Republican Recruiting

by Stuart Rothenberg October 23, 2007 · 12:05 AM EDT

In the face of growing dissatisfaction with the Iraq War and President Bush, Republicans have recruited an increasing number of military veterans to run for Congress in 2008 — including some soldiers currently serving overseas who will begin campaigning upon their return.

Those Republican veterans may be emboldened by retired U.S. Air Force Col. Jim Ogonowski’s (R) impressive showing in Tuesday’s special election in Massachusetts, which he lost by only 6 points.

In the previous cycle, it was the Democrats who gained hordes of media attention for recruiting military veterans to run for the House. They became known as the “Fighting Dems,” with wounded Iraq War veteran Tammy Duckworth of Illinois as the poster child.

This cycle, Republican veterans believe their experience will give them credibility with skeptical voters and that their military resumes allow them to effectively run as outsiders.

“Voters recognize that they want leaders with experience,” said former Air Force B-1 bomber pilot Paul Phillips, one of three Republicans looking to take on freshman Rep. Zack Space (D-Ohio).

The two situations are not precisely comparable because the Democrats’ effort was in large part to strengthen the image of a party that had traditionally ceded national security and military issues to the Republicans. But it is Republicans who now face voter skepticism in the shadow of the president’s handling of the Iraq War. A September CBS/New York Times survey showed that 42 percent believe the Democratic Party is more likely to make the right decisions on Iraq, compared to 32 percent for the Republican Party.

Yet Republican candidates believe that voters won’t be focused on Bush’s poll ratings by the time they go to the voting booth in 2008.

“The president’s approval doesn’t come up,” said Tom Rooney (R), a veteran of the Army Judge Advocate General’s Corps and candidate in Florida’s 16th district. “Voters are looking toward the future.”

Based on the 2006 election returns, the Democrats’ effort to send veterans to Congress was mixed, with a majority of the Fighting Dems going down to defeat. For example, Iraq War veteran Tim Dunn couldn’t even get his candidacy to the primary in North Carolina’s 8th district and Lt. Col. Andrew Horne couldn’t make it out of the primary in Kentucky’s 3rd.

Duckworth, who lost both legs when her helicopter was shot down in Iraq, announced her candidacy on ABC-TV’s “This Week with George Stephanopolous” and received considerable national media coverage. Her loss to Peter Roskam in the 6th district was bitter in light of the fantastic Democratic gains in November. State Sen. Mike Weaver (Kentucky’s 2nd district) and Lt. Col. Jay Fawcett (Colorado’s 5th district) also lost in the general election despite hyped candidacies.

Of course, some of the Democrats were successful, including JAG attorney Patrick Murphy’s defeat of incumbent Rep. Michael Fitzgerald (R) in Pennsylvania’s 8th district. He’s now the only veteran of the Iraq War in Congress. Former Navy Vice Adm. Joe Sestak also was victorious in Pennsylvania’s 7th district, Christopher Carney, a lieutenant commander in the U.S. Navy Reserve won in Pennsylvania’s 10th district, and Tim Walz, who served 24 years in the Army National Guard, knocked off an incumbent in Minnesota’s 1st district. And on the Senate side, decorated Vietnam War hero and former Secretary of the Navy Jim Webb defeated incumbent Sen. George Allen (R) in Virginia.

A Long Roster of GOP Candidates

A couple of years ago, some Democrats even chastised Republicans for their lack of military candidates. “Too few Republicans have ever sacrificed for their nation and their utter contempt for it shows,” wrote prominent liberal blogger Markos Moulitsas Zuniga (who served in the U.S. Army from 1989 to 1992) in December 2005. But now, Republicans are compiling an impressive list of candidates with military credentials.

Phillips, who was the lead air strategist at the Combined Air Operations Center in the Middle East during Operation Iraqi Freedom, is running in the GOP-leaning 18th district in Ohio, but must first win a competitive Republican primary. Similarly, Rooney is running in a district that Bush won by 10 points in 2004, but has two primary opponents including Palm Beach Gardens Councilman Hal Valeche, who is a Vietnam veteran, and state Rep. Gayle Harrell.

Rick Goddard (R) flew 227 combat missions in Vietnam and was awarded the Silver Star and the Distinguished Flying Cross. The now-retired Air Force major general also is former commander of the Warner Robins Air Logistics Center. While Goddard is running in Georgia’s 8th district, which Bush carried handily in both 2000 (57 percent) and 2004 (61 percent), he is trying to topple Rep. Jim Marshall (D), a fellow veteran. The Congressman earned two Bronze Stars and a Purple Heart in Vietnam and was inducted into the U.S. Army Ranger Hall of Fame.

Orthopedic surgeon and Lt. Col. Wayne Mosley (R) just returned from Iraq and is a potential challenger to Rep. John Barrow (D) in Georgia’s 12th district. Mosley has served in both Afghanistan and Iraq and earned the Combat Medic Badge and two Army Commendation Medals.

Iraq War veteran Kieran Michael Lalor (New York’s 19th) and retired Army Lt. Col. Michael Rocque (New York’s 20th) are running in districts Bush carried in 2004, but will face primaries followed by tough Democratic incumbents. Vietnam veteran Spence Campbell (North Carolina’s 11th) would face a similar challenge if he decides to run.

