Democrat Kay Hagan didn’t mince words about the Iraq War during her 2008 Senate campaign against Republican Elizabeth Dole.
“We need to get out of Iraq in a responsible way,” Hagan declared in May of that year. “We need to elect leaders who don’t invade countries without planning and stay there without an end.”
Hagan is striking a different chord these days. Locked in a tough reelection battle, the first-term senator boasts that she’s more strongly supportive of airstrikes against Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant militants than her Republican challenger, Thom Tillis, and says she’s been pressing the Obama administration to arm Syrian rebels since early last year.
“This is the time for us to come together, Democrats and Republicans, to confront the challenges that are facing our nation,” she said this month.
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. The candidates are quick to note the differences between then and now — a years-long military mission with boots on the ground versus the airstrikes President Barack Obama has launched in Iraq and Syria in the past month.
But it’s also true that that no one wants to get tagged as soft on terror in a conservative-tilted election year that’s seen foreign policy jump unexpectedly to the fore.
Take Bruce Braley, the Democratic Senate candidate in Iowa. He picked up a Republican-held House seat largely on the strength of his opposition to the war in Iraq. He backed cutting off funding for military operations and spoke out against the surge.
When his opponent warned at a 2006 debate of chaos if the U.S. cut and ran, Braley responded: “Chaos already is ensuing in Iraq.”
Just last August, Braley demanded Obama get congressional authorization before taking any military action in Syria.
Now Braley is running against military veteran Joni Ernst in one of the most contested Senate races in the country.
“ISIS is a threat that must be stopped,” Braley said during a debate Sunday. “Anytime American citizens are attacked by a terrorist group, they need to be brought to justice or to the grave.”
He even said he voted to give the president limited authority “to begin strikes against those in Syria and Iraq.” In fact, the resolution that passed Congress two weeks ago was to arm Syrian rebels. Braley’s campaign defended his comment by drawing a distinction between “strikes” and “airstrikes,” saying he was actually referring to the arming of Syrian rebels to fight militants.
Only one vulnerable Senate Democrat voted against that resolution to arm the rebels: Alaska Sen. Mark Begich, who warned that the weapons could fall into the wrong hands.
Every other Democrat facing a viable challenger, including Jeff Merkley in deep-blue Oregon and Al Franken in Minnesota, voted with the 78-member majority. It’s a remarkable turn considering how outspoken each was about bringing the troops home from the Middle East during the 2008 campaign.