Republicans make play for vets' votes

Republicans make play for vets' votes
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Republican presidential candidates, in a crowded field that lacks a top player who’s also a veteran, are scrambling to court members of the armed services.

That appeal comes in a variety of ways — including campaign committees, veteran services, or simply keeping veterans’ issues at the forefront of their stump speeches — as the GOP hopefuls jockey for the small, yet active, voting bloc. 

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Veterans, while a smaller portion of the electorate, are more likely than the general population to turn out to vote. In the 2012 general election, 70 percent of veterans went to the polls, compared with 61 percent of nonveterans, according to data from the VA.

And with turnout typically lower in primary elections, finding reliable voters could be essential, GOP strategist Reed Galen said. 

“If you can build a very strong veterans coalition, it provides a positive marker for the rest of your campaign,” he said.

The veteran vote may be most important in South Carolina, home of the third nominating contest of 2016. One in 5 GOP primary voters in 2012 was a veteran, and each of the past two primary winners, Newt Gingrich in 2012 and John McCainJohn Sidney McCainTrump will likely win reelection in 2020 Kevin McLaughlin tapped to serve as NRSC executive director for 2020 Kasich on death of 7-year-old in Border Patrol custody: 'Shame on Congress' MORE in 2008, attracted more veteran support than their rivals did. 

South Carolina won’t be the only big prize, Galen said. A significant portion of active duty military members and veterans are from Southern states that vote on Super Tuesday, March 1.

Right now, businessman Donald TrumpDonald John TrumpFamily says Trump travel ban preventing mother from seeing dying son Saudi Arabia rejects Senate position on Khashoggi killing Five things to know about the Trump inauguration investigation MORE is dominating most of the early polls in these states — as he does in most others — but Sen. Ted CruzRafael (Ted) Edward CruzO’Rourke: Asking whether he is ready for White House is a ‘great question’ Trump risks clash with Congress over Chinese executive Biden, Sanders lead field in Iowa poll MORE (Texas) is also performing well there, and those states are central to his strategy.  

Cruz’s main outreach to veterans goes through the “Vets for Ted” coalition, led in part by South Carolina lawyer Bill Connor, a former Army combat officer.   

Connor noted that Cruz, who serves on the Senate Armed Services Committee, is meticulously involved in developing the coalition's policies and that he’s been working with the senator on a new policy proposal that is still in the works. 

Rubio’s team declined to talk political comparisons between the Florida senator and the rest of the field. 

But communications director Alex Conant told The Hill that Rubio’s role in helping to shepherd legislation reforming the Veterans Affairs Department into law, including his bill to allow the VA broader leeway to fire poorly performing employees, is one of his “biggest accomplishments in the Senate.”  

That major piece of Rubio’s resume, along with his service on both the Foreign Relations and Intelligence committees, is appealing to veterans, for whom defense issues remain a significant issue, Conant added.  

Candidates in the middle of the pack are also making efforts to win over service members. 

Former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush recently rolled out additions to his South Carolina veterans committee meant as a show of strength in a state with significant veteran ties.

Dan Caldwell, a Marine veteran who is the legislative and political director for Concerned Veterans for America, praised Bush for having “the most substantial VA reform proposal of any candidate not currently in office.”

Caldwell also singled out Rubio, Cruz and businesswoman Carly Fiorina with praise for how they’ve addressed veterans issues. 

The group, which is funded by the donor network of billionaire industrialists Charles and David Koch, doesn't officially endorse candidates.

And while Fiorina hasn’t served in political office, a campaign aide says she tries to bring up the issue at “every event” and has pledged a full overhaul to help raise the standard of care.

All of the other major GOP hopefuls have called for similar VA reforms, and Gov. John Kasich (Ohio) also has his own “Veterans for Kasich” committee.  

The Concerned Veterans group panned Trump’s plan as “unserious” when he announced it earlier this month. That plan has the same goals as most others — reforming the VA and giving veterans more leeway to seek private care — but Caldwell elaborated in a recent interview that while he wants to give Trump credit recognizing the need for change at the VA, his plan doubles down on some of the agency’s issues.  

Sam Clovis, a top Trump adviser who is also a veteran, wouldn’t address that criticism directly, but he noted that some groups are “uncomfortable” because Trump isn’t an “establishment darling.” 

He believes Trump’s strong personality and business success, which has helped to drive his general support, resonates well with veterans. 

Trump also publicly called for television networks to donate debate proceeds to veterans groups, launched a veterans telephone hotline days after making disparaging comments about McCain’s war record and rolled out a veterans coalition in New Hampshire — with more on the way, according to Clovis.  

Ben Carson is a more complex case. Caldwell said that while the group supports most of his VA overhaul plan, he’s waiting on more details from the former neurosurgeon and wouldn’t support completely abolishing the agency, which Carson had previously suggested. 

A Carson aide told The Hill that the candidate doesn’t support abolishing the VA. His plan would turn most VA facilities into specialty facilities, leaving some major locations as standard VA hospitals. It would also create healthcare spending accounts for veterans allowing them to use VA-only subsidies instead for VA or private care.   

The aide also believes that Carson’s two-pronged approach, focusing on veterans and disabled veterans resonates, especially because of his medical background. 

And as far as convincing veterans and others that he’d be a responsible steward for the keys to the strongest military in the world, the aide noted that there’s been a “renewed focus on foreign policy” for all candidates and that Carson continues to meet with a handful of “top military brass” to help inform his opinion. 

But the barrage of criticism, and negative headlines, about how he handles foreign affairs could hurt Carson with veterans, Galen said. 

“For not only veterans but a lot of other Republican voters, it's one thing to not have served,” he said. “It’s another thing to not be able to communicate what you do and how you do it.” 

Whomever veterans choose, he or she is unlikely to have had military experience. The veterans in the race — Sen. Lindsey GrahamLindsey Olin GrahamOcasio-Cortez: By Lindsey Graham's 1999 standard for Clinton, Trump should be impeached Senate votes to end US support for Saudi war, bucking Trump Former FBI official says Mueller won’t be ‘colored by politics’ in Russia probe MORE (S.C.) and former Virginia Gov. Jim Gilmore — haven’t been able to gain traction. 

Connor, the Cruz veterans outreach staffer, would love more veteran representation but is happy with his choice. 

“I think veterans are a bit disappointed overall that there is a lack of veteran representation, but it doesn’t mean that veterans are only going to support veteran candidates,” he said. 

“It’s not a qualifier.”