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GOP senator sees partisan upside to terrorism focus

There's something inherently crass about a Republican senator arguing that ISIS "helps the Republican Party."
Sen. Rob Portman, R-Ohio, center, speaks with reporters in Washington, D.C., May 12, 2014. (Photo by AP)
Sen. Rob Portman, R-Ohio, center, speaks with reporters in Washington, D.C., May 12, 2014.
A couple of weeks ago, Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) caused a brief stir, noting on Fox News that the terrorist violence in Paris is "a positive development" to the extent that it has "forced Americans to confront more carefully the issue of national security." The Democratic National Committee pounced.
And while I'm not generally in the habit of defending the Florida Republican, in this case, the senator's on-air comments didn't strike me as particularly controversial. Rubio was not saying that the attacks themselves were good news, but rather, he argued the Paris slayings could serve as some kind of wake-up call. We can have a substantive conversation about that point, but to suggest that the senator was putting terrorism in some kind of positive light wasn't quite fair.
Sen. Rob Portman (R-Ohio), however, talked to Bloomberg Politics this week, and went a little further down a problematic road. TPM reported this morning:

"I think the [Republican Party] is strong for a couple reasons. One, we're in a period in our country's history, sadly, where we have a threat from abroad again. And people tend to look to Republicans to help protect the country," Portman said in response. "I'm certainly finding that back home. It's probably the top issue I'm getting. I had a tele-town hall meeting yesterday with seniors about, you know, issues like Social Security and Medicare, but what came up, you know? ISIS," he continued. "And I think that, probably based on the polling I've seen, what I hear, it probably helps the Republican Party."

There are a few key problems to this. The obvious issue is that it's unseemly for a politician to talk up the partisan benefits of Americans fearing terrorism. There's something inherently crass about Portman arguing that the ISIS focus "helps the Republican Party."
But that's not the only concern. It also matters that the Republican record on matters of national security has been pretty horrible in recent memory, making it an odd area for boasts from the Ohio senator.
Finally, let's not automatically assume that Portman's correct about the political landscape. Just two weeks ago, a national poll conducted by ABC News and the Washington Post asked respondents, "Who would you trust more to handle the threat of terrorism?"
Hillary Clinton led each of the top Republican contenders -- Donald Trump, Ben Carson, Ted Cruz, Marco Rubio, and Jeb Bush -- on the question, partisan assumptions notwithstanding.
As we discussed at the time, Republicans widely believe they benefit most when elections focus on the issues where they're strongest: national security, foreign policy, counter-terrorism, etc. Just so long as voters overlook their discredited ideas and track record of failure on the international stage, GOP officials are certain they're on firmer ground when voters' attention moves away from the economy, health care, education, and the environment.
But there's at least some evidence that the truth is more complicated.