At a wood-panelled diner down the road from one of the US Air Force’s largest bases, retired police officer Jeremy Snyder said he was initially “all for” US military and humanitarian support for Ukraine. But the war had dragged on, he said, and the domestic economic situation was tough.
“I’m over it,” said Snyder, 52, over a bowl of vegetable soup at the Fairborn Family Diner and Restaurant. “Ukraine keeps asking for more money when we need more money at home.”
Republican voters like Snyder could affect the level of continued US assistance to Ukraine. The country is the largest contributor to Ukraine overall, having given $78.4bn, according to the Kiel Institute for the World Economy. This aid has been a significant contributor to Kyiv’s success, but it depends on continued backing from Congress. Across the country and in this pocket of Ohio, support for American military and humanitarian assistance for Ukraine is fading.
Public support for Ukraine aid has fallen from 60 per cent last May to 48 per cent currently, according to a poll by The Associated Press-NORC Center for Public Affairs Research. According to a recent NBC News poll, while two-thirds of Democrats support more funding to Ukraine, just one-third of Republicans do.
Ahead of the 2024 elections, the faultlines in Republican foreign policy are starting to appear. Former US president Donald Trump and his expected main rival for the nomination Ron DeSantis have questioned American assistance to Ukraine, although the Florida governor later moderated his stance.
Others such as Nikki Haley and Mike Pence have argued that the US needs to continue its support. Former US secretary of state Mike Pompeo travelled to Kyiv this month and advocated for American aid, which he said was not about abstract ideals but “strengthening our national and economic security”.
The same splits can be found in Ohio, where isolationist senator JD Vance took over this year from the more moderate senator Rob Portman, who was one of Congress’s strongest voices on Ukraine. Ohio’s governor, Mike DeWine, who was also elected in 2022, has advocated for continued assistance to Kyiv.
The Biden administration is expected to request more aid for Ukraine in the summer when some $45bn passed last year runs out. And it is people like Snyder, or Judith Vanderhorst, a self-described “down-the-middle” Republican, who lawmakers will have in mind heading into competitive 2024 congressional and presidential primaries and elections.
The US “probably shouldn’t” keep sending aid to Ukraine, said Vanderhorst, of Centreville, Ohio. “I don’t think America should have to police the world, we have enough issues and problems here.”
Wright Patterson Air Force Base, just east of Dayton, helps to transport munitions and provide spare parts as part of the US effort to support Ukrainian troops. Elsewhere in the state, particularly in the north-east, there is a sizeable Ukrainian population, which has been very supportive of continuing aid.
But like the rest of the country, isolationist ideas are becoming more popular with Republican voters in Ohio. Vance won the Republican Senate primary in Montgomery County where Wright Patterson Air Force base is located, as well as all of the surrounding counties. During the primary he said: “I don’t really care what happens to Ukraine one way or the other.”
Some, like Glen Duerr, a Republican and city council member in Dayton suburb Beavercreek, said he backed Vance in the 2022 Senate election in spite of his views on Ukraine. He briefly considered voting for Tim Ryan, Vance’s Democratic opponent, but thought “maybe being behind the desk” would change Vance’s foreign policy views.
“You can be America first, but being America only has its dangers,” said Duerr, who is also a professor of international studies at Cedarville University.
While public backing for Ukraine appears to be decreasing, there are many voters in the Dayton area who want to see it continue. Some say it is important to discourage other countries from following Russia’s example.
Mary Brueggemeyer, a Republican from Fairborn who is retired from the Air Force, said she saw Russia’s war on Ukraine as “unjust”. “Keeping Russia in check is an important responsibility for our country,” Brueggemeyer said.
Analysts and political strategists said the coming votes this summer on additional Ukraine assistance as well as the 2024 Republican primaries would be an important indication of where the Republican party and its splits on foreign policy are headed.
Gabe Guidarini, 18, a political science student at University of Dayton who volunteered for Vance’s campaign and traces his conservatism in part to Covid-19 lockdowns that disrupted his high school experience, said he opposed US support for Ukraine. Republicans who back military aid to Kyiv were “not in touch with their voters”, he added.
“The neoconservative element has dominated the Republican party for way too long,” he said. “I don’t think whoever wins that conflict is going to affect the actual American citizen, especially here in Ohio,” he said.
“More attention should be diverted to things that are already happening here,” such as migration at the southern border and the flow of illegal drugs.
David Marshall, a member of the executive central committee of the Clark County Republican Party, said he supported some military assistance and basic humanitarian relief but said the US should not provide other aid, such as direct economic support.
“In Clark County, you’ve got a lot of people on tight budgets. When you talk about Ukraine, you’re talking about, boy, I hope they use that money correctly,” he said. Marshall added that US funds that helped Ukrainians with pensions were tough to swallow for people looking at their 401Ks, which had been “just completely whacked”.
The US Agency for International Development has provided $13bn in direct budget support for Ukraine, which has been used in a variety of ways such as paying healthcare workers and educators and covering pensions, and committed about $10bn more.
But of all the assistance the US has provided, military aid is the largest bucket, according to the Kiel Institute, which puts the figure at least $47.5bn.
The military spending and support for pensions have become attack lines for some Republican commentators on Fox News and congressmen like Matt Gaetz, who say the US must focus on the immigration problem on its southern borders rather than on Ukraine.
However, Matt Dolan, the first Republican senate candidate in Ohio to toss his hat in the ring for the primary, said he rejected the idea that the US must choose between the two.
“This idea that America can’t do two things at once, that somehow if we’re in Ukraine then we can’t do anything to secure our border, is ridiculous,” he said.
Republican aides and strategists say they expect that calls for a more isolationist foreign policy will resonate on the 2024 campaign trail, especially in Ohio.
“If we’re at a stalemate [in the Ukraine war] then isolation will be the move,” said Lee Hannah, a political science professor at Wright State University.