Some Still on Duty

A few of the Republican candidates still are serving overseas and not actively campaigning (because it’s prohibited by law). It has happened before: James A. Garfield was elected to Congress from Ohio in 1862 while serving in the Union Army during the Civil War, and would later become the nation’s 20th president.

Duncan D. Hunter (R), the son of outgoing Congressman and presidential candidate Rep. Duncan Hunter (R-Calif.), is a U.S. Marine captain currently serving in Afghanistan. His wife, Margaret, continues to campaign, and blog, on his behalf in California’s 52nd district until he returns, which is likely in December. Hunter, who also served in Iraq from 2003 to 2004, faces a June 3 primary.

Charlie Summers, a Republican in Maine’s 1st district, also is receiving campaign help from his wife as he serves in Iraq — and isn’t scheduled to return until next August. Summers, a lieutenant commander in the Navy Reserve, also is a former two-term state Senator and former state director for Sen. Olympia Snowe (R-Maine).

Former Army intelligence officer Chris Minor (R) is running in Indiana’s 2nd district against freshman Rep. Joe Donnelly (D). Minor earned a Bronze Star during Operation Iraqi Freedom and retired from active duty in 2006. He currently is in Baghdad as a private contractor and analyst for the U.S. State Department and should return early next year. [RPR Update- Minor is now out of the race.]

Other Republican candidates face significantly longer odds. “I’m an outsider. I’m not part of the Republican machine,” retired Lt. Col. Allen West (R) said in a phone interview from Afghanistan. “I bring the experience of being here. I can tell them what kind of enemy we are facing.”

West, who is running in Florida’s 22nd district against Rep. Ron Klein (D), has been working for a private company in Afghanistan since June 2005, training officers in the Afghan army. He is returning to the United States on Nov. 2.

West, who served in Iraq as a battalion commander of the 4th Infantry Division, disagrees with some of Bush’s terminology. “Terror is a tactic, not an enemy,” West explained. “We’ve become terrain-oriented, not enemy-oriented.”

Rooney never served overseas on active duty because he was teaching at the U.S. Military Academy at West Point. And that’s where he often used West as a living textbook when teaching cadets the rules of engagement. It wasn’t until later that the two candidates would meet.

“We are at war with an enemy that fights in a way that’s not traditional,” Rooney explained in an interview, and “we need an examination of the rules of engagement by Congress.”

In 2003, West was accused of using improper methods when interrogating an Iraqi policeman whom West believed had information about a potential attack on him and the troops under his command.

He was facing a court martial and up to 11 years in prison, but after a military hearing, West was fined $5,000 and allowed to retire with full pension after 20 years of service. Now he’s running for Congress.

Republicans were hoping former Naval Submarine Base New London Cmdr. Sean Sullivan (R) would catch fire against Rep. Joe Courtney (D) in Connecticut’s 2nd district, but his campaign has been slow to take off.

A couple of Iraq War veterans are challenging fellow Republicans in primaries, including Eric Egland in California’s 4th district and Matt Salisbury in Idaho’s 1st. Salisbury, 34, was an Army Airborne Ranger disabled in Iraq, where he served from 2004 to 2005. Egland graduated from the U.S. Air Force Academy and served in both Iraq and Afghanistan as an intelligence officer. Navy Reserve Officer Andy Harris, a physician and state Senator, is challenging Rep. Wayne Gilchrest in the GOP primary in Maryland’s 1st.

Republicans also have military veterans running in other less-competitive districts in Texas, Ohio, Illinois, Pennsylvania and Missouri. Doug Roulstone (R), former captain of the USS John C. Stennis, took 36 percent against Rep. Rick Larsen (D) in Washington’s 2nd district last year, and is running again.

“There are not enough veterans in Congress on any side [of the aisle],” said Rooney, who attended basic training with now-Rep. Patrick Murphy (D-Pa.).

Democratic Vets Have Re-Upped

Democrats do have a handful of military veterans running for Congress in competitive seats, including a couple of candidates who ran unsuccessfully last year.

Charlie Brown, a former rescue helicopter pilot in the Air Force, lost to Rep. John Doolittle (R-Calif.) 49 percent to 46 percent in November, but is running again. Eric Massa lost 51 percent to 49 percent in New York’s 29th district to Rep. Randy Kuhl (R), and is running again. Massa is a former special assistant to then-NATO Supreme Allied Commander Wesley Clark.

Democrats are excited about the candidacy of John Boccieri (D) in the now-open seat in Ohio’s 16th district. Boccieri is a young, good-looking state Senator and Air Force Reserve major with 11 years of military service. More than one Republican insider admits Boccieri is a fantastic candidate.

Army Captain Jon Powers (D), who served in the Iraq War, is challenging former NRCC Chairman Tom Reynolds (R) in New York’s 26th district. And former state Sen. Gary Peters (D), a lieutenant commander in the Navy Reserve is running in Michigan’s 9th district.

Lt. Col. Rand Lewis (D), who served 29 years in the Army, and Navy veteran John Laesch, who received 40 percent in Illinois’ 14th district in 2006, also are running but face competitive primaries in Republican-leaning districts.