By Mariana Alfaro
August 15, 2023
The Washington Post
In response to the growing fissure within the GOP over support for the war effort in Ukraine, a conservative group is launching a $2 million campaign urging Republicans in Congress to continue backing the U.S. ally.
Defending Democracy Together, an organization led by Republican strategist Sarah Longwell and conservative political commentator Bill Kristol, is launching “Republicans for Ukraine” to get congressional Republicans to commit to continue funding aid for Ukraine ahead of what is likely to be a lengthy appropriations fight.
The organization gathered testimony from more than 50 pro-Ukraine Republican voters, which will be shared in an ad campaign that will air starting Tuesday until the end of the year.
The advertisements will appear online, on billboards and on nationwide television, including during the first GOP presidential debate on Aug. 23 in Milwaukee, which Fox News will broadcast.
In an interview with The Washington Post, Longwell, who runs regular focus groups with Republican voters, said one of the most “alarming trends” she has seen over the past two years is a “real drop-off in support for Ukraine.”
Longwell said that while she has identified other shifts within the GOP base — including voters becoming “more protectionist on trade,” “more populist” and “less interested in the rule of law” — she has not seen any issue change as drastically as Republican attitudes around foreign policy.
A CNN/SSRS poll released earlier this month found that although most Americans — 55 percent — oppose the congressional approval of additional aid to Ukraine, the split over support is largely divided along partisan lines. Among GOP voters, 71 percent think Congress should not authorize new funding, and 59 percent say the United States has done enough to help Ukraine. Democrats, however, say the opposite, with 62 percent saying they favor additional funding, and 61 percent saying the United States should do more. “It was alarming in the focus groups to see so many Republican voters talk about Ukraine or [Ukrainian President Volodymyr] Zelensky in disparaging terms,” Longwell said. “But we also knew, running focus groups, that there were plenty of people who still kind of had the belief that we should be supporting Ukraine, that it was important to stand up against invading forces.”
This dynamic, she said, sparked the idea for the campaign to highlight Republican voices who still prioritize defending democracies. “We’d like to put pressure on Republicans to do the right thing on Ukraine,” she said.
Last week, President Biden asked Congress to approve $20.6 billion in additional funding for Ukraine, as its military struggles to achieve a decisive victory in its counteroffensive against Russia.
The United States has already directed more than $60 billion in aid to Ukraine, including more than $40 billion in direct military assistance.
Senate leaders of both parties are expected to support the president’s request, but scores of far-right members in the House have made it clear that they would oppose any new funding to Ukraine.
Already, the GOP-controlled chamber is bracing for a major fight over government spending when Congress returns next month, as far-right members continue to push for significant budget cuts. House Speaker Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) said in June that he would not support any supplemental funding for Ukraine and that aid for the country should go through the regular appropriations process. “A Republican-led House will not rubber-stamp any blank-check funding requests,” a McCarthy spokesman told The Post last week. “Rather, the administration’s emergency funding requests must be reviewed and scrutinized on their merits, consistent with the practice and principles of our majority.”
While several congressional Republicans — and some leading Republican presidential candidates — are demanding that the United States cut aid to Ukraine, some prominent House Republicans have said their conference remains committed to the U.S. ally.
During a visit in April to Kyiv, the Ukrainian capital, House Intelligence Committee Chairman Michael R. Turner (R-Ohio) said there was an “overwhelming” amount of support for Ukraine aid. “There are those on the left and on the right who question continued support or the amount of support. That will certainly be part of the debate,” Turner said. “But overwhelmingly, there is support for continuing aid to Ukraine, so that they can continue to fight against this aggression of Russia.”
George Graff, a veteran from Utah who participated in the Republicans for Ukraine campaign, said he is appalled by Republican lawmakers who want to turn their backs on Ukraine. Graff, who spent the first two decades of his military career working to combat what he called the “Soviet Union’s threat to freedom in the world,” said watching Russia’s invasion of Ukraine made him realize that the threat is still there. The United States, he said, cannot give up on a country that “has demonstrated a real desire to be free, to have a democratic government.” Ignoring the threat Russia poses to Ukraine’s autonomy, he added, “has the potential to be very destructive to our constitutional way of life.” “They’re being attacked by what I view to be probably a machine that’s worse than the Soviet empire,” Graff said. “I’m just really disappointed with members of the Republican Party who are taking what, to me, is such a shortsighted view and a very politically aimed position.”
Graff said he hopes the campaign can serve as counterprogramming to conservative radio and TV show hosts who are challenging additional aid to Ukraine.
David Page, a lifelong Republican voter from Upstate New York who also appears in the campaign, said that while he understands some Republicans’ urge to “be careful about the money we send there,” he doesn’t know how the United States could be doing “anything else” but support Ukraine. “We have an aggressor nation that wants to realign the world order, basically reestablish the Soviet Union,” Page said. “We have to support Ukraine. We have no option. Nobody wants to go into a war, nobody wants to see the loss of life and the things that occur from that — but we have an aggressor who’s doing terrible things.”
Marianna Sotomayor and Jeff Stein contributed to this report.
Mariana Alfaro is a reporter for The Washington Post’s breaking political news team. The El Salvador native joined The Post in 2019 as a researcher for the Daily 202, our flagship politics newsletter. Before that, Mariana interned at the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, Insider, and The Texas Tribune.