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Taking the Hill: Why more veterans are running for Congress

A wave of vets-turned-candidates are vowing to temper the culture of tribalism with a greater spirit of bipartisanship.

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War veteran Andrew Grant (l.) meets voters Don and Sharon Holl as he campaigns for the June 5 primary in Orangevale, Calif., near Sacramento, for a seat in Congress.

Melanie Stetson Freeman/Staff

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Marine Corps veteran Andrew Grant tucks a campaign flier into the hip pocket of his jeans, strides up the front walk, and rings the bell at a Spanish-style stucco home in this manicured suburb of Sacramento, Calif.

“I’m Andrew Grant, and I’m running for Congress,” the tall, athletic candidate tells retiree Don Holl, who cracks open the door and tentatively looks out. “I’m a Marine veteran,” Grant adds. 

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“Oh, thank you for your service,” Mr. Holl says, perking up.

“I’m running against Ami Bera,” Grant continues, referring to the Democratic incumbent in California’s contested Seventh Congressional District.

“Good!” says Holl, now smiling broadly. “You’ve got my vote!”

Across the United States, a growing number of veterans of recent wars – both Democratic and Republican, men and women – are volunteering to serve again by entering congressional races. The trend is encouraging to advocates and experts who see these races as the front line of a promising political initiative: enlisting new veterans to help bridge partisan divisions and bolster public confidence in Congress.

“We’ve seen a pretty dramatic increase in the number of veterans who are competitive” in the 2018 midterm elections compared with 2016, says Seth Lynn, executive director of Veterans Campaign, a Washington-based nonprofit that educates veterans about running for office.

Nearly 400 veterans – including almost 200 who served after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks – are currently running for Congress, according to a count maintained by With Honor, a “cross-partisan” super political action committee. With Honor is unusual because it endorses and funds veteran candidates from both parties who pledge to act with integrity and collaborate across the aisle.

People with military experience held the majority of US congressional seats for most of the latter half of the 20th century, and in 1969 they made up three-quarters of the House of Representatives and the Senate. Since then, however, the ranks of veterans in Congress have dwindled to about 20 percent today. Meanwhile, partisanship – measured by party conformity on roll call votes and an unwillingness to sponsor bipartisan legislation – has risen sharply. Public trust has eroded in Congress, which Gallup polls rank the least trustworthy among major American institutions.

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Candidates who’ve served in the military – the most trusted American institution, according to Gallup – represent an untapped pool of mission-driven leaders whose teamwork skills could help build bridges and get things done in Congress, advocates say. 

Research indicates that veterans, even from deep red and blue House districts, are more likely than nonveterans to cosponsor bipartisan legislation, according to a scoring index maintained by The Lugar Center, a Washington-based nonprofit. Younger veterans, including those who served in Iraq and Afghanistan, are also more bipartisan in their voting than nonveterans, according to Isaiah Wilson, a retired Army colonel, West Point professor, and incoming senior lecturer at Yale University’s Jackson Institute for Global Affairs.

No one is suggesting that veterans alone can end the polarization in Congress or that the military is needed to rescue civilian society. Congress has in its ranks some highly partisan veterans. Still, veterans are one pool of capable candidates worth drawing upon, experts say.

“Things aren’t working, and there needs to be a change in attitude and philosophy and outlook in people serving in Congress,” says former Defense Secretary and CIA Director Robert Gates, who served eight US presidents from both parties. “Polarization has led to paralysis.” 

“People who have served in the military post-9/11 have this sense of mission and the willingness to reach across the aisle,” adds Mr. Gates, a With Honor political adviser. “In putting on the uniform, they have undertaken a mission that forces them to work together with anybody and everybody. They learn how important teamwork is and [the value of] tolerating and embracing people with a different point of view.”

‘I value my country, and my family, and my faith more than I value my party. The Congress isn't operating that way. It's the party front and center now.' – Andrew Grant, a Marine Corps veteran running as a Republican for Congress from California
Melanie Stetson Freeman/Staff

***

Grant and other candidates with military backgrounds are pitching themselves to voters as patriots and problem-solvers. Most have significant experience outside the military in business, law, medicine, government, and other professions. Many are running for office for the first time, motivated by concerns they share as ordinary citizens.

“I value my country, and my family, and my faith more than I value my party,” says Grant in a crisp new campaign office in the Sacramento suburb of Rancho Cordova. “The Congress isn’t operating that way. It’s party front and center now.”

