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Veteran Hopefuls Use Bravery, Heroics in Bids for Congress

Douglas Graham/CQ Roll Call File Photo
Osborn, a candidate in the GOP Senate primary in Nebraska, was a naval aviator who became involved in an international incident when the Chinese took him and his crew hostage in 2001.

Veterans regularly run for Congress, but this cycle features candidates armed with particularly impressive biographies involving escapes, captures and military adventures that Tom Clancy would have struggled to dream up.

Americans have read stories of bravery from the past 13 years of military engagements in Iraq, Afghanistan and elsewhere. Now, at least five of the GI Joes and Janes involved in those stories are seeking seats on Capitol Hill.

For the most part, such candidates are a political consultant’s dream.

“They’re not shrinking violets, they’ve enjoyed being at the tip of the spear,” GOP consultant Guy Harrison said. “So they turn out to be pretty good candidates.”

About one-fifth of those currently serving in the House and Senate are military veterans. President John F. Kennedy, Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., and many more built their political biographies on their military heroics. But in 2014, it is striking just how many veterans running for office were famous before their attempts to come to Congress.

While most congressional hopefuls essentially start from scratch at the outset of a campaign, these candidates have been the subjects of TV movies and magazine profiles. They’ve published memoirs. And at least one flipped a coin at a college football game.

Whether these candidates will win is an open question; all are in competitive primaries or general elections. But in neutral environments, candidates — and biographies — matter.

Their military backgrounds provide a discipline that sometimes eludes campaigns and their rollouts are all-but-certain to earn local and national headlines. Their biographies can be explained in a single sentence, or even a phrase.

That’s the case of retired Army Lt. Col. Steve Russell, a former Oklahoma state senator who recently announced his candidacy for the open-seat race to replace Rep. James Lankford. Russell’s autobiography recalls his service in Iraq and is titled, “We Got Him!: A Memoir of the Hunt and Capture of Saddam Hussein.”

And consider former naval aviator Shane Osborn, an ex-state treasurer running in the competitive GOP primary to replace retiring Sen. Mike Johanns, R-Neb.

In 2001, a Chinese fighter jet struck the aircraft Osborn was piloting. He safely landed the plane, but the situation became an international incident when the Chinese took him and his crew hostage. He was later featured in People magazine’s “50 Most Beautiful People” issue.

Last week, a super PAC called Special Operations for America launched a six-figure ad buy documenting the incident.

“Shane Osborn exhibited courage, upholding America’s honor,” the ad’s announcer says. “Shane Osborn. A leader for the U.S. Senate.”

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