Politicians have always touted their support for military veterans back home. The willingness to expend federal dollars to provide the best care possible is popular across the partisan spectrum and is rarely cause for controversy.
But the issue has been turned on its head in recent months, with the fallout from the Veterans Affairs scandal prompting even the Obama administration to admit a "corrosive culture" at the VA affecting facilities across the country.
It’s also invited criticism of vulnerable House and Senate Democrats from Republican candidates and outside groups. For Republican challengers and operatives, the VA scandal offers a striking example of federal government mismanagement with a Democrat at the helm and provides another link between Democratic incumbents and President Barack Obama.
“Veterans' issues tend to be bipartisan, non-controversial and not a big deal in most campaigns — which is why the VA scandal is a problem for Democrats this year,” Republican pollster Dan Judy said. “Democratic candidates in most of the competitive states already have the millstone of President Obama's unpopularity around their necks, and the VA scandal is only making that weight heavier.”
Democratic operatives say privately they don’t believe this issue will hurt the party this fall. But incumbents and candidates are nonetheless moving quickly to fix the crisis and ensure it’s clear they are on the right side. As the targets of GOP attack ads, congressional Democrats have actively highlighted their past and present efforts on behalf of veterans to mitigate any potential for voter backlash.
In the House, Florida Democratic Rep. Joe Garcia, a top GOP target, announced he had held a “closed door meeting” with Paul M. Russo, director of the Miami VA Healthcare System. Rep. Bruce Braley, D-Iowa, who is running for Senate, introduced a bill to provide college-loan repayments for health care providers willing to work in VA facilities — a push covered in June by the Des Moines Register and at least two local television news stations.
Sen. Kay Hagan, D-N.C., who’s been criticized by her GOP opponent, invited acting VA Secretary Sloan D. Gibson to the Fayetteville VA Medical Center — which an internal audit found to have some of the longest wait times. They met again on June 25 on Capitol Hill with other Democratic senators, including Mark Begich of Alaska.
Perhaps nowhere has the issue’s potential potency been more obvious than in the Last Frontier State, where Begich has been accused of ignoring the issue by his leading Republican opponent — veteran Dan Sullivan. Begich was recently hit with two TV ads from American Crossroads and its non-profit arm, Crossroads GPS.
“Sen. Begich is on the Veterans Affairs Committee, and he’s not looking out for us,” a veteran says in an ad backed by a $450,000 buy.
The ads were partly an effort to litigate the issue, as Begich had aired an ad in May touting his effort to expand access for veterans to local health care clinics. Begich countered with an ad running for two weeks that labeled the Crossroads ads false.
“It’s a bipartisan issue, and they took a shot at me which I think is a mistake,” Begich told CQ Roll Call. “If you look, they have taken down their ads on this issue, because I think voters know in Alaska this is one area I have worked hard on and we had done so before the rest of the country.”
In Texas, Rep. Pete Gallego woke up June 25 to a television spot from a group associated with the Koch brothers, Concerned Veterans for America, tying him to “some of the longest wait times in the nation” at Texas VA hospitals. “Congressman Pete Gallego admits he knew about it, yet did nothing to fix it,” the ad’s announcer says.
Gallego told CQ Roll Call the ad is “factually inaccurate” but said instead of overreacting he will continue working with local VA officials on solving the problem. He already has begun a series of tele-town hall meetings with veterans.
“The biggest thing for me is that I’ve been meeting with a lot of the local veterans ... getting an unvarnished, non-political take from local veterans and vets groups,” he said. “For me, that’s the best way to separate the serious concerns from the partisan rhetoric.”
That group had previously released TV ads targeting Democratic Sens. Mark Pryor of Arkansas, Mary L. Landrieu of Louisiana, Jeanne Shaheen of New Hampshire, Mark Warner of Virginia and Hagan. After meeting with Gibson in her office last week, Hagan released a lengthy statement reiterating her outrage and focus on the issue.
“These veterans have served our country bravely, and we owe it to them to get them the health care they have earned in a timely manner,” Hagan said.
The scandal — getting attention with hearings on Capitol Hill and with a bipartisan measure to fix the VA backlogs clearing the Senate 93-3 last month — is also giving members of Congress an issue they can champion back home, even if they aren't facing tough re-election bids.
According to figures compiled by CQ, members of Congress released three times as many releases mentioning veterans in May and June this year as they did during the same months in 2012. The number of releases increased from 214 two years ago to 791 this spring.
While Begich works to counteract attacks aimed at his re-election, his Republican colleague Sen. Lisa Murkowski also is visiting with local veterans groups to talk about the scandal. On June 17, she released a letter calling for an inquiry into irregularities in the Alaska VA system and she is scheduled to meet with veterans later this week to discuss their concerns. Murkowski will not face re-election until 2016.
Hagan's North Carolina counterpart, Republican Sen. Richard M. Burr, introduced the Veterans Choice Act. He also does not face voters until 2016.
In a reminder that all politics is local, the problems with health centers across the country have allowed politicians to showcase their concern for those who have served, earning them front-page headlines and a megaphone during a summer stretch when Americans usually tune out.
Ultimately, those with tough re-elections say their priorities are making sure local veterans feel the issue is being addressed.
As Garcia told CQ Roll Call, “My thinking is that our nation has a debt of gratitude and an obligation to these men and women who served us. ... It’s an election so god knows who what will come up as an issue, but I feel pretty comfortable that veterans know I’m fighting for them.”
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