A new ‘litmus test’ rises in GOP primaries: Ukraine aid

April 3, 2024


Additional funding to help Ukraine fight its war against Russia has divided Republicans on Capitol Hill — but it’s also dividing candidates and voters in GOP primaries.

The latest example is outside Indianapolis, where a narrator in an ad that recently hit the airwaves in Indiana’s 5th District says, “Why does Victoria Spartz put Ukraine first? Chuck Goodrich will put America first.”

The ad from Goodrich, a state legislator, knocks Spartz, a two-term congresswoman, for supporting aid for Ukraine, featuring images of her in the Oval Office after President Joe Biden signed a bipartisan measure to quickly provide Ukraine military equipment in 2022.  

Though Spartz was born and raised in Ukraine, it’s not a unique attack against her. Opposition to more funding for Ukraine has featured in TV ads across a half-dozen Republican House and Senate primaries so far this year, per the ad tracking firm AdImpact. The attacks have come as lawmakers are looking to act on additional aid for Ukraine in the coming weeks. 

The earliest 2024 contests show that support for Ukraine aid has become a “litmus test” in GOP primaries, said Pete Seat, a former executive director of the Indiana GOP and an alum of President George W. Bush’s administration. And as Republican candidates compete to be seen as most aligned with former President Donald Trump, highlighting divisions over Ukraine aid has become one fast way to make the case that they are true “America First” believers. 

“You don’t have to ask, ‘Do you support Trump or not?’ You just have to ask, ‘Do you support Ukraine funding or not?’” Seat said. 

Mixed results 

Goodrich’s attack will be tested in Indiana’s May 7 primary. So far, such attacks have had mixed success. 

In Alabama’s 1st District, GOP Rep. Barry Moore launched multiple TV ads touting his opposition to Ukraine aid. He defeated fellow GOP Rep. Jerry Carl by 15 points in last month’s primary.

School Freedom Fund, an outside group tied to the conservative Club for Growth, launched two ads in the race that mentioned Ukraine, including one with a narrator saying, “Ukraine treats America like their ATM,” and describing Carl as “their man in Alabama.”

In Ohio’s GOP Senate primary, Win It Back PAC, another outside group tied to the Club for Growth, launched an ad against state Sen. Matt Dolan, suggesting Dolan would “be Ukraine’s senator, not ours.” The Club’s preferred candidate, businessman Bernie Moreno, defeated Dolan in the primary last month. 

But two anti-incumbent challenges that used the attack last month failed. Former Illinois state Sen. Darren Bailey highlighted GOP Rep. Mike Bost’s support for Ukraine aid in one ad as part of his unsuccessful campaign against Bost, who had Trump’s endorsement. In Mississippi, an outside group called America First Priorities launched an ad against GOP Sen. Roger Wicker on the issue, but Wicker easily won his primary.  

Indiana’s primaries could be the next tests for anti-Ukraine aid messaging, even when the contrast isn’t with a specific candidate. Along with Goodrich, Indiana Republican Tim Smith, who is running in the ruby-red open 3rd District, also recently launched a TV ad where Smith says, “Joe Biden cares more about Ukraine’s borders than America’s.”

Goodrich, Spartz’s top primary rival, has made the issue central to his case against Spartz, who reversed her decision to retire shortly before the state’s filing deadline.  

“Chuck Goodrich’s latest false ad attacking Victoria Spartz shows that Chuck Goodrich can’t be trusted to tell the truth,” the Spartz campaign wrote in an email to supporters after the ad hit the airwaves. The campaign called Goodrich a “lying corrupt RINO,” or “Republican in Name Only,” and noted that Spartz has called for audits of Ukraine funds and opposes a “blank check.” 

Some Indiana Republicans said Goodrich’s attack was perplexing, given that Spartz has not been among the loudest proponents for more aid to Ukraine, and she has sharply criticized Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy.

“She’s very obviously Ukrainian and speaks with an accent,” said Indiana-based Republican strategist Cam Savage, who is not involved in the race, later adding, “Maybe they just see a cheap-shot opportunity and they’re willing to take one. That’s the way it feels to me.”

In a statement, Goodrich campaign spokesman Kyle Kasting said: “Chuck Goodrich thinks we need to build the wall and secure the border first instead of continuing to send blank checks to Ukraine; Victoria Spartz stood with President Biden and supported 40 billion dollars of aid that, among other things, funded Ukrainian pensions and Ukrainian business bailouts.”

On Wednesday, Spartz fired back at Goodrich with an attack ad of her own — accusing him of being soft on China.

A changing GOP 

The emergence of Ukraine aid as a primary issue reflects a broader shift in the Trump-led Republican Party toward a more isolationist foreign policy — and concern about crossing that wing of the party. 

The shift has made it difficult for the GOP-controlled House to pass additional aid for Ukraine. Speaker Mike Johnson suggested the House could take up the issue when lawmakers return to the nation’s capital later this month, but his speakership could be threatened if he draws the ire of far-right Republicans. 

Seat was confident that additional aid would pass, largely due to expected support from Democrats. But he was less optimistic his party would reject isolationist positions, noting pro-Trump base voters “tune out” Republicans like Sen. Mitt Romney of Utah and former Rep. Liz Cheney of Wyoming, who have been making the case for more Ukraine aid. 

“Until a messenger who [speaks to] that base of the party, the base that it is today, is out there saying, ‘This is why it matters to us,’ it’s going to be really, really difficult to get more Republican support,” Seat said.  

And, since just eight states have held congressional primaries so far, some GOP lawmakers may be considering the looming threat of attacks over support for additional Ukraine aid. 

“You’re in an election year now, right?” Savage said. “So how people vote on things is very much aligned with how close they are to their own primaries.”


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