Jan 27, 2022 - Politics & Policy

Tucker Carlson-fueled Republicans drop tough-on-Russia stance

Ground personnel unload weapons and military hardware delivered to airport near Kyiv
Ground personnel unload weapons, including Javelin anti-tank missiles, and other military hardware delivered on a National Airlines plane by U.S. military at Boryspil Airport near Kyiv on Jan. 25, 2022. Photo: Sean Gallup/Getty Images

Republicans running in high-profile primary races aren't racing to defend Ukraine against a possible Russian invasion. They're settling on a different line of attack: Blame Biden, not Putin.

What's happening: Leery of the base, they are avoiding — and in some cases, rejecting — the tough-on-Russia rhetoric that once defined the Republican Party. GOP operatives working in 2022 primary races tell Axios they worry they'll alienate the base if they push to commit American resources to Ukraine or deploy U.S. troops to eastern Europe.

Why it matters: Any assistance President Biden provides to Ukraine could grow instantly into an ideological war back home.

  • Biden has ruled out sending troops to Ukraine. But he is shipping U.S.-made weaponry to Kyiv, promising "unprecedented" sanctions if Putin invades, and preparing to deploy U.S. forces to reinforce NATO allies in eastern Europe.

The big picture: Republican hopefuls who vow not to assist in any potential conflict in Ukraine are reflecting — and fanning — anti-interventionist sentiments in the modern GOP.

  • Frustration with the long wars in Afghanistan and Iraq and former President Donald Trump's warmer posture toward Russia helped drive the shift.

Between the lines: There's a stark split in the GOP over how to handle Russia's threat to Ukraine. It's less useful to think "doves" versus "hawks" and more illuminating to view it as a divide between Republicans who are responsive to their base and incumbents who feel they can afford to maintain some distance from GOP primary voters.

  • Those without the buffer of time baked into a six-year term are increasingly either muffling their hawkish instincts or wondering aloud why America should care at all what Russia does to Ukraine.
  • GOP House members are notably less interventionist than GOP senators. GOP primary candidates are the least interventionist of all.

What they're saying: "This country has actual problems that our politicians should prioritize: election integrity, the border crisis, soaring inflation, violent crime, failing schools, and Big Tech, to name a few," Blake Masters, one of the top Republican contenders for the Senate in Arizona, said in a statement to Axios.

  • "The Ukrainian border isn't even in the top 20," Masters said. "You'd think we would have learned our lesson by now when it comes to policing the world and 'democracy building' thousands of miles away."
  • In Ohio's GOP Senate primary, candidates J.D. Vance and Bernie Moreno have both made the same argument: that Biden cares more about Ukraine's border than America's southern border.
  • Adam Laxalt, who's well-positioned to win the GOP primary for Nevada's Senate race, approvingly tweeted a Tucker Carlson clip in which the top-rated Fox News host ridicules Vice President Kamala Harris for pledging to defend Ukraine's territorial integrity.

The other side: Prominent Republicans in Washington, including Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), are still making statements that sound more at home in the pre-Trump GOP.

  • McConnell and other leading GOP senators, including Sen. Jim Inhofe (R-Okla.), ranking member of the Senate Armed Services Committee, are pushing Biden to go farther and faster on all of those fronts.

But House Republicans are generally warier than the senators about pushing Biden to respond militarily to Putin.

  • Axios found nearly a dozen public statements from House Republicans criticizing the idea of sending troops to the region or wondering why Americans should care at all about a conflict that's thousands of miles away.
  • We could find no similar statements from Senate Republicans. Even libertarian Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) said: "I think the most important thing is to let Russia know there will be consequences if they invade Ukraine..."

House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy has staked out a subtly different position from McConnell.

  • McCarthy (R-Calif.) has portrayed Biden's handling of Russia as weak and incompetent, but, unlike McConnell, he hasn't pushed Biden to send more troops to the region.
  • McCarthy has largely avoided talking about Ukraine and focused instead on relentlessly attacking Biden over high inflation and faulty supply chains.

That safe political space — criticize Biden as weak but don't get too specific about what being "strong" against Russia would look like — is being used by Republicans on the campaign trail who aren't willing to go "full Tucker" as one GOP operative put it.

