The shifting politics of foreign policy has scrambled the calculations for both parties ahead of the November elections. It has put some Senate candidates, unaccustomed to talking about national security issues, in an uncomfortable position, while elevating others with military experience and foreign policy bona fides.
Candidates’ past votes, comments, and even their biographies are emerging as huge opportunities in key Senate races—and glaring vulnerabilities in others. And in Arkansas, where Democrats hoped to exploit war-weariness among the public against hawkish GOP Senate nominee Tom Cotton, the Islamic State terrorism has suddenly changed the mood in the state and given the military veteran a clear political advantage.
Cotton’s campaign has pounced on a vote taken earlier this summer by his opponent, Democratic Sen. Mark Pryor, to block aid to Syrian rebels. At the time, Pryor’s summertime maneuver looked like a clever ploy to draw a contrast with his challenger, who was a rare congressional voice calling for aggressive U.S. action in the Middle Eastern country.
But last week, it was Pryor who was playing defense after he voted this week to train and equip Syrian fighters. Cotton’s campaign accused Pryor of flip-flopping, and said the vote demonstrated the Democrats’ “complete lack of seriousness.”
The vote was evidence of a broader change in the race, which—when it began—looked in part a test of whether Cotton’s approach to foreign policy would alienate voters. A summer of international crises, punctuated by the beheadings of two American journalists, have upended that assumption, so much so that the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette reported that the Pryor campaign has rejected including foreign policy as a topic in an upcoming showdown between Cotton and the senator.