Fight for Congress Puts Military Veterans in Trenches


A political war of attrition has reduced a band of military veterans to about eight candidates who might help Democrats seize control of the House of Representatives.
by Andrew Stern

CHICAGO–Four weeks before a November 7 election that Democrats hope will return them to power in Congress, they’re the only ones seen as possible contenders of the 50 “fighting Dems” first urged by the party to help storm Capitol Hill.

Rival Republicans, led by a self-declared “war president,” have portrayed Democrats as soft on defense and less able to protect the United States, whether in Iraq, Afghanistan or on the home front.

Significantly, many of the veterans were waylaid by the rigors of fund-raising and campaigning, and butted up against the advantages of incumbency, said Rothenberg Political Report editor Nathan Gonzales.

“The war is an issue, but a candidate’s stand on the war may be more important than a candidate’s direct involvement in the war,” he said…


Democratic officials do not say they had a formal strategy to recruit candidates with military backgrounds to challenge Republican incumbents and gain the 15 additional seats needed to capture the House.

But the party encouraged and promoted those who came along, many of them political novices facing stiff odds against established incumbents.

Of all the “fighting Dems,” Tammy Duckworth of Illinois, who lost both legs in Iraq, appeared to have the best chance. A Reuters-Zogby poll showed her favored to win. Other political analysts called her race a toss-up.

At least nine veterans of the Iraq war were candidates at one time and two of them, Patrick Murphy and Joe Sestak, are in close races to replace Republican congressmen in Pennsylvania.

Republicans too had about 40 veterans seeking office, although only one of them was from the Iraq war.


Democrats without political experience underscored their independence from Washington culture and most called for a quick U.S. withdrawal from Iraq, saying the war was a costly error borne by their military brethren and taxpayers.

One of the group facing sure defeat, former Naval intelligence officer John Laesch, got a boost when a Capitol Hill sex scandal erupted over salacious e-mails sent to congressional pages by Florida Rep. Mark Foley.

Laesch’s opponent, House Speaker Dennis Hastert, warded off calls for his resignation over his handling of the scandal.

Voters there have shown signs of shifting allegiances in the race to succeed retiring Rep. Henry Hyde, much like a neighboring district that elected Democrat Melissa Bean in 2004.

A 38-year-old who was minutes from dying two years ago when her helicopter was hit by a rocket-propelled grenade, Duckworth said her service hardened her resolve to challenge authority.

“Do I think every politician should be a former military member? No, of course not,” she told Reuters. “But I think there should be some of us there (in Congress) because the next time, when we make a decision whether to send the finest of us out to war, I want that (decision) to be made by people who understand the true cost.”

Fewer than one-third of congressional officeholders have military experience, compared to three-quarters 35 years ago.

One is 2004 presidential candidate John Kerry, but his wartime heroism in Vietnam that was challenged by “Swift Boat” members calling themselves Veterans for Truth did not seem to resonate. Republicans cast themselves as stronger on defense, saying they were erecting a better bulwark against terrorism.



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