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As ISIS roars, the GOP resurrects 'the politics of fear'

With the midterms a mere six weeks away, and Islamic extremists back in the headlines, the GOP is painting their Democratic opponents as being soft on terror.
Scott Brown speaks with the media at the New Hampshire GOP Salem headquarters Sept. 17, 2014 in Salem, N.H.
Scott Brown speaks with the media at the New Hampshire GOP Salem headquarters Sept. 17, 2014 in Salem, N.H.

With the midterms a mere six weeks away and Islamic extremists back in the headlines, Republican candidates are taking a page out of the GOP's early 2000s playbook by portraying their Democratic opponents as being soft on terror.

The strategy was a clear winner for the GOP in the years after the Sept. 11 terror attacks. George W. Bush and his neocon advisers spun America's very-real and very-warranted fears into political gold, expanding their congressional majority and sealing another presidential term in no small part by using the Ground Zero nightmare as a political weapon.

Perhaps most famously, Republican Saxby Chambliss ran an ad depicting Georgia Democratic Sen. Max Cleland (a triple amputee resulting from his service in Vietnam) as soft on national security, capitalizing on the anti-terror fever. The ad showed photos of Cleland, a war hero, followed by images of Osama bin Laden and Saddam Hussein. It was widely skewered by Democrats as being a low blow. But the ad worked and helped propel Chambliss to victory. The GOP was able to capture the U.S. Senate in 2002.

Of course, things are different today as the U.S. continues airstrikes against the terrorist group ISIS, also known as the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria. There has been no attack on the homeland – ISIS is terrorizing innocents across the Middle East. So whether the GOP's fear mongering ads work this time around is yet to be seen. But candidates are certainly willing to try.

Former Massachusetts Sen. Scott Brown, who is trying to unseat Democratic Sen. Jeanne Shaheen in New Hampshire, is out with a new ad called “Protecting America’s Freedom.” In the 30-second spot, the GOPer declares that radical Islamic terrorists are “threatening to cause the collapse of our country.” Brown says that both Shaheen and President Obama “seem confused about the nature of the threat. Not me.”

Shaheen’s campaign responded with a statement accusing Brown of “peddling the politics of fear.”

In Georgia, Republican Senate candidate David Perdue lobbed similar criticism at Democrat Michelle Nunn, but suggests ISIS militants could come through America's southern border. A narrator in a new ad in which Perdue appears says Nunn is “for amnesty while terrorism experts say our border breakdown could prove an entry for groups like ISIS.” The Pentagon, however, has repeatedly said there is no evidence of ISIS at America’s southern border.

New Mexico Republican Senate candidate Allen Weh released a campaign ad called “Restore Leadership” that features a still image of American journalist James Foley’s ISIS executioner. And the National Republican Congressional Committee is also out with an ad targeting Democratic Rep. Dan Maffei, featuring clips of what appears to be Islamic militants training. The narrator says Maffei is “dangerously wrong for our security.

John Geer, a professor of public policy at Vanderbilt University and expert on the use of negative advertising in political campaigns, said he would be surprised if the Republican attack ads using ISIS will be successful.

He said the Brown ad “seemed like a stretch” because Obama has taken decisive action and has the support of both Republicans and Democrats in the House and Senate on airstrikes. On the Perdue ad, he said, “I don’t think the American public is quite ready to believe ISIS is going to enter the southern border.”

Overall, “Obama did make the decision to have Osama bin Laden taken out and has made strong moves with ISIS and even the Republicans gave the okay [on airstrikes] ... If he was wobbling that would be one thing ... but there’s a lot of agreement on this matter so it’s hard to argue he’s wobbling.”

Republican strategist Ford O’Connell disagreed, saying the ads are “effective at this point."

"They’re rallying the Republican base, which is concerned the president isn’t going far enough ... national security has always been a GOP priority," said O'Connell.

According to a CBS News/New York Times poll released last week, 57% of Americans don’t think Obama is being tough enough in dealing with ISIS. While 50% of Democrats think Obama’s approach is about right, the majority of Republicans –83% -- believe the president should more aggressively go after ISIS.

And that theme is playing out in the Republican attack ads.

Jeanne Zaino, a professor of political science at Iona College and of political campaign management at New York University, said she doesn’t see such ads backfiring. 

“I think candidates are aiming at a narrower segment of the population. If this was 2016 or 2012, this could backfire in a general election where you’re going to get a lot more people in the polls and focused on issues like jobs and the economy. But when you’re trying to energize the Republican base, issues of security will resonate,” she said.

Either way, don’t expect GOP-ISIS ads to disappear anytime soon, said Zaino. “I think we’re going to hear a lot more of this in the next six weeks,” she said.