A record number of female veterans are running for Congress this year, as both parties make a play for the women’s vote.
Only five female military veterans have ever served in Congress, including Reps. Tammy Duckworth (D-Ill.), a lieutenant colonel in the Army National Guard, and Tulsi GabbardTulsi GabbardMcCain made secret trip to Syria A guide to the committees: House House Dems: Force Flynn to testify before Foreign Affairs panel MORE (D-Hawaii), an Army National Guard captain.
They include five Republicans, four Democrats, and one each from the Libertarian and Independent Green Party.
“I think both parties see the value of women veteran candidates,” said Seth Lynn, founder of Veterans Campaign, a non-partisan organization that helps veterans run for office.
Lynn said the phenomenon has especially helped the Republicans push back against what Democrats say is a GOP “war against women.”
In 2012, ten female veterans received a major party nomination — eight Democrats and two Republicans. Two Democrats — Duckworth and Gabbard — won. This year, Republicans alone have a chance of matching that number.
Their top two contenders are Joni Ernst, a lieutenant colonel in the Iowa Army National Guard running to succeed retiring Sen. Tom Harkin (D-Iowa); and Martha McSally, a retired Air Force colonel and the first female fighter pilot to fly in combat and command a fighter squadron. She is running against Rep. Ron Barber (D) in Arizona.
Republicans say while they put a big focus on recruiting women candidates, they did not purposely recruit female veterans — but they make for good candidates.
“They approach campaigning in a very disciplined way, they really take the process very seriously, and are some of the hardest workers as far as campaigners,” said Daniel Scarpinato, the National Republican Congressional Committee’s national press secretary.
Lynn said female veterans make great candidates for both parties.
“Unfair or not, a lot of female candidates have to contend with questions over whether they’re tough enough. That’s not a problem for people like Tammy Duckworth, Tulsi Gabbard or Joni Ernst.”
Lynn also said military veterans — regardless of gender bring a lot to the table as lawmakers.
If elected, Ernst and McSally would enter Congress as it assumes oversight over the administration’s war strategy against the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria.
Ernst, who ran convoys in the Iraq War in 2003 and currently commands the largest battalion in the Iowa Army National Guard, supports tougher actions against ISIS, including increased airstrikes and, if necessary, the use of U.S. special operations forces on the ground.
McSally, who flew A-10 fighter jets in the Afghan War, also supports putting a “limited” numbers of advisers on the ground to increase the effectiveness of airstrikes.
Veteran voices could also be important as Congress decides whether to return to automatic spending cuts known as the sequester.
And they could also have a voice in reforming the Department of Veterans Affairs, and in overseeing the way sexual assault is handled within the military.
Next year, each military service will have to present plans on how to integrate women into every military job available — including special operations, or else explain why they cannot serve in a particular capacity.
Ernst has spoken out about being sexually harassed in the military and sides with Sen. Kirsten GillibrandKirsten GillibrandSenators demand Pentagon action after nude photo scandal Chelsea Clinton to be honored by Variety, Lifetime Ten years later, House Dems reunite and look forward MORE (D-N.Y.) in taking away commanders’ authority to decide next steps when allegations arise against a service member serving in a unit they have responsibility over.
“This is something we need to reach across the aisle and work on…I’d be happy to work with Senator Gillibrand to find a solution,” Ernst said in an interview with The Hill.
Veterans Campaign’s Seth Lynn said veterans are less afraid to buck their parties on votes. For example, he said, Duckworth and Gabbard both recently cast votes in September against the president’s proposal to arm and train Syrian rebels.
“You have a lot of women who’ve been in the military who are willing to push pretty hard, and put up with a lot of challenges in order to keep serving, which is exactly the kind of mindset you need to have to be a successful politician,” Lynn said.
A roster of the 11 female veteran candidates include several women who have broken glass ceilings in the military.
For example, Libertarian Donna Dunn, a former Marine, who is running for a House Indiana seat, was the first woman to serve as the Sergeant of the Guard at Camp Pendleton.
And Republican Wendy Rogers, a retired Air Force Lieutenant Colonel running for an Arizona House seat, was one of the Air Force’s first 100 female pilots.
Lynn said there will likely be more female veterans running for office, since there are more returning home from the recent wars.
“I think it’s one of the biggest pools of new elected talent. I think you’re going to find it will keep growing in the future,” said Lynn. “It’s the first time you’re seeing a lot of returning female combat veterans.”