Grant, a graduate of the US Naval Academy and former Marine intelligence officer, has broad overseas experience and expertise in weapons of mass destruction and North Korea. A decade ago, he returned to his home state of California, working as an executive in the grocery business and in international trade. What he found, especially what he perceived as overreach by California’s government, motivated him to run as a Republican in this Democratic-leaning district. Grant’s GOP opponent in the race, Yona Barash, is a surgeon who served in the Israel Defense Forces.

“My wife said, ‘If you don’t decide to try to serve again, you’ll regret it for the rest of your life,’ ” Grant tells a living room full of potential supporters in Orangevale. “I won’t regret it if they don’t choose me, but I would if I didn’t try.”

Grant began his campaign by running in his district – literally. He jogged through each neighborhood with a GoPro action camera to film short clips explaining his goals. Now he teams up with campaign manager Max Ramsey, a veteran who was wounded in Iraq, knocking on doors in advance of the June 5 primary. 

Ever the intelligence officer, Grant scans for clues about the voters. “This one has an NRA [National Rifle Association] bumper sticker,” he tells Mr. Ramsey. Grant stresses he is not an NRA member and won’t take funds from the organization. “I’m not a big gun guy,” he says. Grant, a good listener, encourages voters to share more.

Former US Marine Andrew Grant meets voter John Riswold as he stumps for a US House seat in Orangevale, Calif. Mr. Grant is backed by a group that encourages veterans to seek office.
Melanie Stetson Freeman/Staff

“I wouldn’t do this without putting rubber on the road; it would be disingenuous,” he says as he heads up another driveway in the afternoon sun.

A middle-aged man in a tan cap opens the door and likes what he hears. “We need somebody strong to run,” the man tells Grant, asking about his website. “Keep going door to door,” he advises. “In Orangevale,
that helps!”

The shoe-leather campaigning may be paying off. Over two days with Grant on the campaign trail, from doorsteps to coffee shops and chamber of commerce events, all but one of the scores of voters interviewed – Democratic as well as Republican – reacted enthusiastically to his military service. 

“A candidate who’s served, that’s highly sought after,” says Jeff Lachance, an employment agency manager in nearby Roseville, after talking with Grant at a local business expo. “It could help them keep cool in a crisis, make clear decisions, and look analytically at the issues at hand.”

***

Dan Feehan patrols a street during one of his tours in Iraq.
Courtesy of Dan Feehan for Congress

Leading a 24-person combat engineer platoon in Iraq as US troop deaths surged in 2006, 2nd Lt. Dan Feehan was handed the task of clearing roadside bombs. The prevailing tactic – driving the routes as fast as possible – wasn’t working. To accomplish the mission, he had to convince his teammates to slow down and sometimes walk alongside the route to spot bombs, wires, and triggers.

“It was hard because it was counterintuitive,” Feehan recalls. “But by building trust with noncommissioned officers, I was able to do it. We were able to find more roadside bombs.”

Now Feehan is running for Congress from southern Minnesota and is promising to bring the same team-building skills to Washington. “You can apply that same approach: envisioning a different way and showing it can work,” he says. “It comes with a sense of respect and empathy for everyone involved. I don’t see that happening [now] in Congress, but I know it works because it worked for us in the middle of a war.” 

Feehan was a freshman walking to class at Georgetown University in Washington on 9/11 when terrorists crashed American Flight 77 into the Pentagon. The event defined his call to service. He joined ROTC, majored in international politics, and was commissioned as an Army officer in 2005. He became an engineer in hopes of helping rebuild Iraq and Afghanistan.

Deployed to Iraq with an armor battalion, his platoon faced heavy fighting, rushing to the aid of another unit during an ambush north of Baghdad in October 2006. Feehan received a Bronze Star and an Army Commendation Medal for valor. After leaving active duty in 2009, he taught school for two years, earned a public policy master’s degree at Harvard University, and served as acting assistant secretary of Defense for readiness.

As a Pentagon official, Feehan had “an intimate awareness of how consequential policy decisions are on the ground” but felt that many in Congress did not, so he decided to run for the House. In April, he won the Democratic party endorsement in his race for Minnesota’s open First Congressional District  – a mostly rural district along the Iowa border that is considered a toss-up. On the GOP side, he’ll face either former congressional candidate Jim Hagedorn or state Sen. Carla Nelson in November.

