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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.

For Democrats, such recruits provide the party that is sometimes accused of weakness on national security with built-in credibility and evidence to the contrary.

“It’s a non-traditional profile for Democrats,” said Jon Vogel, a Democratic media consultant. “A Democrat who is strong on national defense is a great profile to run on.”

These candidates’ profiles can also make great imagery. Campaign ads and websites feature younger versions of themselves decked out in fatigues or aviator sunglasses, decorated with military honors or postured in cockpits.

The campaign website of Pennsylvania House candidate Kevin Strouse, a Democrat running in the 8th District, includes a photo of his Army Ranger graduation ceremony, with the heading, “Fighting Terrorism Abroad.” Below it, the page notes that he “participated in the mission to rescue Jessica Lynch after the bitter fighting at An-Nasiriyah,” Iraq.

Consultants from both parties agreed that while veterans can make impressive candidates, they are not always a perfect fit when dropped in a political setting. There can be frustration and impatience with the routine drama that inevitably occurs in a campaign.

“They’re not used to a back and forth, which can be a problem,” said one Democratic consultant, offering a sentiment echoed by Republicans.

Plus, the consultant said, as first-time candidates, veterans can have a difficult time fundraising. Unlike doctors, attorneys and legislators who have built up a Rolodex over the years, their contacts are more inclined to donate $25 rather than $2,500.

Democratic operatives brushed off concerns that retired Army Maj. Gen. Jerry Cannon, a Democrat and former county sheriff running in Michigan’s 1st District, could face political trouble as a former commander at the Guantánamo Bay, Cuba, military prison that President Barack Obama has pushed to close. Instead, they argue, his service is a badge of honor.

Beyond the imagery and sterling records, many of these candidates appeal to campaign operatives for another reason: lack of a voting record. State and local legislators, saddled with an extensive paper trail on all kinds of issues, can be sitting ducks when it comes to opposition research.

Retired Air Force Col. Martha McSally argues that her contrarian nature in the military is a political attribute. The Republican candidate for Arizona’s 2nd District displays glee when discussing her ability to rankle the military brass during her fighter pilot career.

McSally, who lost her first bid for the seat in 2012, earned a “60 Minutes” profile in 2002, when she sued the Pentagon over a military policy requiring all U.S. servicewomen to wear an abaya and head scarf when off base in Saudi Arabia. Part of McSally’s case on the campaign trail is that her military record will translate into an independent voice that could be attractive in the Tucson-based 2nd District, which is likely to be competitive for the next decade.

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