Republicans have unleashed a barrage of television ads over the past year slamming Democrats running for House and Senate
for supporting the Iran nuclear deal. For the most part, the targets of the ads have tried to duck the topic.
Now, a handful of those Democrats are getting some Iran-related firepower on their side.
On Wednesday, the left-leaning Jewish advocacy group J Street is releasing television ads that praise the nuclear deal,
looking to shore up Democrats in the Pennsylvania and Wisconsin Senate races. The group hopes to expand the effort —
using online ads at least — to Senate races in Illinois and New Hampshire, while also engaging in direct mail outreach.
The J Street effort — details of which were shared exclusively with POLITICO — is rare, possibly unprecedented, in this
election cycle. The group has raised $750,000 so far for its effort ($500,000 of which is going for the two TV ads) but
Republican groups across the country are already putting millions of dollars into their own ads attacking Democrats on Iran,
an issue the GOP believes can move votes in key Senate and House races.
The difference, said J Street President Jeremy Ben-Ami, is that “the facts are on our side.”
“The deal is actually a good deal. It has made the world more secure — therefore it’s a really easy deal to defend,” he said.
The Iran nuclear deal was reached in July 2015 after years of negotiations, and it was officially implemented in January. The
agreement, which involved the U.S., Iran, Germany, France, Britain, China and Russia, lifted many, but not all, U.S. and
international sanctions on Iran in exchange for the dismantling of the country’s nuclear program.
The agreement led to a bitter fight in Congress last year, and some Democrats — including several with strong pro-Israel
constituencies — opposed the deal. But, under intense pressure from President Barack Obama, enough Democrats came out
in favor of the agreement that Republicans failed to derail it.
United Nations inspectors say Iran has kept its side of the deal, while the U.S. and others say they’ve lifted the relevant
sanctions. But Iran’s non-nuclear behavior has continued to alarm critics of the deal: The Islamist-led country has tested
ballistic missiles, continues to violate human rights and is supporting armed militias throughout the Middle East.
At the same time, Republicans have accused the Obama administration of paying a $1.7 billion “ransom” to Iran so that it
would release a handful of Americans in its custody the same weekend the Iran deal was implemented. The $1.7 billion
payment was a way to settle a decades-old arbitration claim between the two countries, but the timing and the fact that the
money was given in cash made it appear like a ransom to a country the U.S. lists as a state sponsor of terrorism.
The Republican ads on the deal tend to mix a variety of these details to paint a portrait of Democrats appeasing Iran. One
National Republican Senatorial Committee ad targeting Pennsylvania Senate candidate Katie McGinty, who is in a tight race
with GOP Sen. Pat Toomey, says the Democrat is a “risk we can’t afford.”
Nevada has been a particularly hot battleground on the Iran issue, Republican operatives say. There, a recent ad by the pro-
GOP American Unity PAC attacked Democratic Senate candidate Catherine Cortez Masto, who is running neck-and-neck
against GOP Rep. Joe Heck, for allegedly aiding a regime that mistreats women, Christians and gays.
A number of House races have also seen the Iran deal come up in the air wars. Emily Cain, a Democrat running in Maine’s
northern 2nd District, has been targeted by ads that mention the nuclear deal, as has Democrat Colleen Deacon, who is
running to represent upstate New York’s 24th District.
The Iran deal has been a year-long flashpoint in the Chicago suburbs, where former Democratic Rep. Brad Schneider is in a
close rematch with GOP Rep. Robert Dold. Schneider initially opposed the Iran deal, leading to attacks on him by his own
party during the primary. Now he says the deal needs to be enforced, so he’s being attacked by Republicans for “recklessly
Internal GOP polling shows that the Iran nuclear deal “performs among the very top hits in virtually every competitive Senate
race, and it is extremely potent with independents,” said a D.C.-based GOP operative working on Senate races throughout the
country. So-called “security moms” are among the coveted demographics that seem especially attuned to the topic,
“In general, you don’t see organizations, even committees or outside groups, spend millions of dollars on an issue that’s really
not moving numbers,” said another Republican Senate operative. “It is a very important issue, especially for certain types of
voters that are concerned about national security.”
J Street’s 30-second ads lay out the positive aspects of the Iran deal (“Iran was forced to pour concrete into its reactor and give
up its uranium”) and also tie the Republicans being targeted to GOP presidential nominee Donald Trump, whose popularity is
low in swing states and even among some sections of his own party.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was among the most vociferous critics of the Iran nuclear deal, and the issue has
been a divisive one for American Jews, many of whom view Iran as an existential threat to Israel.
In a nod to Jewish and other pro-Israel voters, the J Street ads note that Israeli security experts are among those who believe
the Iran deal has made it harder for Tehran to obtain nuclear weapons. “Russ Feingold agrees. Ron Johnson thinks he knows
better,” the ad tailored for the Wisconsin Senate race says. “Like Donald Trump, he’s wrong.”
A Democratic strategist noted that although Republicans may view the Iran deal as a winning issue, it’s just one of many
national security topics being weighed by voters, and the GOP doesn’t have the edge on all of them. Trump’s name at the top of
the ticket also undermines the Republicans’ efforts to cast themselves as the stronger party. Trump has rattled America’s allies
with many of his foreign policy pronouncements while also speaking kindly of U.S. rival Russia.
“Trump is a real liability on the issue of national security and arguably a national security threat,” the Democratic strategist
said. “You’ve got Republican candidates who are either supporting him or giving him a free pass.”
Ben-Ami said even though J Street may be outmatched on the financial front by Republican organizations, it believes it must
engage in the campaign for long-term reasons.
“Proving that you can win having taken a tough vote for diplomacy is exceedingly important for the future of American
foreign policy,” Ben-Ami said of the Democratic lawmakers under fire. “If it is perceived that the only way to win politically is
to be as hawkish as possible and to attack diplomacy that is a bad thing for American foreign policy.”
Theodoric Meyer contributed to this report