Will Veterans Make the Best House Candidates in ’06?

by Stuart Rothenberg January 11, 2006 · 9:14 AM EST

For months, the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, liberal Web logs and major media outlets have been trumpeting the large class of Democratic House candidates who are veterans of the military.

More than three dozen non-incumbent veterans are running for Congress this year, all but a small handful of them as Democrats.

While they have received plenty of ink, it is far from clear that any of them will win. While a few high-profile veterans, including Democrat Tammy Duckworth in Illinois, are running in open seats, most — including Democrats Tim Dunn of North Carolina, Tim Walz of Minnesota, Patrick Murphy of Pennsylvania and Steve Filson in California — face GOP incumbents in districts that range from narrowly to reliably Republican.

There is no reason to believe that voters will automatically see veterans as appealing candidates, or that veterans of Iraq will begin with more authority to speak about U.S. foreign policy, national security or even the war itself.

The current frenzy over veterans running for Congress is reminiscent of a similar frenzy involving health care and Congressional candidates with a medical background that built during the second half of the 1990s and hung on during the 2000 and 2002 cycles.

Then, polls showed Americans identifying health care as one of the top issues of the day. Not surprisingly, both parties wooed doctors and nurses to run for office on the assumption that those candidates would have great credibility in talking about health-related issues, including a patients’ bill of rights and prescription drug coverage.

In 1998, 25 physicians ran for Congress — 17 of them challengers or candidates in open seats. Most non-incumbents lost. Physician Ernie Fletcher (R-Ky.) was an exception, though he had some advantages, including an unsuccessful run two years earlier and an open seat.

Over the past decade, I interviewed plenty of candidates with terrific medical credentials who promised to ride that issue to Washington, D.C., but who never got out of the barn.

Paul Perry, an orthopedic surgeon, was supposed to give Rep. John Hostettler (R-Ind.) a tough race in 2000. He drew just 45 percent, even though his conservative views on cultural issues were supposed to neutralize those themes for Hostettler, leaving health care the key contrast in the race.

Two years later, all I heard from the DCCC early on was to watch Julie Thomas, a pediatrician running against Rep. Jim Leach in Iowa. I watched her, all right, as she drew 45.7 percent of the vote in a Democratic-leaning, recently redrawn district that included many counties Leach had never represented.

Nurses such as Lydia Spottswood (D-Wis.), then president of the Kenosha City Council, and Gerrie Shipske (D-Calif.) told me that their health care backgrounds would carry them to Congress. Both lost.

No two situations are identical, and I’m certainly not asserting that this cycle’s crop of military veterans will be as unsuccessful as were the physicians and nurses who tried to ride the supposed health care wave.

Indeed, the veterans may be better candidates. They may have better interpersonal skills and greater fundraising potential. And the anti-Iraq wave may be stronger than the health care wave. Certainly, Paul Hackett’s narrow loss in Ohio’s 2nd district in last year’s special election suggests potential.

But the Democrats’ premise about veterans — that they can speak about Iraq and foreign policy with great credibility and authority — is unproved. And recent history suggests the premise is flawed.

Sen. John Kerry’s (D-Mass.) military record was supposed to inoculate him on national security. It didn’t.

Former Sen. Max Cleland’s (D-Ga.) military record and physical condition was supposed to inoculate him on national security. It didn’t.

Marine Lt. Col. Steve Brozak, who drew 42 percent against Rep. Mike Ferguson (R-N.J.) in the previous cycle, was supposed to be a strong challenger because of his military service. He wasn’t.

Filling Boston’s Fleet Center podium with high-ranking military officers to attest to Kerry’s record and preparedness for office was intended to make him (and his party) acceptable to voters. It didn’t.

A military record is a credential that voters may consider, but they often prefer to use other vote cues to pick the candidate for whom they will vote. They will surely use partisanship and incumbency. They’ll likely use issues such as taxes and abortion. They’ll see what kind of interest groups are supporting which candidates.

Being in the reserves or even on active duty in Iraq or Afghanistan or at the Pentagon almost certainly isn’t enough, by itself, to get any of the veterans elected. They’ll need to talk about domestic policy, raise money, define their opponents and, most importantly, connect personally with voters. And, obviously, if the Iraq issue starts to recede by the fall, these veterans could lose any special appeal that they might now have.

If being a veteran is that important, then New Mexico Attorney General Patricia Madrid (D) won’t have a chance against Rep. Heather Wilson (R), who graduated from the Air Force Academy, holds a doctorate in international relations and served on the National Security Council. But Madrid is a real threat, despite her lack of military service.

So, it’s wise to be skeptical about the success of most of these veterans. Most of them — maybe all of them — will lose. And those who do win will prevail because of their campaigns, not a line or two on their résumés.