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US elections 2020: A Middle East policy breakdown of five battleground Senate races

Middle East Eye takes a look at key Senate races and what voters can expect from each candidate when it comes to the region
Democrats, who control the House, hope to win four additional seats on Tuesday in order to seize the majority in the Senate (AFP/File photo)

Six years after they lost control of the US Senate, Democrats are hoping to flip the chamber on Tuesday.

The Republicans currently control 53 seats, while the Democrats hold 45, in addition to having two independents that caucus with them.

To seize a majority, they will need a net gain of four seats or, if Joe Biden wins the presidency, just three because the vice-president breaks ties in the Senate.

Already in control of the House of Representatives and with little chance of losing that advantage this year, the likelihood of the Liberal party reclaiming the upper chamber looks favourable.

While the coronavirus pandemic has often sidelined foriegn policy on the 2020 campaign trail, Middle East Eye takes a look at five battleground races that the Democrats hope to win - and the region's issues on the ballot. 

Martha McSally vs Mark Kelly - Arizona

Republican Martha McSally is running against Democrat Mark Kelly in Arizona, a special election this year as the candidates seek to fill a seat occupied by the late senator John McCain, who died in 2018.

McSally, 54, was appointed by the state's Republican governor.

A former fighter pilot who served in Iraq, Afghanistan and Saudi Arabia, McSally serves on several Senate committees, including the Armed Services, which provides oversight for the US military.

McSally has defended the Trump administration's January assasination of top Iranian general Qassem Soleimani, calling him a "legitimate target", and has voted against a bipartisan resolution to restrain the president from using military force against Iran without explicit congressional authorisation.

A vocal supporter of Israel, she backed President Donald Trump's so-called Muslim ban, voted against ending US support for the Saudi-led military coalition in Yemen and has echoed the president's disdain for Muslim congresswomen Rashida Tlaib and Ilhan Omar. 

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Mark Kelly, a former astronaut and navy captain, who flew combat missions during the Gulf war, is the husband of ex-congresswoman Gabby Giffords. Kelly joined his wife to rally in favour of gun control after she was shot in the head and injured at a public constituent meeting in 2011.

He has spoken against Trump's 2018 withdrawal from the Iran nuclear deal, calling it a "rather poor decision", and has expressed intentions of pushing for the US to secure a new deal under the next presidency. 

Regarding the Trump administration's assassination of Soleimani, Kelly said the Iranian general "was a bad actor in the region for a long period of time" and "it's good that he's not in the job anymore". 

In August, Kelly, who supports a two-state solution, applauded the United Arab Emirates' normalisation deal with Israel, calling it "an important, positive step forward for our ally, Israel, and for lasting peace in the region".

Last year Kelly returned $55,000 that he had received from the UAE for a 2018 speech about human space exploration at an event sponsored by the country's crown prince to avoid criticism of foreign influence in his campaign. 

Kelly was leading in most major polls throughout October, with some polls showing slim margins and others giving the challenger a double-digit lead. 

Lindsey Graham vs Jaime Harrison - South Carolina

Republican heavyweight Lindsey Graham, 65, is being challenged by 44-year-old Jaime Harrison, a former lobbyist and chairman of the state's Democratic Party. 

Once a hardline critic of Trump, Graham has since flipped to the president's corner - some analysts say to his own political detriment. 

Graham has been an ardent supporter of the Trump administration's Iran policy, though sometimes pushing for harsher measures. 

Following Iran's retaliatory strikes against US military bases in Iraq after the assassination of Iran's top general in January, Graham sent out a warning more heavy-handed than the White House's: "Your fate is in your own hands in terms of the regime’s economic viability," he said. "You continue this crap, you’re going to wake up one day out of the oil business."

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At first slamming the Trump administration's decision to pull US troops out of Syria as a betrayal of Kurdish allies that would lead to their "destruction", Graham came around to the idea within days, saying he was sure the White House would work out a deal that protected the security of Turkey and the Kurds while containing the Islamic State (IS) group. 

Despite Trump's consistent defence of Saudi Arabia, Graham has spoken out harshly against the kingdom and has sided with US intelligence agencies regarding Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman's culpability in the 2018 killing and dismemberment of Middle East Eye columnist Jamal Khashoggi.

"He did it. It wouldn't have happened without him," Graham said last year, adding that he felt personally betrayed by the kingdom's de facto leader. Still, Graham voted against ending US support for Saudi Arabia's war in Yemen. 

Meanwhile Harrison supported the Iran nuclear deal and has called for the US to return to the agreement.

He also commended the Trump administration efforts "to safely reduce our troop levels in Iraq and Afghanistan, in consultation with allies and intelligence". 

While emphasising the need for Israel's security to be "fully protected", Harrison told Jewish Insider that "any agreement must be brokered with buy-in from both the Israelis and Palestinians".

Trailing far behind Harrison's record-breaking $86m in fundraising, most major polls show Graham and his challenger neck-and-neck. 

Steve Daines vs Steve Bullock - Montana

Spending on Montana's US Senate race has also crushed the state's record, with a total of $160m laid out between Republican incumbent Senator Steve Daines and Democratic challenger Steve Bullock.

