When he meets voters in Pennsylvania’s 8th Congressional District, former Army Ranger Kevin Strouse recounts how he helped clear a city block in Iraq during the rescue of prisoner of war Jessica Lynch in 2003. The story is meant to show his experience working with others to accomplish a goal.
“In the military, it’s always a team effort,” says Strouse, who completed three tours in Afghanistan and one in Iraq and now is running as a Democrat, hoping to unseat GOP Rep. Mike Fitzpatrick next year. “There’s a hierarchy, but things get done because people work together.”
In Arizona, Republican Martha McSally is putting her military service at the forefront of her second congressional campaign and emphasizing what she calls the Air Force’s core values.
“Service before self, integrity and excellence in all we do,” says McSally, the first woman in U.S. history to command a fighter squadron in combat. “And those are the character traits that are sorely lacking” in Washington.
She narrowly lost last year to Ron Barber, a former aide to Democrat Gabrielle Giffords, who represented a Tucson-area district until she was wounded during a mass shooting in 2011.
Strouse and McSally are among more than a dozen veterans recruited to run for the House in 2014. Both parties have sought out candidates whose records allow them to appear to be perfect antidotes for the partisan, gridlocked Washington. Each side hopes its challengers can run effectively against incumbents inextricably linked to a national capital that, polls show, the public detests.
Operatives say veterans can capitalize on the public’s high regard for military service and the record-low confidence it has in Congress.
What’s not lost on the parties is that there are many potential candidates to choose from, including those with long careers in the armed forces, now that thousands more veterans are returning home from Afghanistan and Iraq.
In House races expected to be the most competitive, Democrats are pushing eight challengers who either served in the military or continue to do so through the National Guard or Reserves; the GOP champions five veterans. Other veterans are in races that aren’t top targets on the national parties’ lists of competitive races.
Democrats need a net gain of 17 seats to seize control of the House.
Rep. Steve Israel of New York, the chairman of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, predicts that the October government shutdown will make a veteran’s service more compelling for voters.
“They are the perfect contrast to a do-nothing member of Congress who is willing to shut down the government versus a veteran who devoted his or her life to serving their country,” Israel said.
Among the Democratic Party’s top candidates with military service are Suzanne Patrick in Virginia’s defense-heavy 2nd Congressional District, Jerry Cannon in Michigan’s rural 1st Congressional District and Strouse in Pennsylvania. Patrick and Cannon are running in Republican-leaning districts, but not so much that they’re beyond the Democrats’ reach.
Patrick, a deputy undersecretary of defense under President George W. Bush, is portraying herself as above the political fray, a common strategy pursued by veteran candidates.
“We need more value-based problem-solving and the kind of core values the military represents, and quite honestly less politics,” says Patrick, whose district has the country’s highest concentration of veterans.
Republicans say they’re attempting to recruit the best candidates for congressional districts, period. But they acknowledge that veterans have a strong story to offer voters.
“There’s a certain level of trustworthiness when you have somebody who has a record of putting their life on the line to serve the American people,” said Andrea Bozek, spokeswoman for the National Republican Congressional Committee.
McSally represents one of the GOP’s best opportunities to defeat an incumbent. Republicans are also looking to Wendy Rogers, who served 20 years in the Air Force, to take on Democratic Rep. Kyrsten Sinema in Arizona’s 9th Congressional District.
While serving in the military can help earn candidates a second glance from voters, it doesn’t necessarily translate into success at the polls.
In 2006, Democrats placed great emphasis on the “fighting Dems,” a group of 55 challengers running for office against Republican incumbents at a time when the war in Iraq was the dominant campaign issue. Of that group, only four won and only Rep. Tim Walz, D-Minn., still serves in the House.
Analysts say that most congressional districts are so stacked toward one party or the other that incumbents generally face little threat of losing, regardless of a challenger’s resume.
Seth Lynn, who helps train veterans to run for political office through workshops and fellowships at George Washington University, said military success might lead some veterans to enter races that, in the end, just aren’t winnable.
“There are a lot of people who succeed in the military and have done so against great odds,” Lynn said. “They look at a congressional race and say, ‘I can do this, too.'”