Ukraine aid debate fracturing the 2024 GOP field. Will it matter?

Some of the leading presidential hopefuls are divided on how much more to send.

March 3, 2023, 1:27 PM

How much more U.S. aid should be sent to Ukraine is emerging as dividing point among Republican presidential hopefuls, posing a new test of the GOP grassroots' appetite for overseas involvement and whether foreign policy is potent enough to move the needle in the race.

The debate is part of an early mêlée for support under a tent that includes a base transformed by Trump's isolationist-tinged "America First" ideology and a swath of voters still aligned with conservative orthodoxy on projecting strength abroad. But whether the fission makes an electoral difference remains an open question given history of foreign policy failing to move enough votes to change a national election outside of wartime.

"Well, we're gonna find out," veteran GOP pollster Whit Ayres said when asked about the impact the Ukraine debate will have on the primary. "It is a major story, but how that is going to shake out compared to domestic concerns remains to be seen."

Former President Donald Trump first upended the bedrock of GOP foreign policy during his 2016 presidential bid, railing against "forever wars" amid mounting frustration over U.S. involvement in Afghanistan and other battlefields. With his rise within the party, many ultimately came on board with his worldview, shedding advocacy for an omnipresent military and instead focusing on fixing domestic issues plaguing blue collar Americans.

On one side of the debate are current and would-be contenders like Trump and Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis who voice skepticism over a supposed "blank check" to Ukraine and the broader danger posed by Moscow. On the other side are more traditional foreign policy conservatives like former Vice President Mike Pence and former South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley who have advocated for muscular support for Ukraine and warn that Russia's military goals extend beyond Ukraine's borders.

Trump has lambasted Biden's policy of aiding Ukraine, warning that U.S. assistance could escalate to a broader conflict and maintaining that his method would help bring peace between Kyiv and Moscow -- without actually detailing what that method is.

"If you watch and understand the moves being made by Biden on Ukraine, he is systematically, but perhaps unknowingly, pushing us into what could soon be WORLD WAR III," Trump wrote on his Truth Social platform.

PHOTO: President Donald Trump speaks to supporters from The Ellipse near the White House in Washington, Jan. 6, 2021.
President Donald Trump speaks to supporters from The Ellipse near the White House in Washington, Jan. 6, 2021.
Brendan Smialowski/AFP via Getty Images

DeSantis, for his part, hasn't called for cutting off aid as some hard-liners in Congress have, but he too has bashed Biden's "blank-check policy."

"These things can escalate. And I don't think it's in our interest to be getting into a proxy war," he said on Fox News last month, warning Biden should instead focus on Chinese aggression.

Still, others haven't shed their traditional foreign policy bona fides.

"We are involved in a proxy war against the Soviet Union, the Ukrainians are fighting it," Pence said on Fox News last month. "[L]et's get them what they need, the tanks, let's get them the F-16s and support them as they finish this fight."

Others, like Haley and former Secretary of State Mike Pompeo have also advocated for keeping up the aid deliveries, suggesting that a defeat for Kyiv -- rather than the assistance -- risks letting violence spill over Ukraine's borders.

"If we win this fight for freedom, it will send a signal to every enemy we have. If we lose this fight for freedom, Russia has said Poland and the Baltics are next, and then we've got a world war," she said in February.

Some Republican operatives warn against reading too deeply into the rhetoric, noting that even hawks would favor some limits and are not that far apart from those warning of "blank checks."

"It's, 'sure, we don't want the Russians to encroach. We think what they did was wrong. This aggression was wrong. But we have to have limits on what we do, what we can do, and we sure don't want to send American troops to Eastern Europe.' I think that's kind of the plurality position," said GOP strategist Brendan Steinhauser.

However, with several candidates struggling to come up with domestic policy differences with Trump, even tonal disagreements on Ukraine could be one of very few chances for differentiation among the candidates.

"I think it's smart for Trump to also focus on issues like foreign policy and trade where he creates the most contrast with the rest of the field," said one longtime Trump aide close to his 2024 team.

"You're not going to differentiate yourself from the field by opposing critical race theory or sex changes or hormones for minors," the person said.

Those conflicting stances could pose an even greater contrast should one side of the war gain the upper hand or even win outright.

"If the Ukrainians have some success, it will tamper down some of the worries and concerns and criticisms. People will want to be on the side of the winner. I think if it goes really poorly, and … the Russians make gains, I think you'll see Republicans pick up their critique and say, 'we need to get to a negotiated settlement,'" Steinhauser said.

Whether those differentiations ultimately will matter electorally remains an open question.

Foreign policy's traditional failure to impact elections has become almost a cliché in politics. And even as the war in Ukraine emerges as a potentially history-altering struggle and one of the lone differentiators in the mushrooming primary field, strategists are forecasting that the fighting won't be top of mind when voters decide who to send to the general election next year.

That's already playing out in early endorsements, with both Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., a hawk, and Sen. JD Vance, R-Ohio, a skeptic of Biden's broad support for Kyiv, both endorsing Trump.

"I'm as engaged as I think just anybody is, but I can tell you this, the decision I make on who to support for president or senator or whatever is in no way going to be affected by their position on Ukraine," said Allegheny Country, Pa., GOP Chair and Marine veteran Sam DeMarco.

"I think it will be a differentiator. Whether it is used as the differentiator, I don't know. To me, the more important differentiators in some ways are just the strategic questions about who can actually win the election," Republican strategist Scott Jennings added.

Conversations with several attendees of this year's Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) back up those assessments.

Conferencegoers, who in recent years have largely fallen in line behind Trump, almost unanimously insisted on limits on aid to Ukraine in interviews with ABC News.

"I think we've given them quite enough, I really do," said Sandy Bellucci, a surgical coordinator from northern New Jersey supporting Trump.

Still, "I think there's other issues higher on the list," she said when asked how a candidate's Ukraine policy could impact votes. "I think what we have to worry about here is more important to people than what's going on somewhere else."