Not always a supporter of Trump's foreign policy, Daines has backed his rhetoric, coming to the president's defence last year when House Democrats censured Trump's xenophobic "go back to where they came from" comment pointed at Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Rashida Tlaib, Ayanna Pressley and Ilhan Omar. 

"Montanans are sick and tired of listening to anti-American, anti-Semite, radical Democrats trash our country and our ideals. This is America. We’re the greatest country in the world," Daines tweeted.  

Regarding US policy in Saudi Arabia and Syria, however, Daines has been less supportive.

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Last year the senator was one of a handful of Republicans that voted in favour of a resolution to end military assistance for Saudi Arabia's war in Yemen and to curtail presidential war powers. 

He also spoke out against Trump's 2019 decision to withdraw troops from Syria, calling the move "detrimental to our national security". 

"The reduction of the American presence in Syria has resulted in increased influence of Russia and Iran and set the stage for a potential resurgence of Isis," Daines warned at the time. 

Opposed to the Obama-era nuclear deal, earlier this year he voted against the Iran War Powers resolution seeking to limit the president's ability to take military action against Tehran. 

Bullock, a former two-term governor and former Montana attorney general, however, has vowed to push for a new nuclear agreement with Iran.

A proponent of the two-state solution, Bullock has described Israel as a trusted partner and friend, though critical of its West Bank settlement-building. 

Bullock has said he does not approve of the US's support for Saudi Arabia's war in Yemen, telling the Council on Foreign Relations that the US's role should be to deliver humanitarian aid and facilitate the peace process. 

He has also called for the US to hold Saudi Arabia accountable for its human rights record. 

Leading polls have projected different outcomes in the race, though most show the two candidates within a point or two of the other. 

Susan Collins vs Sara Gideon - Maine

In Maine, moderate Republican Senator Susan Collins, 67, is facing off against the Democratic speaker of the state's House of Representatives, Sara Gideon.

Senator Collins has at times challenged Trump's foreign policy goals. She was one of the eight Republicans that voted in favour of curbing the president's war powers in Iran. Against the Iran nuclear deal due to its expiration deadlines, she has voted in favour of increasing sanctions on Iran. 

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Collins voted to end US support for Saudi Arabia's war in Yemen, saying the US "will not tolerate" the kingdom's "abhorrent record on human rights".

In 2018, Collins co-sponsored a bill seeking to condition aid to the Palestinian Authority on the basis that it stopped providing money to the families of those killed by Israeli forces. She has also supported legislation to counter and restrict boycotts of Israel. 

Gideon meanwhile has harshly criticised Trump's withdrawal from international agreements, including the Iran nuclear deal. 

The 48-year-old has also spoken out against military use of force authorisations passed after the 9/11 attacks and believes Congress should reassert its role in authorising military actions. 

A supporter of the two-state solution and Israel, Gideon would like to see the US aid that was slashed by the Trump administration be reinstated to the Palestinian Authority.

Most major polls show Gideon with a small edge over longtime incumbent Collins. 

David Perdue vs Jon Ossoff - Georgia

Two Senate seats are up for grabs in Georgia, but only one - the race between Republican incumbent David Perdue and Democrat challenger Jon Ossoff - is likely to be determined in this month's race. 

Perdue, 70, has been a backer of Trump's policies on Iran and railed against the Iran War Powers act, saying "handcuffing President Trump's ability to defend our country from attack is not just reckless, it is downright dangerous".

The former executive of the Dollar General discount chain store has also hailed the Trump administration's Syria policy, voting against a resolution that expressed disapproval of the president's 2019 troop withdrawal. 

In September he celebrated the US-led normalisation deal between Israel, the UAE and Bahrain, saying it would "tectonically change the Middle East for the better". 

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Perdue's challenger, Ossoff, is a former journalist who ran for a special election House seat in 2017, which was so close it went to a second-round runoff election that saw the 33-year-old lose by a slim margin. 

Ossoff, who is Jewish, has railed against the US's pullout of the Iran deal as "a reckless and thoughtless mistake". 

"It has put Iran back on a path towards nuclear weapons development with no clear diplomatic strategy and escalated chances of war in the Gulf. There are no clear off ramps for either side as tensions continue to escalate and it has been deeply irresponsible," he told the Jewish Insider last year. 

Still, he said "in the Senate, preventing Iran from developing a nuclear weapon will be a top priority".

Strongly standing against the Trump administration's handling of Saudi Arabia, Ossoff has said the US's relationship with the kingdom, given its human rights abuses, "has compromised us ethically and has compromised our foreign policy". 

Ossoff has been a vocal supporter of Israel and the two-state solution, criticising both US parties for not taking steps to negotiate a solution.

Georgia's second Senate race - a special election - is not expected to see any of the three candidates win 50 percent. Kelly Loeffler, who was appointed, gained a Republican challenger in addition to Democratic rival Raphael Warnock, over allegations of using insider government knowledge about the coronavirus for financial gain.