Ukraine is not top of mind for Republican primary voters

This week: The Briefing, Vol. XI, Issue 23

  • Importantly, no one is calling for Kevin McCarthy’s head
  • A ray of hope for Kentucky Republicans
  • NRSC thinks Tammy Baldwin could be beaten this year in WI-SEN 


Debt ceiling wrap-up: Yes, many conservatives are unhappy with the final product of the debt ceiling debate. Yet one fact about the aftermath says it all: no one is trying to remove House Speaker Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) from his position. This is the subtle clue that McCarthy played his cards right, and that even those unhappy with the final deal recognize that it was about as good as they were going to get for now, given Biden’s presidency and the composition of Congress.

In the end, the U.S. Senate passed, 63-36, the debt-ceiling deal struck between McCarthy and President Joe Biden (D). Despite justifiable howls of protestation from many conservatives — after all, the idea of returning to pre-COVID spending levels remains almost as distant as ever — we had noted that this negotiation not only produced good results for fiscal conservatives, but also created a modern precedent for adopting spending constraints as a condition for raising the debt-limit.

This is a debate that Republicans need to learn from, because it represented a rare case of conservatives winning the messaging wars. 

And again, this required a certain degree of cooperation within the Republican Party. Because the GOP-controlled House actually passed a debt-ceiling bill whereas Democrats could not, House Republicans had the upper hand both legislatively and in the battle for public opinion.

And surprisingly, unlike in previous iterations of this debate (specifically in 2013), the public simply disregarded the Democrats’ narrative that the GOP was holding the economy hostage. This was in part because all of the Republicans’ original asks in their own debt ceiling bill were extremely reasonable. 

They were not using the debt ceiling for unrelated or far-fetched goals — say, threatening to allow a national default unless Democrats repeal Obamacare or reform Social Security. Rather they were quite reasonably trying to impose fiscal controls in exchange for future fiscal latitude. And in the future, if they play their cards right, they will have larger congressional majorities and find themselves in a position to make more substantial fiscal demands. 

Kevin McCarthy: McCarthy’s role in all this is especially interesting. Somehow, he earned conservatives’ trust and got their buy-in to pass an initial debt-ceiling bill that the White House believed could never pass in the first place. From there, it was easy to force an unwilling Biden to the negotiating table and to make him agree to a deal.

The telltale sign that conservative objections are being overstated — perhaps for sound tactical reasons — is the fact that no one is attempting to remove McCarthy from the Speaker’s chair. House conservatives could easily force a vote to remove McCarthy if they wanted to — recall that the House rules for this session of Congress provide for a relatively simple process for removing a Speaker. Only one member has to bring the privileged motion, and the entire House must then vote on it.

Yet somehow, in a frequently rambunctious and unruly caucus such as that of the House GOP, no one with any influence has even gone so far as to discuss the possibility.

President 2024

Haley: While current frontrunner Donald Trump and runner-up Ron DeSantis were battling it out rhetorically in the press, CNN held a town hall event for former South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley over the weekend. One attack on the frontrunners that fell particularly flat pertained to their insufficient enthusiasm for Ukrainian victory in the current war. 

Trump, recall, had said he simply wanted the killing to stop, conceding beyond that only that he believes Russia’s invasion to be a “big mistake.” DeSantis has called for a settlement and characterized the coming conflict with China as far more consequential to American interests. Haley, in contrast, is embracing the early 20th Century neoconservative view of American foreign policy. ““This is bigger than Ukraine,” she said. “This is a war about freedom and it’s one we have to win.”

The problem here is that most Republicans and most Americans have been losing patience with the war effort since last fall, as the liberal Brookings Institution recently found in a survey last month. And as for the Republican primary electorate specifically, a narrow majority of Republicans want to keep helping Ukraine for another year or two. Support falls off for anything longer than that. 

In short, although Ukraine offers a contrast between Haley and the top-tier candidates, the issue just isn’t the silver bullet that’s going to give her traction.

Governor 2023

Kentucky: A new poll should give Republicans a bit more reason for optimism than they have had so far in this race. The survey, by Cygnal, has Attorney General Daniel Cameron (R) tied with incumbent Gov. Andy Beshear (D), 47 percent to 47 percent. President Biden is viewed unfavorably by an astounding 94 percent of swing voters — something Republicans will surely try to exploit by nationalizing the race. 

Their biggest obstacle, however, is that those same swing voters have an 81 percent favorable view of Beshear. Although Cameron’s favorables are comparably high, it is difficult to defeat any incumbent who is so well-liked. 

Senate 2024

Arizona: Former news broadcaster and losing 2022 gubernatorial candidate Kari Lake won’t announce her intentions as to whether she will be running for the seat held by Sen. Kyrsten Sinema (I) until the fall. This is a luxury she has because of Arizona’s late primary calendar and because, despite her poor performance in 2022, she would be in a dominant position were she to enter the race.

Wisconsin: A new poll commissioned by the National Republican Senatorial Committee has Sen. Tammy Baldwin (D-Wisc.) looking more vulnerable than she has at any point since her 2012 accession to the Senate. She leads Rep. Mike Gallagher (R-Wisc.), who represents Green Bay and northeastern Wisconsin, 47 percent to 46 percent. Other Republicans reportedly considering the race, such as northwestern Wisconsin Rep. Tom Tiffany (R), businessmen Eric Hovde and Scott Mayer, were not polled, or at least the results were not released by Fabrizio, Lee and Asssociates. 

Senate Republicans have been especially eager to get Gallagher into the race, an important factor considering the NRSC’s newfound willingness to take sides in GOP primaries after last cycle’s debacles.

West Virginia: The Biden Justice Department has suddenly decided it’s a good idea to bring a civil case against the son of Gov. Jim Justice (R) for his coal mining company’s various outstanding fines. The elder Justice just recently announced he is running for Senate, and every poll has him crushing incumbent Sen. Joe Manchin

For his part, Manchin on Sunday would not rule out the possibility of running for president as a third-party candidate. He has said he will not announce whether he is running for re-election until at least this fall.