The Democratic rebuild at the state level may be done on the backs of veterans of America’s recent conflicts abroad.
Just as Republicans took over the Senate in 2014 with the help of veterans of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, Democrats have now lined up at least half a dozen current and former members of the military to run for governor.
Running in states from Maine to Arizona, the candidates could strengthen the party’s effort to cut into the GOP’s 2-to-1 advantage in governor’s mansions—but they have tough fights ahead in primaries, against incumbents, and for open seats the party hasn’t held in years.
“Veterans aren’t dominated by one political party or the other,” said Jon Soltz, the chairman of VoteVets, a group that backs Democratic veterans running for office. “What you’re seeing is … the heightened amount of Democrats that are really upset over Trump seeing running for public office as a source of continuing their service to the country.”
Just one of the nine current governors who have served in the military is a Democrat. Louisiana Gov. John Bel Edwards’s background as a ranger and West Point graduate helped him introduce himself to conservative voters statewide in 2015 and bolstered TV ads that said his GOP opponent, then-Sen. David Vitter, “chose prostitutes over patriots.”
Edwards met earlier this year with South Carolina state Rep. James Smith, a Democrat considering a bid next year to unseat Gov. Henry McMaster, also a veteran. Edwards media consultant Jared Arsement said he too met with Smith to discuss using a military record on the campaign trail.
“Any veteran who’s looking at running for governor would probably do well to talk to John Bel,” Arsement said.
Smith, an active national guardsman who trained Afghan forces in Kandahar, said he won’t make a gubernatorial decision until the summer, but he emphasized in an interview that veterans bring to politics an authenticity, humility, and “perspective that is very much in need right now.”
Democrats’ efforts to elect more veterans begins in next month’s Virginia primary, when Lt. Gov. Ralph Northam faces off against former Rep. Tom Perriello. Northam regularly touts his experience as an Army neurologist helping Gulf War veterans at Landstuhl Regional Medical Center in Germany.
In an interview, Northam cited the fact that Virginia has one of the largest veteran populations in the country, but he also expressed concern about federal investment in the state’s military assets potentially at the expense of spending on health care and the environment.
“I’m all about a strong military, having served in the military,” Northam said. “But we have to be very careful. Where’s the money coming from?”
VoteVets endorsed Northam in January, days after Perriello entered the race. For next year’s races, the group has also already given $2,500 to Connie Pillich, who is running in the Ohio Democratic primary. The group previously supported Pillich’s 2014 state treasurer bid and the congressional campaigns of Rep. Tim Walz of Minnesota, a veteran of the Army National Guard who is running to replace Democratic Gov. Mark Dayton.
“When I was faced with the deindustrialization of our town and watching my dad have to reinvent himself in his 50s—and how hard that was on my family—I knew that I needed an education,” said Pillich, who spent part of her eight years in the Air Force in West Berlin during the Cold War. “And I really liked the idea of wearing the uniform of my country, and I was lucky that I was able to exchange my education for my service.”
Iowa state Rep. Todd Prichard and Newton, Massachusetts Mayor Setti Warren echoed similar themes in interviews about their deployments during the Iraq “surge.” Warren, who is running for the nomination to challenge Republican Gov. Charlie Baker, learned as an intelligence specialist that “we couldn’t afford not to work with one another,” and he said the same applies to overcoming “divisive politics.”
Prichard, a lieutenant colonel in the Army reserve who deployed to Kuwait, said fellow veterans in the state legislature “tend to be a little bit less partisan,” especially on veterans’ care.
“In Iraq, we had an enemy. They were trying to kill us,” Prichard said. “In here, the people on the other side of the aisle, they’re not really an enemy.”
Former Oklahoma Attorney General Drew Edmondson, who fought in Vietnam, is also contending for the Democratic nomination to replace Gov. Mary Fallin, who can’t seek reelection.
Candidates argued that the skills they developed in the military can be governing credentials. Arizona Democrat David Garcia, who hopes to take on Republican Gov. Doug Ducey next year, said his deployments to the Korean Peninsula and experience fighting fires in Yellowstone molded his “leadership style.”
“I don’t walk in a room and tell folks, ‘Hey, when I walk out of here, I’m going to be the guy in charge,’” Garcia said. “I walk in—much like an infantryman—looking to see what I can do, what I can contribute.”
Democrat Adam Cote, a decorated company commander in Afghanistan running for an open seat in Maine, led a platoon that built schools and clinics in Mosul during one of the deadliest years of Operation Iraqi Freedom. He said that as governor, fixing the state’s roads and bridges would be “one of the top priorities.”
“We built infrastructure in a wartime zone,” Cote said, “and frankly I can’t wait to do that in Maine, but without getting shot at.”
Correction: Northam was a neurologist at Landstuhl, not a neurosurgeon as originally written.