Veterans return to fight for votes

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Campaigns for Congress are the new battlegrounds
by Jon Sarche

Pictured left: Marine Reservist Paul Hackett meets constituents during a candidate forum in Columbus, Ohio.

COLORADO SPRINGS, Colorado — After 20 years in the Air Force and Bronze Star service during the 1991 Gulf War, Democrat Jay Fawcett decided to come home and run for Congress, largely out of disgust with the way American troops were being used in Iraq.

“I think it’s just gotten to the point where a significant number of us who’ve served are looking at this administration particularly — and Congress doesn’t get off the hook — and saying, `What’re you doing? What’s the plan?’ ” he said.

Fawcett is part of a large and possibly unprecedented number of former soldiers, sailors, airmen and Marines running for Congress this year.

About 40 of the candidates are Republicans, while at least 55 are Democrats. By one count, at least 11 veterans of the Iraq war or Afghanistan are hoping to get elected to the House or Senate, all but one of them Democrats…

     

The fighting Democrats, as some call themselves, say their military experience could give them the credibility to criticize the war without being dismissed out of hand by the GOP as naive and weak on defense, as the Bush administration has often done.

“One of the things I think is behind this movement is, we’re not stupid in the military. We know when we’ve been used and misused,” said Navy veteran Bill Winter, a Democrat who hopes to challenge GOP Rep. Tom Tancredo in the Republican suburbs of Denver, Colorado.

Former Sen. Max Cleland, D-Georgia, who lost both legs and an arm while serving in Vietnam, said the Iraq war veterans running as Democrats will offer “a direct rebuttal” to the administration on the Iraq war.

“This administration, come April, will be going into the fourth year of this war after the president said three weeks into it `Major combat over, mission accomplished, bring them on,’ ” Cleland said. “You tell me who’s out of touch. It’s not these Iraq veterans that are coming back and saying, `This is not the way it was on the ground there, and I’m going to do something to change this.’ “

Carl Forti, spokesman for the National Republican Congressional Committee, said Democrats are trying “to manufacture momentum wherever they can find it.”

“The sad reality is that most of those people the (Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee) is promoting are in districts they can’t possibly win,” Forti said. “It doesn’t make much sense to me.”

Fawcett, who spent years as a defense contractor after leaving the Air Force, wants to take on Republican Rep. Joel Hefley in a Colorado Springs-area district that has one of the country’s biggest concentrations of veterans. It includes the Air Force Academy, two Air Force bases, a major Army installation and NORAD, the air defense command. The district has been represented by a Republican since the seat was created more than three decades ago.

The roster of Democratic veterans includes engineers, teachers, lawyers, business owners and a pastor. Their stands on the war range from calling for immediate withdrawal to demanding a clearer timetable and a way out. Fawcett, for example, says that pulling out now would be a mistake, but that the Bush administration has failed to clearly state its goals and an exit strategy.

Among other veterans running for office:

  • Marine reservist Paul Hackett, who served in Iraq and is running for the Senate in Ohio. The Democrat narrowly lost a special House election last year in a district where President Bush won 64 percent of the vote in 2004.

  • Former Army Maj. L. Tammy Duckworth, a helicopter pilot who lost her legs in a grenade attack in Iraq. She is running as a Democrat for the Illinois congressional seat of retiring Republican Rep. Henry Hyde. She said she privately disagreed with Bush’s decision to invade Iraq but still volunteered to serve. “We should have been fighting the enemies that attacked us at home on 9/11,” she said in December. “We should have been out there trying to catch Osama bin Laden.”

  • Democrat Eric Massa, a 24-year Navy officer challenging freshman Republican Rep. Randy Kuhl in western New York.

    Elections after the end of World War II and the Vietnam War also saw large numbers of veterans running for Congress.

    Republicans this time around could have a difficult time countering opposition to the administration’s war plan — or the war itself — from veteran-Democrats, said Gary Jacobson, a congressional scholar at the University of California at San Diego.

    “Popular sentiment is not terribly pro-war now, and there’s lots of doubts about the administration’s honesty and the purposes of the war,” he said. “So, if you have a veteran come back and start trashing the war, that’s a problem for Republicans.”

    Still, a veteran cannot count on a win, said Ed Patru, another spokesman for the Republican congressional committee.

    “Being a veteran, it’s great to have that on your resume,” he said. “People appreciate veterans, but if you’re wrong on taxes and the economy, the bread-and-butter, kitchen-tabletop kind of issues, being a veteran is not going to save you.”      

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