left few candidates eager to make Syria a political issue. Terri Lynn Land, a Republican running for an open Senate seat in Michigan, was among the few contenders who tried to raise money off of her stance against a strike.

Most candidates in competitive races who took a position on the issue did so only because they had no choice. In Arkansas, Democratic Sen. Mark Pryor declared his opposition to the president’s military plan after Rep. Tom Cotton, his Republican challenger, came out forcefully in support of intervention — making Cotton the only member of the state's congressional delegation backing Obama.

Cotton frequently attacks Pryor for his consistent support of the unpopular president, but on Monday he went to the White House to meet with Obama to discuss the issue. Pryor, meanwhile, fielded a call from former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton asking for his backing. He remains opposed.

Aides to Cotton and Pryor said their opposing stances on Syria will likely resurface on the campaign trail.

But the Arkansas candidates are in the minority. Few at-risk incumbents have come out forcefully for or against intervention.

A spokesperson for Sen. Mary Landrieu, D-La., has not yet decided how to vote, a spokesperson said Monday. Another vulnerable Democrat, Sen. Mark Begich, of Alaska, remains undecided as well.

Even Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., who faces a Republican primary opponent next year, has been mum about where he stands.

McConnell, in particular, is feeling pressure over Syria. He is the only congressional leader who has not publicly declared his support for the president. Meanwhile, his fellow Kentucky senator, Republican Rand Paul, is keeping the issue in front of the state's voters by becoming one of Congress' most vocal critics of intervention, going so far as to threaten a filibuster of the war resolution.

Syria is an issue that does not fall neatly along party lines, and one Democratic operative predicted that with those lines blurred it's unlikely that Syria will become an enduring issue in most 2014 races.

Rep. Steve Israel, chair of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, strongly echoed that statement. He said that Syria "does not complicate the cycle at all." 

"2014 is not going to be a referendum on Syria," Israel said.

Many lawmakers, both Republican and Democrat, say they are taking a stand on intervention — usually against it — based on a deluge of phone calls and emails from constituents, most of whom oppose it.

The president was slow to provide political cover to those lawmakers who supported him. And the White House has still not risked engaging its political arm, Organizing for Action, which lobbied on behalf of many other Obama priorities, including health care and gun control.

The organization pointed its supporters, who are divided over Syria, to a statement made by Samantha Power, the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, but it didn't take a side in the debate.

“People don’t want to feel as though they’re being pressured,” one strategist said. “That’s what Republicans did with the Iraq war, they made it a testament to whether you were patriotic or not.”

Lawmakers who have taken a stand on Syria say it's based on conscience, not political calculation. More than 1,400 Syrian citizens died in the Aug. 21 chemical weapons attack, 400 of them children.

“While I do not support putting American troops on the ground," said Sen. Kay Hagan, D-N.C., a supporter of intervention, "this kind of heinous action cannot occur without serious consequences.”

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