Dan Feehan, a former Army combat engineer seeking a US House seat in Minnesota, shakes hands with other service members at a Veterans Day assembly.
Courtesy of Dan Feehan for Congress

To advocates of military service, veteran candidates embody many qualities needed in Washington today. “In the military, the solutions we come up with are team solutions,” says Peter Chiarelli, a retired four-star general who served as Army vice chief of staff and is a senior veteran adviser to With Honor. He believes veterans are better suited “to listen to other points of view, and realize that no one has all the answers.”

Peter Feaver, a professor of political science and public policy at Duke University and an expert on civil-military relations, says exposure to the military’s diverse meritocracy is a major asset for lawmakers and offers intriguing, if untested, possibilities for promoting bipartisan collaboration. 

“Military service members have had to rub shoulders with a broader segment of Americans,” Dr. Feaver says.

They also bring depth of knowledge about defense, national security, and other issues. With defense spending accounting for about half of the yearly discretionary federal budget, lawmakers who are veterans “probably have a better idea of how to make the Pentagon efficient and how to administer some of these big programs,” says Gates, the former Defense secretary.

For this and other reasons, Emily’s List, which supports pro-abortion-rights Democratic women candidates, is backing several female veterans running for Congress in 2018. “[They] understand the importance of strengthening our national security, defending the [Department of Veterans Affairs], and fighting back against sexual assault in the military,” says Alexandra De Luca of Emily’s List.

Contrary to popular perceptions, veterans in civilian leadership are less likely than nonveterans to use the military in overseas disputes, according to historical research by Feaver and others spanning 200 years. “Veterans are more likely to ask a lot of questions and want to go slowly before committing troops to a conflict,” says Mr. Lynn, a Marine Corps Reserve officer. “The assumption of hawkishness is not borne out by reality.”

Indeed, Mr. Chiarelli, who commanded the 1st Cavalry Division and overall military operations during two tours in Iraq, believes that if more veterans had been in Congress, there would have been greater scrutiny of committing troops to Iraq and clarifying what the military’s role should be. 

Gates agrees. “If Congress had asserted itself, we would not be in 17-year wars,” he says. 

***

In between campaign events, knocking on doors, and driving his three children to school, piano lessons, and soccer practices, Grant must try to raise money – lots of it. 

Grant’s campaign finances are so far trailing those of the incumbent in a district that saw one of the costliest House races in California in 2016. “It is the one limiting factor in people deciding to run. They don’t like asking people for money,” Grant says.

In Minnesota, Feehan is in a stronger financial position. He outraised all his Democratic primary contenders and currently has more cash on hand than both of his Republican opponents.

But Feehan faces another problem common among veteran candidates: Years of absence from their home states during their military service has limited their ties with voters and local political networks.

“For a lot of folks who haven’t been out of the military very long, it’s harder to connect with their constituents,” says Lynn of Veterans Campaign. “Fewer people today have much knowledge or direct experience with the military, so it’s harder to explain what you’ve been doing the last few years.”

Moreover, Lynn discovered many veterans who “would make fantastic political leaders but had no idea how to run for office,” in part because of legal restrictions on partisan activity by service members.

These challenges – coupled with their being chosen more often to run in long-shot races – explain why veteran candidates do not have an overall advantage over nonveterans in winning elections, research shows. 

“They have great value as an electoral asset, but not on election day,” says Jeremy Teigen, a political scientist at Ramapo College of New Jersey in Mahwah and author of “Why Veterans Run.” “They have name recognition, an advantage in fundraising, and military experience resonates with voters. The election day test is a pretty high bar.”

The cost of running is particularly onerous for younger veterans of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

“So many of the candidates face long odds, even though they are great candidates, because of the obscene rise in the cost of elections,” says Rye Barcott, co-founder and chief executive officer of With Honor and an Iraq War veteran. Over the past 20 years, the average cost of a congressional race has more than quadrupled, to between $2 million and $4 million, he says.

Mr. Barcott launched With Honor to reduce barriers to entry for “next-generation” veterans in this year’s House races. With Honor will endorse some 30 to 35 candidates, including a balance of Democrats and Republicans. Of those, it will support about 10 to 15 campaigns with independent expenditures of $500,000 to $1.2 million, with most of that money used for advertising. The plan is to expand its support to more than 100 state and local races by 2020.

