Does your GOP senator support Ukraine aid? It depends on whether he was elected before Trump

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In April of 2022, just months after Russia launched its invasion into Ukraine, Sen. Roger Marshall sat in a small conference room in the U.S. Capitol Visitor Center with a group of Ukrainians to talk about a potential food shortage that could arise from the war in Ukraine.

For Marshall, it was an opportunity to talk about inflation and how the war could drive up crop prices at home. But each Ukrainian that spoke had the same message — give us the weapons we need to win the war.

After the event, Marshall said he was inspired by the strength and resilience of the Ukrainian people. He said he wanted to get the country the weapons they need and to stand side by side with the country as it fought back against Russian aggression.

A year and a half later, his support has cooled.

“I’ve been saying now for quite some time, until we fund a border wall I’m not going to get any more money to Ukraine,” said Marshall, a Kansas senator elected in 2020.

As Republicans in Congress are arguing over whether to approve around $24 billion in additional support for Ukraine’s efforts to push Russia from its territory, the delegation from Missouri and Kansas is divided. Sen. Jerry Moran, a Kansas Republican who was first elected to the Senate in 2010, supports the foreign aid.

Sens. Josh Hawley, Eric Schmitt and Roger Marshall oppose it.

The delegation’s split is indicative of a larger debate within the caucus, one between members who were elected after former President Donald Trump’s win in 2016, including Hawley, Marshall and Schmitt, and those who were elected before Trump, such as Moran.

The divide isn’t limited to whether to support Ukraine’s efforts to beat back the Russians — it’s a larger question of the direction of the Republican Party, between the isolationist, rural working class populism of Trump and the interventionist, chamber of commerce conservatism of President Ronald Reagan.

“Well, Tucker Carlson speaks, Donald Trump parrots it and Trump-aligned Republicans elected officials say what they hear,” said Sen. Mitt Romney when asked if he saw a divide between senators elected before and after Trump on Ukraine funding. “And I don’t think it’s any question whether it’s in America’s national interest to see Russia fail.”

The Utah Republican was elected to the Senate after Trump’s presidency began, but he previously served as Massachusetts governor and was the party’s 2012 presidential nominee before Trump’s political rise.

Marshall’s about face mirrors polling among his party. Where most Americans supported funding Ukraine in the outset of the war, support has cooled among both parties but particularly among Republicans — an August CNN poll found that 71% of Republicans it surveyed thought Congress should not authorize more money for Ukraine.

Hawley, a Missouri Republican elected in 2018, has been outspoken in his desire for a new approach for the Republican Party. He has long been opposed to Ukraine funding — he skipped an address from Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky early in the war, when many of his colleagues were still wearing Ukrainian flag pins — because he believes funding Ukraine takes away resources for protecting the country against China.

“I just I think they’ve not come to grips with the fact that China is truly a pure competitor to us,” Hawley said. “They are not like anything we’ve seen since the fall of the Soviet Union. And, really, they’re not even like the Soviet Union in the last 20 years that it existed. I mean, their economy is bigger, their military is bigger, their growth potential is greater.”

Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, a Kentucky Republican who has long supported U.S. intervention overseas, has said U.S. support for Ukraine is important because it sends a message to China to discourage the country from attacking Taiwan, a critical U.S. ally in the Pacific. In a speech Monday, McConnell said if Congress fails to help Ukraine stop Russia, China will be emboldened to try an invasion of their own.

“For one thing, the patina of hawkishness on China is too often just a mask for isolationism,” McConnell said. “If critics of U.S. support for Ukraine disparage the principle that we should oppose adversaries who invade and destroy western-aligned neighbors, how credible is their commitment to defend Taiwan or other vulnerable allies?”

It’s not clear that McConnell’s arguments have done much to sway Hawley, or Schmitt, the newly elected Missouri Republican who took office this year.

McConnell’s campaign machine helped get both Hawley and Schmitt elected — McConnell helped recruit Hawley to the Senate and his Senate Leadership Fund spent millions in his race against Democratic Sen. Claire McCaskill. The same PAC also spent millions attacking former Missouri Gov. Eric Greitens in the Republican primary in 2020, helping Schmitt win the nomination.

Neither voted for him in the most recent leadership election.

Schmitt said he thinks support for Ukraine funding may be generational instead of based on which year a senator was elected. He’s balked at the amount of aid that’s already been sent to Ukraine — estimates run as high as $113 billion in combined military and humanitarian aid, according to the Committee for a Responsible Federal Government, which advocates for less spending — and said he’s not inclined to support sending more money.

“I don’t support these forever wars,” Schmitt said, before heading into McConnell’s office on Thursday. “And I think that I don’t view that as particularly partisan viewpoint.”

Still, McConnell, who has led Republicans in the Senate since 2007, is attempting to combat the Trump-aligned narrative against Ukraine aid. He’s said defending Ukraine is a deterrent to China, that it’s helping to modernize the Pentagon’s defense arsenal and pumping money into American defense manufacturers, one of which is Boeing, which has an office in St. Charles. And, in response to Republican claims that there’s not enough oversight over the spending, McConnell noted that a previous bill included $50 million to track the aid.

“What seems clear at this point is that these younger Republicans, whether it’s because they have a different worldview, and are more Jacksonian, or whether it’s because they are genuinely more focused on domestic considerations, or whether it’s simply because they’re trying to outflank the old guard on an issue that will help them achieve more power, are much more willing to put aid to Ukraine at risk,” said John Ciorciari, a public policy professor at the University of Michigan who specializes in international relations.

Moran acknowledged that lawmakers who were more recently elected were less likely to support aid for Ukraine.

“There’s not unanimity at home, but I I’m fully convinced that Ukraine success is to the benefit of the United States and Americans,” Moran said. “So we will encourage responsible spending with oversight on how it’s spent.”

Over the past two years — particularly as a much touted Ukrainian counter-offensive failed to significantly push the Russian army back from Ukrainian territory — public sentiment for the war has fallen and, like most policy issues, it’s partisan. In a June Gallup Poll, 57% of Republican respondents said they disapproved of the Biden administration’s response to the Russian Invasion. Where 51% of Republican respondents thought the Russian invasion was a major threat to the United States in March 2022, just 28% felt the same in June 2023.

“It’s quite normal that the American public tires of overseas expenditures, military or otherwise, as time goes on,” Ciorciari said. “It’s dragging on for a while, people are looking at inflation and other domestic concerns. The Ukraine conflict is not quite off the front page of the papers, but certainly has receded somewhat. And folks, I think, are looking at what’s happening there and thinking, ‘oh, this is going to be another long stalemate.’”

Moran said he tries to explain to Kansans at town halls why he’s supporting the effort. He said European countries are now matching the U.S. effort — the Institute for the World Economy found that European commitments are now twice as large as the U.S. — and he said people are open to hearing why the funding helps the United States.

The debate is bigger than the Senate. In the first debate for the 2024 Republican presidential primary, there was a clear disagreement on Ukraine funding between more establishment candidates like former Vice President Mike Pence and former U.N. Ambassador Nikki Haley, who supported it, and candidates who have adopted a Trump style of politics like Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis and businessman Vivek Ramaswamy, who have opposed the funding.

“It’s clear that there’s a real fight for the center of gravity in the party running up to the 2024 election,” Ciorciari said. “And I think the same kind of politics are playing out in the House, there’s a real struggle for control of the GOP. And there is also a particular desire to discredit Biden on an issue that seen as his main foreign policy success.”