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More veterans running for office as numbers dwindle in Congress

More veterans running for office as numbers dwindle in Congress
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More veterans are running for House and Senate seats this year compared to recent election cycles, but a wave of retirements and entrenched politics mean the next Congress is likely to see a decline in lawmakers with military service. 

More than 180 veterans are on the ballot Tuesday, up 5 percent from 2018, according to tracking from the University of San Francisco and Veterans Campaign, a nonprofit that helps veterans run for office. That figure includes 163 House nominees – the most since 2012 – and another 18 in the Senate, including double the number of women veterans compared to two years ago.

But with nearly 20 percent of veterans elected in 2018 retiring from Congress, with other incumbents facing tough reelection odds, Congress is likely to have fewer veterans when lawmakers are sworn in next year, according to Veterans Campaign Executive Director Seth Lynn.

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And despite the increase in veteran candidates, many are running long-shot campaigns in districts that lean heavily toward one political party.

“Military service experience is never going to trump the baseline partisanship of a district,” said Jeremy Teigen, a political science professor at Ramapo College of New Jersey who tracks military and veteran voting patterns. 

In the case of very close races, however, “the service experience of the candidates – especially for challengers who are making a name for themselves – fence-sitting persuadable voters might be attracted to that.”

Of the 53 Democratic and 110 Republican veterans on the ballot for House seats - including both incumbents and challengers - at least 10 are likely to win. Another dozen find themselves in purple districts that could go their way.

While veterans status is perceived to be much higher today than it was 15 years ago, Americans, when choosing between two candidates, won’t necessarily lean more toward one that has past military experience, according to Alice Hunt Friend, a former defense official now an expert at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. 

“That’s the interesting part. People who are veterans find that part of their identity to be really appealing and helpful when making the case to voters that they ought to have public office,” she said. 

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At the end of the day, “that doesn’t seem to be sufficient for people to vote for you.”

The number of veterans in Congress has been on the decline for decades. In the 1970s, more than 70 percent of lawmakers had served in the military. For the 116th Congress, started in January 2019, that figure was less than 18 percent, according to the Congressional Research Service.

That decline, Teigen noted, tracks with the shrinking percentage of service members in the overall U.S. population, less than 1 percent of Americans.

“In WWII, we sent an entire generation of men to fight two massive land wars for four years and now we rely on fewer than 1 million people in our military to be redeployed over and over. We just don’t make many veterans anymore,” he said.

But there is a significant increase in the number of female veterans running for Congress this year -- 24 in the House and four in the Senate. There are currently seven women veterans in Congress, the most in U.S. history. 

In the Senate, one of the closest and highest-profile races this year features two veterans: Sen. Martha McSallyMartha Elizabeth McSallyCindy McCain on possible GOP censure: 'I think I'm going to make T-shirts' Arizona state GOP moves to censure Cindy McCain, Jeff Flake Trump renominates Judy Shelton in last-ditch bid to reshape Fed MORE (R-Ariz.), a former Air Force colonel who was appointed to her Senate seat, and Democratic challenger Mark Kelly, a retired Navy captain and NASA astronaut.

The Cook Political Report, a nonpartisan elections handicapper, rates the Arizona race as “lean Democratic.”

Another tight race features Sen. Joni ErnstJoni Kay ErnstThe Hill's Morning Report - Biden takes office, calls for end to 'uncivil war' Senate confirms Biden's intel chief, giving him first Cabinet official Democrats torn on impeachment trial timing MORE, (R-Iowa), a retired Army National Guard lieutenant colonel facing a challenge from Theresa Greenfield (D), who has not served in the military.

Ernst is the first female combat veteran in the Senate, having served in Iraq.

The data website FiveThirtyEight as well as the Cook Political Report list the race as a toss-up.

Other female veterans seeking to join the Senate ranks for the first time include former Marine Corps fighter pilot Amy McGrath, the Democratic nominee in Kentucky challenging Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnellAddison (Mitch) Mitchell McConnellTrump selects South Carolina lawyer for impeachment trial McConnell proposes postponing impeachment trial until February For Biden, a Senate trial could aid bipartisanship around COVID relief MORE (R), and Democrat MJ Hegar, a former Army major and helicopter pilot who is hoping to unseat Sen. John CornynJohn CornynLimbaugh falsely says Biden didn't win legitimately while reacting to inauguration Top Texas Democratic Party staffers to step down after underwhelming election results K Street navigates virtual inauguration week MORE (R-Texas).

The Cook Political report lists the Kentucky race as “likely Republican,” with the Texas race “lean Republican.”

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Rep. Doug CollinsDouglas (Doug) Allen CollinsDrudge congratulates Warnock, says Ann Coulter should have been GOP candidate Warnock defeats Loeffler in Georgia Senate runoff Warnock says he needs to win 'by comfortable margin' because 'funny things go on' MORE (R-Ga.) is another veteran seeking a Senate seat. He is on the ballot Tuesday against Sen. Kelly LoefflerKelly LoefflerLimbaugh falsely says Biden didn't win legitimately while reacting to inauguration Suburbs pose challenge for GOP in post-Trump era Democrats swear in three senators to gain majority MORE (R) and others to serve out the rest of former Sen. Johnny IsaksonJohnny IsaksonLoeffler concedes to Warnock Hawley to still object to Pennsylvania after Capitol breached Hillary Clinton trolls McConnell: 'Senate Minority Leader' MORE’s (R) term. That race is a toss-up.

Notable House races that include veterans include Democrat Jackie Gordon, who served 29 years in the Army and is running for the seat left vacant by retired Rep. Peter King (R-N.Y.); Rep. Max RoseMax RoseWe lost in November — we're proud we didn't take corporate PAC money COVID-19 is wild card as Pelosi faces tricky Speaker vote Sunday Yang files to open campaign account for NYC mayor MORE (D-N.Y.), an Army veteran and current National Guard captain who is seeking reelection in a swing district; and Democrat Gina Ortiz Jones, an Iraq War veteran and former Air Force intelligence officer who hopes to win the seat being vacated by retiring Rep. Will HurdWilliam Ballard HurdHouse poised to override Trump veto for first time Lawmakers call for including creation of Latino, women's history museums in year-end spending deal House Republicans who didn't sign onto the Texas lawsuit MORE (R-Texas).

The Gordon and Rose races are toss-ups, while the Texas district race is leaning Democrat.

Danielle Lupton, a Colgate University professor who tracks foreign policy and defense issues in Congress, said one place where veterans could see an advantage is in Republican or competitive districts, as service members and veterans tend to lean Republican. 

“Veterans who are Democrats are especially appealing to the Democratic party in Republican districts because the notion is that what military service signals is either that you’re of a certain type or that you have expertise on national security, foreign policy and defense issues which is things that traditionally Democrats have been viewed as less competent on,” Lupton said. 

The problem, however, is “we know from American politics that the number one factor determining how people vote is their partisanship. The notion of an undecided voter, especially in this election, is I think really quite a bit of a unicorn,” she said.

“I think a lot of whether or not we’re going to see these veterans converting has to do with the districts they’re in.”