Russia’s invasion of Ukraine opened up a new front in the 2022 US midterm cycle, with America’s role in the conflict taking a place alongside the culture war clashes, economic worries and fights over pandemic policy that had driven the early stages of the election.
The global implications of the war in Europe has forced candidates in both parties to adjust their political playbooks to account for a rapidly evolving new issue that, at its core, has united voters in support of aiding the Ukrainian resistance to Russian President Vladimir Putin’s aggression, but also underscored the rigid partisan divide that defines modern American politics.
For Democratic candidates who are likely to sink or swim on public perception of President Joe Biden’s job performance, Russia’s war on a fledgling democracy on its doorstep has presented a new opportunity to derail a despairing narrative that many believe ends with Democrats losing both chambers of Congress. It could also potentially advance Biden’s climate agenda and revive his poll numbers.
Elected Republican officials and candidates, meanwhile, have at once signaled their support for the harsh sanctions imposed on Russia by the Biden administration while criticizing the President for not acting aggressively enough – all the while continuing to hammer Democrats over domestic economic difficulties.
Biden, in remarks earlier this month, sought to put the onus for rising gas prices on the Russian leader.
“Make no mistake: The current spike in gas prices is largely the fault of Vladimir Putin. It has nothing to do with the American Rescue Plan,” Biden said, seeking in the moment to divorce his signature Covid-19 relief spending bill from rapidly increasing energy costs.
On the campaign trail, Republicans are quick to point out that gas prices were on the upswing before the war began more than four weeks ago – and are eager to pin the blame fully on Biden.
Rebecca Kleefisch, the Republican former lieutenant governor of Wisconsin who is challenging Democratic Gov. Tony Evers this year, said the war in Ukraine and the resulting rise in gas prices only amplified the economic concerns that she is asked about constantly on the campaign trail.
“I wouldn’t even say that I’m wrapping these issues into current events,” Kleefisch said. “Affordability is one of the key issues that people think about and talk about with me every single day. You have to remember that gas prices began rising significantly before the war in Ukraine even began.”
The Wisconsin race is one of a handful of governor’s races in battleground states in which Republicans are seizing on any and all Democratic environmental policy-related decisions to make the case that those Democrats bear at least some responsibility for rising gas prices.
In next-door Michigan, Republicans who control the legislature have pushed Democratic Gov. Gretchen Whitmer to implement a state gas tax holiday that would temporarily save residents about 27 cents per gallon.
Kleefisch said she hasn’t called for a similar step in Wisconsin because it would amount to “a temporary fix for long-term policy decisions” – but was ready to rattle off a series of those policy decisions for which she said Evers is to blame. She accused Evers of “woke environmentalism” – arguing that he should have fought against Whitmer’s push to shut down an aging Great Lakes oil pipeline and criticizing a failed Evers proposal to tie the state’s gas tax rate to inflation.
Democrats see vindication for Biden
Connecticut Sen. Chris Murphy, one of the Democratic Party’s leading foreign policy voices, said he believed Biden’s actions to date – most notably his role in helping to coalesce Europe against Putin – has vindicated the President’s 2020 campaign pledge to deftly manage international crises.
The challenge going forward, for Biden and Democrats, will be in clearly and consistently communicating to voters the connection between the deadly disruption in Europe and economic pain on the home front, Murphy told CNN.
“It’s important for the President to continue to explain that gas prices are going to remain high so long as this conflict continues. And that ultimately other costs, like food costs, are going to be in the crosshairs. We’re not used to having to sacrifice for modern warfare,” Murphy said, noting that former President George W. Bush cut taxes in the midst of US wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Murphy, who serves as the chairman of the US Senate Foreign Relations Subcommittee on Near East, South Asia, Central Asia, and Counterterrorism, also targeted the 31 Senate Republicans who voted against a $1.5 trillion spending package to fund the government that included nearly $14 billion in military and humanitarian aid to Ukraine.
“We need to call out the separation that exists between how Republicans talk and how they vote,” Murphy said. “In the end, Ukraine doesn’t give a crap about what Republicans say at press conferences, they care about whether they’re getting help or not.”
