Veterans are popular recruits as candidates for Congress

NORFOLK, Va. (AP) – As midterm election season quickly approaches, Republicans and Democrats have something in common when it comes to recruiting candidates they hope will win majorities in the Congress: a preference for military veterans.

Both sides are planning a significant number of races where veterans will compete against each other, using their military service as the basis for their appeal even though they have widely divergent views on the issues.

Democrats cling to worn out advantages in the House and Senate, so the success of these candidates could determine the balance of power.

The chaotic end of the US war effort in Afghanistan – combined with President Joe Biden blaming his predecessor’s policies for much of what happened – could resonate with voters in ways never before seen ever since opposition to the Iraq war helped Democrats reclaim the House in 2006.

“When the United States suffers a very public defeat … historically, that’s the kind of thing that becomes a problem in the next election,” said Aubrey Jewett, professor of political science at the University of Central Florida.

In a few places, military issues are more likely to dominate the debate than in Norfolk, Virginia and the surrounding area. It is a swinging congressional district along the Atlantic coast and is home to the world’s largest naval base. One in five inhabitants is an active soldier, a veteran or those close to him.

Representative Elaine Luria, a Democrat, served as a naval commander, including on aircraft carriers that once helped organize bombing raids in Afghanistan. She beat outgoing Republican Scott Taylor, a former Navy SEAL, in 2018 and again in a rematch in 2020.

Veteran candidates can be seen as more willing to put the country above itself, which often plays best among moderate voters and in swing districts without a dominant political ideology.

“One of the reasons you see veterans over veterans is because the thought process only neutralizes that advantage,” Taylor said. “Both parties are looking for this.”

This year, among those hoping to win the Republican nomination and challenge Luria is another veteran, former Navy helicopter pilot Jen Kiggans, state senator.

Luria, who sits on the House Armed Services, Homeland Security and Veterans Affairs committees, said that in her district, someone who has served “comes into this file instantly with a level of credibility and connection ”.

Kiggans believes it too: “Understanding the nuances of military life and being a member of a military’s family, a military spouse, I think all of that is really, really important to representing the district well. ”

“There should be more of us,” said Kiggans, who was deployed to the Middle East during her 10-year naval career, of her race against another female veteran in Luria. “I think the veterans really understand a lot of issues that are important to the country and we love the country, we fought for the country, we sacrificed ourselves for the country.”

The number of veterans who could face other veterans for congressional seats in 2022 will not be known until after the primary season next summer. In 2020, 17 House and Senate general election races fielded two candidates with military experience, according to With Honor Action, a non-partisan organization that promotes veterans for elective office.

Similar veteran versus veteran races have taken place 21 times two years ago.

During that 2018 cycle, Democrats focused on recruiting candidates with military experience to attract swing voters – and ultimately won control of the House.

Now, the candidates will address issues such as the mob attack on the U.S. Capitol in January and the turbulent evacuation of Afghanistan’s capital Kabul, with their military backgrounds seen as giving them additional credibility.

About two-thirds of Americans said they didn’t think America’s longest war was worth fighting, according to a poll released last week by the Associated Press-NORC Center for Public Affairs Research . While 52% approve of Biden on national security, the poll was conducted August 12-16 as the two-decade war in Afghanistan ended with the Taliban’s return to power and the capture of the capital Kabul.

Republicans nearly took control of the House in 2020, when the 15 seats they overturned featured women, minorities, or veteran candidates.

Illinois Republican Representative Adam Kinzinger, an Air Force veteran, said serving in Afghanistan “makes me believe in a cause bigger than myself”, even though what is happening there now made him “very bitter”.

None of Kinzinger’s main challengers to date are veterans. Yet veteran versus veteran races are taking shape across the country.

Oregon Democratic Representative Peter DeFazio is his state’s longest-serving congressman and Air Force Reserve veteran. He is preparing for a possible second consecutive race against Republican Alek Skarlatos, a former Army National Guard who, along with four other people, arrested a gunman in a 2015 terrorist attack on a train bound for Paris.

In suburban Houston, Democrat Matt Berg, who served in the Air Force, hopes to topple First-Term Representative Troy Nehls, an Army veteran who has flown combat missions in Iraq and the United States. Afghanistan.

“It brings a broader grassroots appeal as a candidate,” said Berg who noted that the district saw a drop of around 5 percentage points between his 2020 support for Biden and his non-veteran Democrat who’s was presented to Congress. “We believe this will help us reach voters who felt Nehls’ military background was a critical factor.”

Entering politics isn’t always easy for veterans, given that the military consistently votes as one of the country’s most respected and trusted institutions – and Congress decidedly not.

Rye Barcott, a former Marine who is co-founder and CEO of With Honor, said his group advises veterans considering a race that “this is a tough job.” He added, “It’s going to be painful, but you are doing it to be of service to something greater than yourself.”

The number of female veterans running for Congress as candidates for major parties has increased even more sharply, from 14 in 2018 to 28 vying for House or Senate seats last year.

Yet Seth Lynn, executive director of the Veterans Campaign, a nonprofit that helps veterans more easily seek public office, said that since 2000, fewer than 25 House races pitting veterans against veterans presented at least one candidate from a major party. Neither had two women fighting each other.

That makes the potential Luria-Kiggans run something that hasn’t happened in at least a generation.

Rebecca Burgess, founder of the CivMil project advocacy group, said she expects to see more congressional races involving confrontations of female veterans. But a potentially even more powerful reason is “the power of example” where more female veterans in Congress mean mentors to those who seek to emulate them.

Luria may have gotten a glimpse of this when she spoke at a recent lunch at Naval Station Norfolk. Navy Lt. Courtney Janowicz posed for a photo with the MP and discussed the shared experiences of the pairs, both having worked on ships in shipyards.

When asked if she could possibly see herself following Luria’s path in politics, Janowicz beamed before proclaiming, “I can see it now.”


Associated Press writer Padmananda Rama in Washington contributed to this report.

Copyright 2021 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed without permission.

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