  • Rep. Ted Budd (R-N.C.), the Trump-endorsed candidate in North Carolina's Senate race, has said Biden needs to "project American strength" on the Russia-Ukraine issue. But when Axios asked if that meant deploying additional U.S. troops to Eastern Europe, as Biden is contemplating, spokesman Curtis Kalin deflected.
  • "Rep. Budd's comments about projecting American strength stem from a series of actions by President Biden which do the opposite, including the conduct of the Afghanistan withdrawal, his decision to [waive] sanctions and allow the Nord Stream 2 pipeline, and his recent comments predicting Russia will invade and downplaying a 'minor incursion'," Kalin told Axios in a statement.

Behind the scenes: Carlson has had a profound effect on how Republican candidates talk about the Russia-Ukraine issue, according to GOP operatives working on primary races.

  • GOP offices have been fielding numerous calls from voters echoing arguments they heard on Carlson's 8 p.m. ET show. Carlson has been telling his viewers there is no reason why the U.S. should help Ukraine fight Russia.
  • Even Democratic offices have been fielding these calls from Carlson's viewers. Rep. Tom Malinowski (D-N.J.) tweeted that he got "calls from folks who say they watch Tucker Carlson and are upset that we're not siding with Russia in its threats to invade Ukraine, and who want me to support Russia's 'reasonable' positions."

Carlson has noticed the changes in how Republicans talk about Russia specifically and foreign intervention in general, but he thinks the party isn't changing fast enough.

  • "I just want to go on the record and say I could care less if they call me a pawn of Putin," Carlson told Axios. "It's too stupid. I don't speak Russian. I've never been to Russia. I'm not that interested in Russia. All I care about is the fortunes of the United States because I have four children who live here."
  • "I really hope that Republican primary voters are ruthless about this," Carlson told Axios, and vote out any Republican "who believes Ukraine's borders are more important than our borders."

The backstory: Two observable shifts have happened in the GOP electorate over the past 15 years. The first is a growing skepticism about foreign intervention in general — frustration and anger still fueled by the disastrous wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

  • The second is a more recent warming towards Russia — initiated by the party's most powerful figure, Donald Trump.
  • Trump's rhetoric about Putin was a far cry from 2012 when the GOP presidential nominee Mitt Romney warned that Russia was America's "number one geopolitical foe." (Prominent Democrats mocked Romney at the time but in the age of Trump endorsed his view and apologized).

A 2018 Gallup poll quantified the Trump effect. The number of Republicans calling Russia a friend or ally rose sharply from 2014-18 — from 22% to 40%.

  • Recent polls from Momentive and YouGov (the latter commissioned by the anti-interventionist Charles Koch Institute) show narrow majorities of Republicans are opposed to U.S. military intervention in Ukraine.
  • That contrasts with GOP voters' overwhelming support for the Bush administration's invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan, and even how GOP voters viewed the prospect of President Obama intervening in Libya and Syria.

Dan Caldwell has been closely tracking these shifts in Republican voter sentiment over the past decade since he left the Marine Corps and joined the Koch network to advocate for a more restrained U.S. foreign policy.

  • Caldwell told Axios he'll never forget the Republican Party's presidential primary debate in South Carolina on Feb. 13, 2016. He sees that night as an "inflection point" in Republican foreign policy.
  • The moderator asked Trump whether he still believed, as he'd said in 2008, that George W. Bush deserved to be impeached over the Iraq War. Standing on a Republican debate stage — two podiums to the left of Jeb Bush and in South Carolina, a state known for its deep attachment to the military and its bases — Trump's response came off like a blend of Bernie Sanders and Ron Paul.
  • Trump delivered a thunderous condemnation of Bush for invading Iraq and even told the GOP debate audience that Bush had lied — that Bush "knew" Saddam Hussein had no weapons of mass destruction.
  • Caldwell said he recalls all the politicians and pundits who at the time predicted Trump's Iraq War comments would cost him victory in a state with such strong allegiances to the U.S. military.
  • GOP primary voters didn't seem to mind. Trump crushed the field in South Carolina — paving his path to the nomination.

Editor's note: This story has been updated to clarify GOP operatives' fears about sending U.S. troops to eastern Europe, not to Ukraine. Biden and most traditional Republicans do not support sending troops to Ukraine.

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