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Defense-oriented Democrats mostly survive electoral scare

Most vulnerable Democrats with national security backgrounds first elected in 2018 survived challenging races

Virginia Rep. Elaine Luria, a former Navy commander who serves on the House Armed Services Committee, was a rare loss among the defense-minded Democrats first elected in 2018.
Virginia Rep. Elaine Luria, a former Navy commander who serves on the House Armed Services Committee, was a rare loss among the defense-minded Democrats first elected in 2018. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call file photo)

Defense-oriented House Democrats, including a cadre of self-described “badass” women with national security backgrounds, were largely unscathed after Tuesday’s election.

Although they still could lose their House majority, Democrats overall did better at the ballot box than many had predicted. And the same was the case with Democrats who serve on the defense and foreign policy committees and whose races were rated as competitive.

In 2018, dozens of newly elected Democrats came to Washington in what was called a blue wave. A handful of members of that class with national security backgrounds joined the Armed Services and Foreign Affairs panels.

Before Tuesday, many Democrats had reason to worry that the expertise, energy and sometimes political heterodoxy of those members would be largely lost. But with one or two exceptions, the group will still bring those qualities to bear, albeit possibly no longer as members of the majority.

Rep. Elaine Luria, D-Va., is so far the only Democrat in that 2018 group with national security experience to be defeated Tuesday, losing to Virginia state Sen. Jen Kiggans, a former Navy helicopter pilot.

As of Wednesday morning, Rep. Tom Malinowski, D-N.J., a former State Department assistant secretary who serves on the Foreign Affairs Committee, was losing his contest against Thomas Kean Jr. But the race had not been called.

Another campaign involving a class of 2018 member of Armed Services, the reelection bid of Maine Rep. Jared Golden, was also not yet settled, though he was leading at last count against Bruce Poliquin, a Republican who used to hold the seat.

Survivors

Apart from those few endangered members, the overwhelming majority of the second-term House Democrats with national security bona fides will continue to serve, even though most had faced competitive reelection contests. 

Luria was one of five Democratic female “badasses” in the 2018 class. The other four survived Tuesday’s election.

Two were former CIA analysts. Reps. Elissa Slotkin of Michigan, who serves on Armed Services, and Abigail Spanberger of Virginia, who sits on the Foreign Affairs panel, both beat back strong reelection challenges. 

Notably, Wyoming Republican Rep. Liz Cheney, another Armed Services woman who has become a pariah in her party for serving on the Jan. 6 committee and defying former President Donald Trump, endorsed both Slotkin and Spanberger this fall.

Also winning were the other two members of that female cadre: Armed Services Democratic Reps. Mikie Sherrill of New Jersey, a former Navy lieutenant and federal prosecutor, and Chrissy Houlahan of Pennsylvania, a former Air Force captain.

Those five women made more news than usual in fall 2019 when they were among seven members of their class to write a Washington Post op-ed arguing to impeach Trump over charges he tried to coerce Ukraine’s government into providing political dirt on Joe Biden.

“These allegations are a threat to all we have sworn to protect” was the piece’s headline.

California’s Gil Cisneros, who lost his 2020 bid for reelection and is now undersecretary of Defense for personnel and readiness, and Rep. Jason Crow of Colorado, another Armed Services member who was reelected Tuesday, were the other two Democratic signatories. 

Also winning Tuesday was another second-term Armed Services member, Rep. Andy Kim of New Jersey, a Rhodes scholar who formerly served, among other positions, as adviser to top U.S. commanders in overseas war zones and on the National Security Council during the Obama administration.

And two senior Democratic members of the Defense Appropriations Subcommittee who faced contested reelection battles won Tuesday: Reps. Marcy Kaptur of Ohio and Henry Cuellar of Texas. 

Another winner of note, this one from the Republican side of Armed Services: Rep. Don Bacon of Nebraska, a former Air Force one-star general who had had a competitive race in a district carried by Biden in 2020.

Loss of Luria

Luria is a former Navy commander who represented the service’s East Coast hub in Norfolk. As a member of the Armed Services Committee, Luria could be the Pentagon’s biggest supporter or its biggest critic. Either way, she was rarely unprepared for a hearing or discussion. 

She also was a member of the Jan. 6 committee investigating the Capitol riot of 2021.

Luria had served in the Navy for two decades as a surface warfare officer and a nuclear engineer, ultimately rising to commander. She was a determined advocate of sustaining high levels of defense spending, especially for construction and maintenance of warships. 

Luria’s tongue could be sharp. On at least one occasion, Luria said Biden’s defense budget “sucks.”

She was similarly blunt when reacting on Twitter last April to Navy plans to retire a couple dozen warships that still had life left in them.

“The Navy owes a public apology to American taxpayers for wasting tens of billions of dollars on ships they now say serve no purpose,” Luria tweeted.

Luria broke with the president and other Democrats in opposing a new Iran deal. And she has been outspoken that U.S. policy should make clear that the American military would defend Taiwan if China attacked. 

Luria joined Golden, a Marine Corps veteran and fellow Democratic hawk on Armed Services, in writing an amendment to increase the authorized level of defense spending in fiscal 2023 by $37 billion above the Biden administration’s $813 billion request. The provision became part of the House’s fiscal 2023 National Defense Authorization Act. The full Senate has yet to act on its own NDAA, and Washington has yet to enact appropriations for fiscal 2023.

The amendment was important to both Luria and Golden not just for its overall support of military programs but, more particularly, because it backed the construction of warships that were built in Maine and homeported in Navy strongholds such as Luria’s district.

Specifically, the amendment supported buying an additional Arleigh Burke class destroyer in fiscal 2023. Some of those massive warships are built at General Dynamics’ Bath Iron Works shipyard, one of Maine’s biggest employers and strongest political forces. 

In the fiscal 2022 NDAA, Golden inserted a provision authorizing the Navy to negotiate and sign a multiyear contract for up to 15 of the destroyers. 

While Golden may still retain his job, Luria’s departure means one less strong voice in favor of shipbuilding on the committee and in the House. 

On the other hand, with Republicans appearing likely to be in the majority in the new House, the votes of hawkish Democrats will not be needed as much to keep the Pentagon budget rising. 

As for Malinowski, his potential departure means one fewer leader of the Problem Solvers Caucus, a bipartisan group looking for pragmatic policy ideas. Malinowski serves on Foreign Affairs and on the Homeland Security Committee. He was formerly also an advocate with Human Rights Watch and a member of President Bill Clinton’s National Security Council. 

The House Ethics Committee has been investigating an allegation that Malinowski failed to disclose stock trades in a timely fashion, as required by law.

Luria’s and Malinowski’s districts were redrawn prior to this cycle to make them more favorable for Republican candidates.

Forging on

The members of the 2018 class of defense-oriented Democrats who won Tuesday will continue to rise in seniority, albeit perhaps in the minority, on committees that will have lost long-serving stalwarts, due mainly to retirements of senior members.

Slotkin is a good example. Before her 2018 election to represent a Michigan district around Lansing, Slotkin had been a CIA analyst and an expert working in the White House, the Pentagon and the Office of the Director of National Intelligence.

Soon after arriving on Capitol Hill, she drew a distinction between lawmakers who are “work horses,” a stable she counted herself in, and those she dubbed “show ponies,” meaning the ones interested more in public perception and political self-interest. 

Slotkin’s predilection for unsexy work was manifest in her co-chairmanship, with Wisconsin Republican Rep. Mike Gallagher, of a House Armed Services task force on supply chain vulnerabilities. 

She has characterized herself and the other four members of the female 2018 defense-minded cohort as work horses. Most of them will still be working in the House come January.

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