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Vulnerable Members Go to Iraq

Two Skip Convention to Visit the Troops

Two Democratic House Members locked in competitive races for re-election in districts that lean Republican have a unique excuse for skipping their party’s convention in Denver this week — they’re in Iraq.

Freshman Reps. Don Cazayoux (D-La.) and Joe Donnelly (D-Ind.) landed in the Middle East on Wednesday on a trip that will have them visit troops in Iraq and Afghanistan over the next several days. The trip is an official Congressional delegation visit, sponsored by the House Armed Services Committee, and also includes one of that panel’s senior Republicans, Rep. John McHugh (N.Y.), who is expected to return in time for next week’s GOP convention in Minnesota.

“I believe the most important place for me to be in the last week of August is overseas with our troops,” said Cazayoux, who is making his first overseas visit since being elected almost four months ago. “Traveling to Iraq and Afghanistan will not only give me a first-hand view of the situation on the ground, but also a chance to visit with and thank our men and women who are so bravely and honorably serving our country.”

Samantha Slater, a spokesman for Donnelly, said the freshman Congressman is making his third trip to Iraq and Afghanistan since being elected.

“He wants to go visit the troops,” she said. “He had the option to go now and it was his priority.”

It’s not unusual for lawmakers to miss conventions, and several conservative Democrats skipped this year’s gathering. The freshman lawmakers are unique in using their absence to showcase their national security credentials — reflecting the continued importance lawmakers in swing districts place on being seen as supporting troops.

Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee Chairman Chris Van Hollen (Md.) said it was left to incumbents to decide if they should come to the convention. He said Members would not face any penalties for skipping the quadrennial event.

“What these guys are doing is showing they are out there monitoring the situation and keeping up with what’s happening on the ground,” Van Hollen said.

Both Members face tough re-election races and Republicans are already using news of the trip to criticize Democrats’ position on the Iraq War.

National Republican Congressional Committee spokesman Ken Spain said, “Maybe when Joe Donnelly and Don Cazayoux return from Iraq, they will finally have the courage to speak up against the chorus of Democrats in Denver who stand opposed to Gen. [David] Petraeus’ successful change in strategy in Iraq. Until they do so, they might as well be cheering on Nancy Pelosi, Hillary Clinton, Barack Obama and the thousands of left-wing activists at the convention.”

Cazayoux, a former state Representative, surprised some political observers by defeating ex-state Rep. Woody Jenkins (R) in a hotly contested special election to fill the seat of former Rep. Richard Baker (R). Cazayoux won the race with just 50 percent of the race and will face a tough battle in holding onto his seat with both a Republican challenger and an African-American running as Independent for the Baton Rouge-based seat.

Donnelly won his seat with 54 percent of the vote last year. However, the northwestern Indiana district that includes South Bend is considered reliable for Republicans in presidential and statewide contests. He’s facing Republican businessman Luke Puckett.

Neither lawmaker serves on the Armed Services Committee, although both are members of the Veterans’ Affairs Committee. Cazayoux does not have any military units from his district currently in Iraq or Afghanistan, but Donnelly does have troops stationed in the Middle East.

“The trip will help me in my position on the Veterans’ Affairs Committee as I will have a broader understanding of the challenges that returning veterans face,” Cazayoux said. An aide said about one out of every 10 voters in his district is a veteran.

Slater said Donnelly also has a “strong veterans’ presence” in his district and that the trip would help with his work on the Veterans’ Affairs Committee.

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