Military service offers no guarantee of success in the world of politics.
Despite the conventional wisdom that a stint in the military is an asset on the campaign trail, a Washington Times analysis of the 2014, 2016 and 2018 election cycles found that veterans scored no better than their civilian counterparts. In fact, data from the past three rounds of congressional contests shows that veterans lost more races than they won, raising questions about the effectiveness of aggressive efforts by Republican and Democratic Party officials to recruit retired service members for public office.
In all Senate and House races over the past three congressional elections, veterans won just 206 of the 431 races in which they faced off against an opponent with no military service — a success rate of 47.8%. Veterans lost 225 contests against nonveterans, or 52.2%.
The figures do not include House or Senate races in which two veterans faced off against each other, nor do they factor in the success of candidates in presidential elections or party primaries.
The numbers, which some political analysts say should not be surprising, are being released as both major parties gear up for key 2020 elections by again touting decorated veterans in their ranks. New York Democrats are investing heavily in the candidacy of Jackie Gordon, an Army veteran who served in Iraq and is running for the seat being vacated by retiring Rep. Peter T. King, a Republican.
Ms. Gordon’s campaign website prominently features her 29-year career in the armed forces and serves as an example of how political parties frequently eye veterans in their quests to capture seats in contested districts.
Although veterans often make attractive candidates for a host of reasons, analysts say, decades of data show little direct correlation between their military service and victories at the ballot box.
“There is no systematic advantage for veterans on Election Day,” said Jeremy Teigen, a political science professor at Ramapo College and author of the book “Why Veterans Run: Military Service in American Presidential Elections.”
“If parties realized there’s a 5% advantage to veterans being on the ballot, we’d have 435 veterans in the House,” Mr. Teigen said. “For those House races, we know most of what drives wins and losses for those are incumbency and gerrymandering. There are not a lot of 55% to 45% districts in House races.”
Indeed, Mr. Teigen said his research shows that veterans’ less-than-stellar record in congressional elections typically does not stem from their flaws as candidates. Instead, he said, it often comes down to political parties recruiting veterans to run against popular, entrenched incumbents in highly partisan districts in the hopes they can pull off electoral miracles. In most cases, they cannot.
Perhaps the best example is Democrats’ effort in 2006 to recapture the House by recruiting dozens of military veterans to run against incumbent Republicans. Dubbed by then-House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi as the “Fighting Dems,” the group included about 50 general election candidates with military service backgrounds.
Although Democrats succeeded in retaking the House amid a backlash against the Iraq War and the plummeting popularity of President George W. Bush, only five of the “Fighting Dems” won their races in 2008.
Even in nominally red states, a military background doesn’t prove a decisive edge over an opponent without one. In addition to two terms in the House, Martha McSally, Arizona Republican, made a run for the Senate in 2018 touting her 22-year Air Force career, during which she became the first American woman to fly in combat. That was not enough to defeat Democrat Kyrsten Sinema in a tight race to replace retiring Sen. Jeff Flake, a Republican.
Ms. McSally was appointed by Republican Gov. Doug Ducey this year to fill the seat long held by John McCain before his death in August 2018.
In other cases, lawmakers say their military service helped propel their political careers, and some Democrats in particular suggest that their time in the armed forces spurred conversations with conservative-leaning voters who otherwise may have been skeptical of their candidacies.
“I was able to connect with voters, and I got through doors that I don’t think I would’ve gone through otherwise,” Sen. Tammy Duckworth, Illinois Democrat and an Iraq War combat veteran, told The Washington Times this week. “The military experience allowed me to speak to folks who maybe were not traditional Democratic voters, but who would give me a shot to speak with them and lay out my agenda and my plans in a way that I don’t think they would’ve been as receptive had I not been a veteran and especially a combat veteran.”
Ms. Duckworth is one of 96 veterans serving in this Congress, down slightly from the previous session. Over the past two decades, roughly 20% of lawmakers have spent time in the military, a number that has steadily shrunk from the historical high of 74% in the 1970s. This was a result of the Greatest Generation and the Silent Generation fighting in World War II and the Korean War.
Veterans’ recent success in congressional elections also seems to be on a slight downward trajectory. In 2014, veterans won 74 races against nonveterans, compared with 70 losses. In 2016, they lost 80 and won just 68, while in 2018 they lost 75 and won just 64, according to results compiled by The Times.
Despite those figures, and even with the knowledge that military service by no means assures an election victory, Democrats and Republicans are gearing up for the 2020 cycle by pushing veterans to the forefront.
“A great way to honor veterans is by voting for them,” Rep. Seth Moulton, Massachusetts Democrat and former 2020 presidential candidate, said this week in a Veterans Day tweet accompanied by a video promoting the importance of veterans’ voices in Congress.
Mr. Moulton is a retired Marine Corps officer and was one of several veterans seeking his party’s presidential nomination. Military veterans former Rep. Joe Sestak, Rep. Tulsi Gabbard and South Bend, Indiana, Mayor Pete Buttigieg remain in the running.
Mr. Buttigieg, who served in Afghanistan as a Navy intelligence officer, in particular is seen as a rising star in his party, and some recent polls even have him in first place in the crucial Iowa caucuses.
Still, most veterans in public office are Republicans. Of the 96 veterans in Congress right now, 66 are Republicans, according to data compiled by the Military Times.
Despite the mediocre electoral record of veterans in general, Republicans over the past decade have elected a number of veterans who have risen to prominence in the party, including Sen. Tom Cotton of Arkansas, Rep. Adam Kinzinger of Illinois and Rep. Dan Crenshaw of Texas.
Neither party seems to have difficulty recruiting veterans to run for office, but some analysts say there should be a growing realization among the veterans and the voting public that electing men and women with military service is unlikely to have a dramatic effect on an increasingly partisan and divided Congress.
“Congress itself has changed so much since the 1970s when there were so many veterans, the height of veterans in Congress,” said Rebecca Burgess, a research fellow at the American Enterprise Institute who studies veterans and their role in society and politics.
“Those from the outside who are looking at veterans as the savior to this, and not understanding those internal pressures … they’re … sometimes setting up veterans for failure in the idea of what they can accomplish,” she said at an AEI event in Washington last week focused on veterans and politics.
• Lauren Meier contributed to this report.
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