When it comes to battling the Islamic State in Syria and Iraq, U.S. Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell is President Barack Obama's "Kentucky candidate."
McConnell, whose central re-election strategy has been to tie Democratic opponent Alison Lundergan Grimes to Obama's deep unpopularity in Kentucky with that phrase and many others like it, has clearly emerged as the more hawkish of the two Senate candidates.
McConnell has made Obama his primary foil, but it was McConnell who, hours after U.S. and allied forces unleashed a furious assault on Islamic State targets on Monday, praised Obama's strikes as "important steps in defeating ISIL [the Islamic State and the Levant]."
"And I support these ongoing efforts," McConnell said Tuesday.
Never miss a local story.
In contrast, Grimes on Tuesday launched "Kentucky Women for Alison," released a new TV ad about economic issues that have long been the centerpiece of her campaign, and put out a news release criticizing McConnell's out-of-state fundraising.
She did not issue a statement about the bombs and missiles landing in Syria and Iraq.
Last week, as McConnell voted in favor of Obama's plan to arm and train Syrian rebels and declared that "what the administration is doing is correct," Grimes told the Associated Press that she would have voted for the proposal only because it was attached to a spending bill.
According to the Associated Press, Grimes' campaign said "she supports strong action to hunt down terrorists but 'would only vote for arming and training Syrians if there is compelling evidence that they are trustworthy and effective.'"
Her rationale was similar to U.S. Sen. Rand Paul's reasoning for voting against the measure.
For a variety of reasons, McConnell stands to benefit politically from conflict in the Middle East, said Stephen Voss, a professor of political science at the University of Kentucky.
"Trouble in the Middle East benefits Mitch McConnell's electoral prospects," said Voss. "Kentucky voters trust him, and the Republican Party in general, on foreign affairs more than they trust Grimes and the Democratic Party."
A Bluegrass Poll, for instance, found last month that 43 percent of Kentucky voters trust McConnell more on foreign policy issues, compared to 28 percent who trust Grimes more.
While there is a risk that global events might cause voters to be leery of Grimes' youth and relative inexperience, Voss argued that the larger concern for Democrats is that increased attention to foreign policy leaves less room for Grimes to sell her economic message.
"The main problem Syria poses for Grimes is that it keeps her from shifting the issue agenda to a domestic battlefield where she holds more advantages," Voss said. "Syria draws out the focus on foreign policy, and prevents Grimes from pivoting attention toward economic and domestic issues that would help her with Kentucky voters."
The specter of war, nightly news footage about beheadings of American journalists and a steady stream of reports of the carnage created by the Islamic State have all coincided with McConnell's growing lead over Grimes in public polls. (A RealClearPolitics.com average of polls gives McConnell a 5.2 point advantage over Grimes.)
Overall, Republicans believe images of violent turmoil add to a negative political environment in which Obama gets the majority of voters' blame, and not just in Kentucky. Republican Senate candidates in New Hampshire and Colorado have started running ads attacking their opponents for underestimating the threat the Islamic State poses to America.
Kevin Madden, a longtime Republican strategist and senior adviser to Mitt Romney's 2008 and 2012 presidential campaigns, said Tuesday that events in the Middle East mean that a sense of "dissatisfaction with Obama at home is now matched with a sense of chaos abroad."
"It might have been different if President Obama had made a sustained argument for action in Syria with clear objectives," Madden said. "But many voters lost confidence when he said he didn't have a strategy and then let that hang out there for a week."
If the confluence of events has created an opportunity for McConnell to turn his long tenure in Washington and leadership position into positives, it also has led to something of a split message for the senator — supporting Obama's military efforts (with caveats) in Washington while adding global chaos to his anti-Obama campaign message in Kentucky.
One of the senator's more recent television ads begins with CBS News footage of an Islamic State militant firing a machine gun while the narrator ominously warns that "these are serious times." It then throws in a quote from Obama in early-September, when he told reporters "we don't have a strategy yet" to defeat the Islamic State.
"When so many in Washington can't do the job, shouldn't Kentucky have a senator who can?" the narrator asks.
McConnell supporters, however, dismiss the idea that he is presenting voters with a mixed message. Instead, McConnell's rare support for Obama after years of intense opposition "gives it instant credibility in that he believes it is something that is in the best interest of the United States," said Billy Piper, a former top McConnell aide.
McConnell might enjoy an early advantage on the issue, some Democrats concede, but he could be adversely affected as more hawkish members of his party call for ground troops, refreshing voters' memories of the "drums of war" Republicans were beating in the not-so-distant past.
"The problem with the Republican Party today is when it comes to foreign policy and Obama, they cannot resist constantly running to his right," said Matthew Miller, former spokesman for the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee and the Department of Justice. "We're not that many years beyond real chaos in Iraq and real chaos in Afghanistan, and voters remember that."