Nebraska Sen. Ben Sasse, one of the Republicans to vote against the bill, credited the Biden administration in a recent interview on MSNBC with “bringing along some of the European central banks” as it crafted its sanctions regime. But in a speech on the Senate floor last week, he argued that attaching funds for Ukraine to the larger bill was a cynical political ploy.
“The reality is that the bill we voted on last week wasn’t really about Ukrainian aid,” Sasse said. “Ukrainian aid was a little bit of sugar on the larger medicine of a $1.5 trillion bill that nobody would actually want to go home and defend to the voters and to the taxpayers of America was well thought-out.”
Whether Biden’s attempt to put rising gas prices on Putin’s shoulders lands with voters and, in turn, deflects frustrations over a suite of frustrations with the economy is an open question. But a wide variety of polling so far has made one thing perfectly clear: Americans from both parties overwhelmingly support economic sanctions on Moscow and a corresponding import ban on Russian oil.
Large majorities of voters have also, in multiple polls, indicated they are willing to sustain still higher gas prices as a result of the embargo.
“That says that in the short term, Russia is seen as a real threat to national security. Now, how long that pain goes on and whether people start blaming Russia more and more for it, remains to be seen. But it is real,” Patrick Murray, director of the independent Monmouth University Polling Institute, told CNN.
But even bipartisan support for Biden’s actions to date has not translated into a meaningful bump in the President’s overall approval numbers or their views on his performance on Ukraine.
In a recent Monmouth poll, partisan loyalties appeared to be the main drivers of a 46%-48% negative split on Biden’s handling of the crisis, with 77% of Democrats giving a positive rating and only 18% of Republicans saying they approved.
“In the past, when we’ve seen a ‘rally around the flag’ effect, it’s generally been around every aspect of Washington from the president on down,” Murray said. “And here we see results, perhaps for the first time, where Republicans just really can’t get over the hump of saying that ‘This is a president of a different party, ergo, I’m going to judge him differently than I judge the actions that are being taken.’”
Trump’s influence looms over Republican response
The Russian war on Ukraine has also reignited or shone new light on intra-party debates for both Democrats and Republicans.
GOP leadership has been unified in denouncing the invasion and calling for a more aggressive strategy from the White House. But some lawmakers rooted in the party’s Trumpist grassroots have veered from those talking points and, in expressing concern over deeper US involvement in Ukraine, falsely claimed its democratically elected government “only exists because the Obama State Department helped to overthrow the previous regime.”
The comment, in a video posted by Georgia Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene, who also suggested blame for the war rested with both Russia and Ukraine, was met with a sharp rebuke from Wyoming Rep. Liz Cheney, one of the few Republicans eager to denounce her party’s right-wing flamethrowers and the frequent target of former President Donald Trump who is now facing a primary challenge.
“Putin is targeting and slaughtering civilians in a brutal unprovoked war against Ukraine, a sovereign democratic nation,” Cheney tweeted on March 17, in response to Greene’s comments. “Only the Kremlin and their useful idiots would call that ‘a conflict in which peace agreements have been violated by both sides.’”
In North Carolina, where Republicans are jockeying for the party’s nomination to replace retiring GOP Sen. Richard Burr, former Gov. Pat McCrory released an ad earlier this month hammering Rep. Ted Budd, Trump’s endorsed candidate, over what he described as Budd’s sympathy for Putin.
“These are serious times and we need serious senators,” McCrory says in the spot. “I don’t compliment our enemies, I stand for truth and freedom.”
Politifact subsequently rated the claim in the ad that Budd “excused (Ukrainians’) killer” as “mostly false,” writing that some of the featured sound bites lacked context and excluded Budd’s criticism of Putin, whom he has also described as a “thug” and “evil.”
The back-and-forth presents a choice for Republican candidates over whether to remain in lockstep with Trump – who has described Putin as “smart” and “savvy” in remarks before and during the invasion – or to unreservedly criticize the Russian leader.
Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell has sought to downplay intra-party tensions, saying on CBS Sunday that the “vast majority of the Republican Party writ large, both in Congress and across the country, are totally behind the Ukrainians and urging the president to take these steps quicker, to be bolder.”
Democrats, though, see opportunities to pounce, pointing to Trump’s long history of praise for Putin and the former President’s attempt to pressure Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky to produce political ammunition targeting Hunter Biden in exchange for already congressionally approved military aid – a move that ultimately led to his first impeachment.
“The Republicans have a ton of baggage when it comes to their worship of Vladimir Putin,” said Jay Chen, a Democratic congressional candidate in California’s 45th Congressional District who is a Navy Reserve intelligence officer and the son of Taiwanese immigrants.
The 45th District in Southern California is home to Little Saigon and large Vietnamese and Taiwanese populations. Chen said voters in the district are particularly empathetic for Ukrainian refugees because sizable numbers “fled that type of authoritarianism” that Putin is now imposing.
“I mean, that’s what they fled to escape. And the Republican Party is embracing it and only haltingly turning away from it when they get called out,” Chen said. “I think this will last through November because we’re dealing with a situation where there are no good options for Russia, and if Russia were to succeed, they’d only succeed through more carnage, more violence.”
A boost for Biden’s climate agenda?
Democrats face less thorny questions over the conflict. The party is, even across its typically fractious ideological divides, in broad agreement over Biden’s approach, which focuses on sanctions and has firmly ruled out any step, like the establishment and enforcement of a no-fly zone, that risks direct US military conflict with Russia.
Some Democrats are also looking at the crisis in Europe as potentially illuminating moment for the American public on energy policy and its security implications.
Progressives have long highlighted US dependence on fossil fuels pumped by autocrats in the Middle East and, to a lesser extent, Russia, as not only an environment scourge, but a strategic liability that prevents the country from asserting a human rights agenda for fear of risking relations with repressive governments in places like Saudi Arabia – and Russia.
Leaders in the climate movement have expressed some cautious optimism that Putin’s ability to insulate his economy from further damage because of its status, especially in Europe, as a key energy exporter could increase the impetus among congressional Democrats to pass a slimmed down form of the legislation formerly known as Build Back Better with significant investments in clean, renewable domestic sources.
“There is an incredible opportunity to connect the dots for electeds making the case that we can no longer enable petrostate dictators like Vladimir Putin,” said Jamal Raad, executive director of climate group Evergreen Action. “And the only way we can do that is by moving to a clean energy economy. I think this is an incredible opportunity to make that case this summer and fall.”
Success in delivering on key pieces of the ambitious climate agenda Biden campaigned on in 2020 and pushed for during painful, and ultimately fruitless negotiations, last year would mark a significant victory for the White House and give Democrats facing reelection this year more strings in their electoral bows.
Both Raad and Murphy cited a recent survey released from Data For Progress, a progressive Democratic think tank and polling firm, that showed broad bipartisan support – including a net 14-point advantage with Republicans – for the “federal government making investments to clean energy production in America.”
At a press conference last week, Democratic Colorado Rep. Jason Crow, along with Reps. Jim Langevin of Rhode Island, Chrissy Houlahan of Pennsylvania, Tom Malinowski of New Jersey and former foreign policy leaders, sought to make a clear connection between spending on clean energy as a means of breaking US dependence on fossil fuels from overseas and national security concerns.
“The long-term solution,” Crow said, “is we continue a rapid and aggressive transition to renewable energy and cleaner sources of fuel that are cheaper, that will create more jobs, that are better for our economy, and will unleash us from the tether of tyrants and dictators around the world.”
Republicans, though, argue that conversations about clean energy are looking past the immediate economic pressure caused by rising gas prices.
Kleefisch, the Wisconsin Republican gubernatorial hopeful, said Americans face a more immediate “affordability crisis” that those arguing for broad, long-term changes to the United States’ energy economy are ignoring.
“That’s so out of touch with regular people, I can’t even tell you. People are drowning,” she said. “People can’t afford to get gas and groceries. … They just want to be able to live their lives, and it’s been really hard the last three years.”