Female vets could lead the change in 2020

Female vets could lead the change in 2020
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Woman veterans were an advantage to the “every zip code” strategy of the Democrats, helping them win in the more moderate districts that were key to the 2018 midterms. If this year’s cycle was a setup for Democrats in 2020, the DNC should double down on its investment in female candidates with military experience. 

We looked at the 80 key U.S. House races that the New York Times rated as lean Democratic, toss up and lean Republican. Democrats in swing districts generally ran on centrist agendas that defied stereotypes and policy positions typically associated with Democratic candidates. They ran as people not party members; as pragmatists not politicians. They ran as outsiders.


Much of the conversation since last Tuesday has surrounded two distinct waves; a pink wave represented by the largest number of women being elected to Congress and a blue wave of Democrats, including Democratic veterans. These waves swept in the largest-ever number of female candidates with military experience and doubled the number of female veterans in Congress.

Women veterans fit into the Democrats' House strategy in unique ways. As women, they did well running on anti-corruption platforms because gender stereotypes positioned them as inherently more moral. They could leverage Democrats' Washington dysfunction talking points especially well.

As vets, they could also tout service before party and refrain from seeming too liberal. Military experience is generally perceived as moderating. This was an important tactic for Democrats since their House battles were playing out on moderate turf. It was especially helpful to the female Democratic candidates who are sometimes pigeonholed as leftist.


Finally, women with military experience were — obviously —  female, giving them access to the Democrats' Year of the Woman narrative, grassroots energy and the extra cash floating around for women this year. The woman veteran was the perfect strategic play; a trifecta for Dems this cycle: trustworthy, moderate and female.

Take Rep.-elect Mikie Sherrill (D-N.J.) who claimed she was “standing on the shoulders of [these] women.” These women being the suburban, upper-middle class, female activists of groups like NJ11 for Change. NJ11 for Change helped force Rep. Rodney FrelinghuysenRodney Procter FrelinghuysenBottom line Republican lobbying firms riding high despite uncertainty of 2020 race Ex-Rep. Frelinghuysen joins law and lobby firm MORE (R-N.J.) into retirement before gathering more steam and jumping full throttle into Sherrill’s campaign.

Sherrill excited exactly the type of voters that Democrats needed to flip the House. Just ask upset winner Rep-elect Abigail Spanberger (D-Va.). She’s a self-proclaimed, “former CIA operative, Girl Scout leader, ready to represent Virginia’s 7th District in Congress.” Military women checked all the boxes.

We parsed the Times list of races 80 key races. Forty of them (50 percent) were won by Democrats (or have Dems up with votes still being counted). Twenty-two of the races Democrats won were female victories (55 percent). Including all female candidates with former active military service and defense backgrounds, five of the races won by female Democrats were won by military women. That’s 23 percent of all Democratic female victories. That’s not insignificant given how rare it is to find military women in Congress.

The 2020 map no doubt looks a lot different from the 2018 midterms; Democrats will be focused on the Senate and the presidency. The latter is unpredictable but the Senate is sure to be a tough road again next cycle. States like North Carolina, Virginia, Iowa and Arizona will all be in contention. This could bode well for the small but growing caucus of military women.

The upper chamber’s battles will play out on moderate turf as did many of this year’s midterm battles. Female vets have proven themselves strong fundraisers and excellent candidates in this context. Several of these states have already proven themselves friendly to female vets. A smart Democratic strategy should look for others to join them.  

Heather James is teaches political science at the Borough of Manhattan Community College - CUNY and the campus coordinator for CUNY's Edward T. Rogowsky internship program in government and public affairs. Her research work focuses on women, campaign finance and political parties. Stephanie Szitanyi is an assistant dean at the New School and an adjunct instructor at Marymount Manhattan College. She holds a PhD in political science from Rutgers University. Her work has been published in the International Feminist Journal of Politics. Her research focuses on women in the military, female political representation and the militarization of American culture.