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Veterans Still Outpace Civilians in Congress, But Declines Continue

Midterms saw House increase in Democratic Vets, women with military experience

Jason Crow, Democratic candidate for Colorado’s 6th Congressional District won his election Tuesday. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call file)
Jason Crow, Democratic candidate for Colorado’s 6th Congressional District won his election Tuesday. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call file)

The number of military veterans in both chambers of Congress will at best remain unchanged despite a midterm cycle featuring dozens of candidates with military experience on both sides of the aisle.

Seventy-four veterans won House seats Tuesday night. Eight others were locked in races still too close to call Wednesday afternoon. In the Senate, a projected win for retired Air Force office Martha McSally in an Arizona race would bring the number of veterans in the next Congress to 17 — the same number that finished the 115th Congress. Even if veterans win all the outstanding races in the House, the percentage of House lawmakers with military experience will remain unchanged: 19 percent. 

That’s a disappointing performance for veterans’ advocates who had hoped to see an end to nearly 50 years of decline for veteran representation in Congress. However, the number of female veterans, Democrats with military experience and younger veterans with experience in Iraq and Afghanistan will rise. But the percentage of veterans in Congress is still higher than the greater population, just 8 percent even after almost two decades of war.

Veterans offered an antidote to divisive politics and a deadlocked Congresses in campaign commercials that highlighted their combat experience as evidence they could work across party lines and get things done in times of conflict.

Such characterizations are not supported by data, said Lindsey Cormack, a political scientist and author of “Congress and U.S. Veterans: From the GI Bill to the VA Crisis.”

“There is no evidence that once they get to Congress, veterans are more bipartisan than anyone else,” she said.

Rather, she attributed the large number of veterans on the ballot Tuesday to “smart politicking.”

“A lot more people are asking vets to run,” she said. The reason, she added, is simple:

“When you look at public opinion polls, people don’t trust politicians, lawyers, scientists but they do trust veterans,” she said.

Advocacy groups said veterans were well positioned to appeal to voters on a wide range of issues and gain the trust of voters who consistently rank military officers among the most honest and ethical professionals. 

Dan Caldwell, Executive Director of Concerned Veterans for America, said veterans from both parties campaigned on policy issues important to their constituents instead of expecting to stand out solely based on their military experience, a mistake candidates made in previous cycles.

“They had more developed and well-thought-out policy platforms,” he said.

CVA, is a non-profit in the Koch brothers’ political network and a vocal critic of the Veterans Affairs administration.

Josh Soltz, chairman of VoteVets, which supports Democratic veterans running in Congress, said veterans were uniquely positioned.

“This cycle is about winning in red America, and winning in districts that Democrats used to have.” he said. “This election is defined on Donald Trump, whether you are with him or against him or whether you want to stop his agenda. I think veterans will play a real role in stopping what he wants to do.”

He pointed to candidates such as Democrat Jason Crow, who defeated incumbent Mike Coffman in Colorado’s 6th District. Democrats targeted Coffman for several cycles. But Crow, a first-time candidate, was able to appeal to women in red parts of the district, which voted for Hillary Clinton in 2016, and tie Coffman to Trump at every turn.

Another example, he said, is Mikie Sherrill, a Navy veteran and former prosecutor, whose win Tuesday night represents the first time a Democrat will represent New Jersey’s 11th district since 1985.

Veterans will bring their personal and military experience to bear on a number of defense-related issues in the 116th Congress, including potential budget cuts at the Pentagon, the fallout from President Trump’s decision to deploy the national guard — a cost of $200- to $300 million — to stop a caravan of migrants heading to the U.S.-Mexico border, and debate over the Trump administration’s attempts to restrict transgender and immigrant service in the military.

Danielle Lupton, a Colgate University political science professor who has studied veterans in the House, said military experience tends to influence lawmakers’ votes on certain issues. When there are more veterans in Congress, she said, lawmakers are less likely to support the use of military force abroad. Veterans in Congress are also more likely to exert oversight over the president’s use of power in foreign policy than non-veterans, she said.

“It doesn’t matter if the president is of their party or not,” she said. “They will still increase oversight of war operations and try to put checks on presidential power.”

The new class of veterans also reflects the broader success of Democrats on the midterm ballot with 23 wins. (Five more await results in contests not called by publication time.) That comes after a period of decline in Democratic representation among veterans. During the Obama era, veterans were divided about evenly between Democrats and Republicans. But in the last Congress, about 80 percent of Congressional veterans were Republicans, Cormack said.

At least four female veterans have won their races, bringing the total number of women with military experience to ever serve in Congress to eight.

The number of lawmakers with military experience peaked at 75 percent in the House in 1967 and at 81 percent in the Senate in 1975, after conscription pushed larger percentages of the American into military service, according to the Pew Research Center.

At the end of the 115th Congress, there were 77 veterans in the House and 17 in the Senate, according to data compiled by CQ.

Air Force veteran Denver Riggleman, a Republican who will replace Rep. Tom Garrett in Virginia’s 5th District, agreed that foreign policy is an area where he and his veteran colleagues “will probably shine.”

“There’s an operational experience element to this,” Riggleman said. “There’s a sobriety that comes to that, that when you put people in harm’s way, there better be a darn good reason — because you’ve been there yourself.”

More than 170 veterans appeared on midterm ballots Tuesday, with years of service dating back to the 1950s. The candidates represented both parties: Sixty-two Democrats, 109 Republicans and one independent.

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