At the risk of being reductionist, there are essentially two things that have sustained Ukraine in its fight against Russia’s brutal and unprovoked act of aggression: the strength and will of the Ukrainian people, and aid from what Franklin D. Roosevelt called the “arsenal of democracy,” America.

Thus, there are two wars going on, simultaneously, that will decide Ukraine’s fate. The first is the violent war in Ukraine. The second is the political war in the U.S. over aid to Ukraine. 

While there are meaningful factions in both parties that are skeptical of prolonged aid to Ukraine, this political battle is currently occurring mostly within the Republican Party. But what if the Ukraine issue is not a political landmine for Republican presidential candidates to navigate, but a meaningful part of the pathway to political victory? Recent polls — and history — suggest this could be the case.

First, some background: as evidenced by recent votes in Congress, large majorities of both parties are strongly in favor of aid to Ukraine. Last week, two amendments to functionally kill aid to Ukraine in an upcoming defense bill failed by margins of 341-89 and 358-70. 

Yet, the amendments in question were both put up by Republicans. Democrats opposed them unanimously, and even Republicans who opposed both amendments found it necessary to explain their votes. Earlier this year, Sen. John Thune, R-S.D., said, “Every time we’ve had to do additional funding (for Ukraine), it’s gotten harder. I mean there is a constituency out there that doesn’t see the value of it.”

The experiences, and political consequences, of both Iraq and Afghanistan have turned a certain faction of Republicans in an isolationist direction. While these conflicts were very different — and, I’d argue, misunderstood — raising their specter is effective in sowing doubts about Ukraine. This is evidenced at the highest level, with House Speaker Kevin McCarthy’s “no blank check” rhetoric, ignoring the fact that nobody has proposed anything like a “blank check” for Ukraine.

Moreover, the recently fired Fox News talk show host Tucker Carlson, an opponent of continued aid to Ukraine, was until recently the most popular right-wing opinion leader in America. He was such an effective propagandist that Russian officials openly lamented his firing. Even without the platform provided by Fox, Carlson is still an influential figure, recently conducting interviews with Republican presidential candidates and pushing them in an anti-Ukraine/pro-Russian direction. Many right-leaning think tanks and websites are also pushing a narrative similar to Carlson’s.

While it is true that a sizable faction of progressives are similarly skeptical of aid to Ukraine, as evidenced by an ultimately withdrawn letter to the White House last year, they are remaining silent. Thus, for now, this is a Republican problem, not a Democratic one. And this issue is playing out most pointedly in Republican primaries.

Here’s what Donald Trump said he will do if he doesn’t win the 2024 GOP presidential nomination
What did GOP presidential hopefuls say about Ukraine?

Former President Donald Trump and Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, the current frontrunners for the Republican nomination, are currently in the Ukraine-skeptical camp. Trump is, for all practical purposes, openly hostile to Ukraine’s position, as is Vivek Ramaswamy.

DeSantis, whose strategy has mostly been to compete for Trump’s voters, is muddled, but trying to tiptoe closer to a Ukraine-skeptical stance without coming off too dovish.

A recent poll by the Reagan Institute, however, suggests that this is a misguided strategy. According to this poll, those who didn’t support Trump in the primary (keep in mind, this represents more than 55% of Republican voters) supported aid to Ukraine by a margin of almost 2 to 1, while about 2 of every 5 of those who supported Trump in the primary support aid to Ukraine as well.

This suggests that a clear majority of Republican primary voters, even before the campaign has really begun, are in favor of aid to Ukraine. Meanwhile, of all voters, a pro-Ukraine position gets almost exactly 2 to 1 support.

Additionally, 71% of Republican voters say that Ukrainian victory is important to the United States, and a staggering 79% of Republican voters think countering Russian military power should be either a major (48%) or minor (31%) focus of our foreign policy, which suggests that pro-Ukraine policies have space to grow.

Yet Trump and DeSantis currently claim nearly 70% of the vote in an average of polls (nearly 75% if you add Ramaswamy to the mix) while holding views very different from voters concerning aid for Ukraine. This puts the frontrunners in a very vulnerable position.

Some candidates sense this. South Carolina Sen. Tim Scott, for example, parried attacks on his pro-Ukraine position in an interview with Carlson, criticized Biden for not doing enough to help Ukraine, and, in the words of National Review’s Noah Rothman, “ping(ed) all the right nerve centers for conventional Republican primary voters who respond favorably to the idea that the United States is a singular force for good on the world stage, no matter what our European allies think.”

Former Vice President Mike Pence takes a similar stance, bluntly saying, “If Russia overran Ukraine, I have no doubt … that it wouldn’t be too long before they crossed a border where American servicemen and women would be required to go and fight,” and also castigated Biden for focusing too little on deterring American foes. He charges other Republicans of “not leading” on Ukraine, saying he believes most Republican voters oppose Russia.

Gov. Cox reaffirms US, and Utah, support for Ukraine after call with Ukrainian President Zelenskyy

It is widely believed by the consultant class that, barring a Pearl Harbor or 9/11-like catastrophe, voters don’t shift their vote based on foreign policy. There may be some truth to this, and the Russia/Ukraine war won’t likely shift the primary outcome on its own. But voters undoubtedly shift their votes a great deal based on visions and attitudes candidates hold. And no issue separates pessimists from optimists more than Ukraine. 

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Indeed, since Dwight Eisenhower successfully savaged Ohio Sen. Robert Taft’s isolationist tendencies in the 1952 Republican presidential primary, the default stance of Republicans seeking office is to attack their opponents (be they Democrats or other Republicans) as being too weak or hesitant to fight America’s foes. As the Reagan Institute poll suggests, a smart political leader can not only benefit from being in the majority on this issue, but also can make the electorate even more favorable to his or her position by repeatedly driving home the point that America is a country that will prudently and patiently crush its foes abroad and support its friends because America is a good and powerful country.

As Rothman alluded to, there’s still a significant part of the Republican base that sees America much closer to Reagan’s optimistic and powerful “shining city on a hill” than the victim America of Trump’s “American carnage.” This divide, not some detailed question on cluster munitions or NATO policy, is what is driving this debate politically. 

Even after nearly a decade of people like Trump and Carlson driving opinions on the right, most Republicans still believe that America, however flawed, is a net-positive force in the world, not a sad and pathetic country that can only cut its losses. Those who want to be president should seize the opportunity to frame the Ukraine/Russia war in these terms, both for their own benefit, and for the good of the free world.

Cliff Smith is a lawyer and a former congressional staffer. He lives in Washington, D.C., where he works on national security related issues.

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