WASHINGTON Republican U.S. congressional candidates worried that Donald Trump's struggling White House bid will damage them too have seized on one of President Barack Obama's signature foreign policy initiatives to try to ward off Democrats in the Nov 8 elections.
With control of the Senate and perhaps even the House of Representatives in the balance, millions of dollars has been spent on campaign advertisements criticizing last year's Iran nuclear pact, even in districts where foreign affairs generally are not a top concern.
Although Iran is unlikely to be most voters' main reason for choosing a candidate, strategists said the money could be well spent.
Iran provides a distraction for Republicans concerned that the unpopularity of Trump -- whose poll numbers are dropping as he fights off several allegations that he groped women -- could also sink party members further down the ballot.
One typical ad, for Iowa Republican Representative Rod Blum, uses apocalyptic imagery to tie Democratic challenger Monica Vernon to the Iran agreement.
"Would you give billions to an Islamic Republic that burns our flag and chants 'Death to America?' Monica Vernon would," a male voice thunders over a video montage of marching troops, nuclear weapons and protesters burning U.S. flags.
Vernon, a member of the Cedar Rapids City Council, has voiced support for the nuclear deal.
Blum's spot is similar to dozens rolled out on behalf of Republican candidates who argue that America's influence is weaker because of Obama and by extension Hillary Clinton, his former secretary of state who is now the Democratic presidential nominee.
"Iran is a piece of the national security anxiety people feel," Republican strategist Matt Mackowiak said. "Foreign policy's really complicated. Average voters don't understand it, don't follow it closely, but they know what bad foreign policy looks like."
The agreement between Iran, the United States and other world powers curbs Tehran's nuclear program in exchange for sanctions relief and the release of frozen Iranian assets.
Trump frequently criticizes the accord and promises to make much better deals, based on his business experience, if he wins the White House.
The real estate magnate has hammered the Iran pact in both of his presidential debates with Clinton and it is likely to come up at Wednesday's third debate in Nevada.
Reuters/Ipsos polling in May showed Americans preferred Republicans' plans for dealing with Iran by 37 percent versus 21.9 percent for the Democrats'.
Every Republican in Congress opposed the Iran breakthrough. Many worried that Obama gave up too much to a country that sponsors terrorism and threatens Israel.
The issue has become more politicized recently, as congressional Republicans denounced the release of cash to Iran as a "ransom" payment and charged that huge Boeing Co and Airbus contracts to sell Iran jetliners could support terrorism.
In the race for a U.S. Senate seat in North Carolina on Nov. 8, a conservative spending group spent $1 million on advertising attacking Deborah Ross, the Democrat running against incumbent Senator Richard Burr, over the Iran deal.
Israel also opposed the Iran accord, as did AIPAC, the main U.S. pro-Israel lobby group. Support for Israel is important to voters, especially evangelical Christians who are a wellspring of Republican support.
There is more election advertising opposing the Iran deal than supporting it, but there is some backing for it.
J Street, a smaller liberal pro-Israel group, spent $500,000 on advertising attacking Republican Senators Patrick Toomey and Ron Johnson, in tight re-election races in Democratic-leaning Pennsylvania and Wisconsin, for opposing the Iran pact.
(Reporting by Patricia Zengerle; Editing by Alistair Bell)