Most contenders in the Republican presidential primary field firmly rejected the party's rising isolationist tide during the debate on Wednesday, with nearly every GOP candidate saying they support continued military aid to Ukraine in its defense against Russia.
Out of the eight candidates on stage, only Vivek Ramaswamy said he would cut aid, while Florida governor Ron DeSantis gave a noncommittal response. The other candidates' defenses of American support for Ukraine were met with applause from the debate crowd.
The strong show of support for Ukraine comes as some conservative pundits and activists have lobbied for the United States to stay out of the conflict. On Thursday, the Heritage Foundation launched an ad campaign opposing the Ukraine funding.
Clifford May, the president of the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, said there has always been a small group of isolationists in the GOP, but this group has been supplemented recently by some Republicans who either underestimate Russian president Vladimir Putin or dislike Ukraine because of Hunter Biden's influence-peddling in the country.
"Some conservatives don't understand who Putin is. They think he's a defender of Christendom," said May. "His mission, and I think he feels this strongly, is to restore the Russian empire, which for a time was rebranded as the Soviet empire."
Ramaswamy, the only candidate who during the debate objected to the aid, was booed by the audience when he argued that "Ukraine is not a priority for the United States of America."
"I think that this is disastrous, that we are protecting against an invasion across somebody else's border, when we should use those same military resources to prevent the invasion of our southern border in the United States of America," said Ramaswamy.
May said Ramaswamy's position on Ukraine is likely an attempt to peel off votes from a segment of former president Donald Trump's base, rather than a serious policy view.
"My guess is he's not looking carefully at the Ukraine-Russia equation as part of foreign policy, but looking where he can drive his poll numbers up," said May.
Other candidates on stage slammed Ramaswamy's position, with former U.N. ambassador Nikki Haley saying Ramaswamy has "no foreign policy experience, and it shows."
Former vice president Mike Pence argued that the United States can protect its borders and conduct foreign policy at the same time, saying that Ramaswamy has a "pretty small view of the greatest nation on earth."
"We can do both, Vivek," said Pence. "We've done both. We've been the leader of the free world and the arsenal of democracy for years."
Ramaswamy shot back: "I have a news flash. The USSR does not exist anymore. It fell back in 1990."
"I'm sorry if I insulted [Putin] by calling him a communist," responded Pence. "He is a dictator and a murderer, and the United States of America needs to stand against authoritarianism."