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Roll Call

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.”

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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