Iraq, Afghanistan War Vets Target the Senate in 2014

Combat veterans’ numbers in Congress have dwindled, but three candidates are hoping to be the first from these wars elected to the upper chamber.

Joni Ernst was struggling to get traction in the Iowa Senate primary.  Then she ran an ad about hog castration.
National Journal
Zach C. Cohen
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Zach C. Cohen
Aug. 4, 2014, 1 a.m.

If Re­pub­lic­ans take the Sen­ate in Novem­ber, it could be thanks to two can­did­ates who could form their own first-of-its-kind caucus: com­bat vet­er­ans of the wars in Ir­aq and Afgh­anistan elec­ted to the Sen­ate.

Rep. Tom Cot­ton, the Re­pub­lic­an Sen­ate can­did­ate in Arkan­sas, com­pleted tours in Ir­aq and Afgh­anistan as an in­fantry of­ficer. Joni Ernst, a Re­pub­lic­an state sen­at­or from Iowa, would also be the first fe­male com­bat vet­er­an in the Sen­ate if she wins in Novem­ber. Both are locked in tough races for Demo­crat­ic-held seats this fall that are crit­ic­al to GOP hopes. Demo­crat­ic Sen. John Walsh, a former Montana Na­tion­al Guard com­mand­er who served in Ir­aq, is also run­ning for a full term after a Feb­ru­ary ap­point­ment — though his pro­spects may be dim­mer ahead of a tough cam­paign.

More vic­tor­ies would swell the ranks of vet­er­ans of the re­cent Middle East wars in Con­gress — a new wave of politi­cians that ob­serv­ers from both parties hope will bring a dose of per­spect­ive and prag­mat­ism to vet­er­ans’ is­sues, even if they don’t al­ways align ideo­lo­gic­ally.

Cot­ton says that the 2015 Sen­ate class he hopes to be a part of would be just the be­gin­ning.

“For the most part, Ir­aq and Afgh­anistan vet­er­ans are still a little young to have reached the stage in life to be run­ning for pub­lic of­fice — or at least fed­er­al of­fice — in large num­bers,” Cot­ton said. “But I think over the next six to eight years, you’ll be­gin to see the num­ber of vet­er­ans re­bound.”

The num­ber of vet­er­ans in Con­gress has been dwind­ling since the 1980s, as World War II vet­er­ans began leav­ing of­fice. Vet­er­ans’ share of Con­gress dipped to just 20 per­cent in the cur­rent Con­gress, as the Sen­ate’s last World War II vet­er­an, Sen. Frank Lauten­berg, died last year.

But Afgh­anistan and Ir­aq vet­er­ans in the House have be­gun to fill in the gaps. And even though vet­er­ans in Con­gress run the ideo­lo­gic­al gamut, some hope new ones can change the polit­ic­al dis­cus­sion in the os­si­fied Sen­ate.

Jon Soltz, the chair­man of the left-lean­ing VoteVets PAC, notes that re­cent com­bat vet­er­ans from both parties in the House — like Re­pub­lic­an Chris Gib­son and Demo­crats Tammy Duck­worth and Tulsi Gab­bard — have ten­ded to­ward less-in­ter­ven­tion­ist for­eign policy than some of their Vi­et­nam-era coun­ter­parts like Re­pub­lic­an Sen. John Mc­Cain. Law­makers and ad­voc­ates agreed that sol­diers’ en­hanced un­der­stand­ing of the on-the-ground situ­ation in the Middle East al­lows them to serve a unique func­tion in for­eign policy le­gis­lat­ing.

And vet­er­ans con­trib­ute to is­sues bey­ond for­eign af­fairs. Cot­ton said those with mil­it­ary back­ground bring “a sense of per­spect­ive and also a sense of ser­i­ous­ness and pur­pose.”

Gib­son, a mod­er­ate Re­pub­lic­an, said he was look­ing for­ward to hav­ing more mem­bers with sim­il­ar ex­per­i­ence throughout Con­gress, who he said “with few ex­cep­tions” are more prag­mat­ic than their ci­vil­ian col­leagues. “You can have any idea you want. This is Amer­ica,” Gib­son said. “But at the end of the day, you have to get the job done.”

Cot­ton and Ernst’s mil­it­ary bio­graph­ies are play­ing a role in both cam­paigns. Ernst, a lieu­ten­ant col­on­el in the Iowa Army Na­tion­al Guard, has cam­paigned on her time as a com­pany com­mand­er run­ning con­voys from Kuwait in­to Ir­aq. And ad­vert­ising in both Iowa and Arkan­sas has touted the Re­pub­lic­ans’ mil­it­ary ser­vice.

Ernst and Cot­ton could join a num­ber of oth­er post-9/11 war vet­er­ans in the Sen­ate even if Montana’s Walsh loses. Alaska Re­pub­lic­an Dan Sul­li­van, an­oth­er 2014 Sen­ate can­did­ate and a lieu­ten­ant col­on­el in the U.S. Mar­ines Corps Re­serves, de­ployed to Afgh­anistan in 2013, though he has stressed he’s not a “com­bat” vet­er­an. And Sens. Mark Kirk and Lind­sey Gra­ham de­ployed to Afgh­anistan on re­serve duty while serving in the Sen­ate, as did then-Sen. Scott Brown when he was rep­res­ent­ing Mas­sachu­setts. Brown is run­ning in New Hamp­shire this year.

Soltz, a vet­er­an of the Op­er­a­tion Ir­aqi Free­dom, be­lieves more post-9/11 vets will run for the Sen­ate in 2016, in­clud­ing re­peat Pennsylvania Sen­ate can­did­ate Joe Ses­tak, now that they have built up polit­ic­al in­fra­struc­ture and ca­reers out­side of the mil­it­ary.

“[Ernst, Cot­ton, and Sul­li­van] are pro­fes­sion­al politi­cians. These aren’t people that are straight off the plane run­ning for of­fice,” Soltz said. “This is not what we see here. And that’s why we’re see­ing an evol­u­tion now, people who have worked their way up in polit­ics that are now run­ning for statewide of­fice.”

To that point, vic­tor­ies by Cot­ton and Ernst wouldn’t be uni­ver­sally cel­eb­rated. Soltz has vowed to spend “hun­dreds of thou­sands of dol­lars” work­ing to de­feat them (part of $5 mil­lion over­all to en­sure Re­pub­lic­ans don’t take con­trol of the Sen­ate) as well as any can­did­ates that do not align with VoteVets on is­sues such as non-in­ter­ven­tion­ism, Vet­er­ans Af­fairs re­form, and en­ergy in­de­pend­ence.

“I’m go­ing to prob­ably go after all of them,” Soltz said. “…Those aren’t the types of people that we feel rep­res­ent vet­er­ans’ in­terest in Con­gress. Peri­od.”

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