All candidates endorsed by With Honor must pledge to join a veterans’ caucus, meet regularly with members of the opposing party, and support and cosponsor bipartisan legislation. The goal by 2030 is to build a coalition of Democratic and Republican veterans in the House that can empower members to cross party lines – and fix what Barcott calls “our tribal polarization.”

***

Wearing a pinstripe suit and black cowboy boots imprinted with a gold Texas seal, state Sen. Van Taylor leans back in a leather swivel chair in his Plano, Texas, conference room with the easy confidence of a man who knows where he is going. Barring some unexpected turn of events, the decorated US Marine is well positioned to win the open House seat in Texas’ Third Congressional District, a Republican stronghold in a wealthy and growing suburb of Dallas.

State Sen. Van Taylor, a Marine Corps veteran who is running for Congress in a suburban Dallas district, speaks in the Legislature in Austin, Texas.
Eric Gay/AP

Senator Taylor is proud to be one of the most conservative members of the Texas Legislature, where he’s served for eight years. Endorsed by With Honor, the GOP candidate has pledged to support bipartisan legislation, to regularly meet with Democrats, and to join a caucus of veterans from both parties if he goes to Washington.

Taylor and other veteran candidates understand that, if elected, they will face strong pressure in Congress to toe the party line. But several who, like Taylor, have legislative experience either at the state level or as former congressional staff have concrete ideas for how to build bridges across the aisle.

Bipartisanship, they stress, is not centrism. It doesn’t require abandoning one’s principles. Instead, it means promoting civil discourse and a free, open, and fair airing of ideas to bring about compromise. Bipartisanship is “finding a common-sense solution that everyone can agree on. To be successful, you have to work hard, listen to lots of people, treat them with respect, be innovative with your solution,” Taylor says. “More than anything, it requires listening.”

Running in New Mexico’s solidly Democratic First Congressional District, Damon Martinez, an Army Reserve officer and judge advocate, is a first-time candidate who felt compelled to enter politics in part to “change the atmosphere” in Congress. “We are the standard-bearer for the rest of the world on people having a voice in the government, and people are scratching their heads about what is going on in America,” says the Democrat.

Mr. Martinez vows that, if elected, he will push for more open debates, drawing upon his experience as a former US House of Representatives legislative director. His mentors in Congress taught him how lawmakers used to “break bread together, making it harder for them to punch below the belt or get personal and vindictive,” he says.

Across the country in New Hampshire, lawyer, nurse, and Navy Reserve officer Lynne Blankenbeker is running as a Republican in Democratic-leaning District 2. A former member of the New Hampshire House, she stood up to party pressure to cast a roll call vote she disagreed with and used parliamentary maneuvers to prevent divisive, last-minute amendments by her own party from sabotaging bipartisan legislation. 

Ms. Blankenbeker stands on the deck of the Kearsarge, an assault ship, while on active reserve duty in 2016.
Courtesy of Lynne Blankenbeker for Congress

Ms. Blankenbeker says she would join a veterans caucus to advance bipartisan bills on defense, veterans, and national security issues. “Military people tend to do well together,” says Blankenbeker, one of 37 women veterans running this year. “If you are a Democrat and an aviator, and I am a Republican and Naval nurse, we need to bring that uniqueness together. A strong veterans caucus could be very influential and set the example.”

***

Still, in the end, no one expects any single category of candidate – military or otherwise – to solve the nation’s partisan woes. Some veterans, after all, are fiercely ideological and partisan. Many nonveterans are effective bridge-builders. And in this era of divided politics, pressure is intense from not only parties but many voters to place political point-scoring above compromise.

Experts caution against any misplaced belief that people with military backgrounds are inherently superior at governing. Duke University’s Feaver says overvaluing military experience could feed “a myth that we need the military to rescue civilian society ... that the military is so wonderful, so ideal, those who haven’t served represent lesser forms of the American experience.” Mr. Wilson of Yale warns against “ascribing sainthood to veterans.”

Yet boosters of candidates with military backgrounds aren’t advocating for a praetorian political class. They simply believe people who have served their country often see a larger mission and are less inclined to reject ideas because of a party label. 

As Lynn of Veterans Campaign puts it: “Those of us who have served overseas know the people across the aisle are not the enemy.”