IF MAURA SULLIVAN AND Eddie Edwards are successful in winning their respective primaries next month, they'll be facing off in one of the most hotly-contested races for Congress in November, the eastern New Hampshire district being vacated by the retiring Democratic Rep. Carol Shea-Porter. Edwards, a Republican, and Sullivan, a Democrat, are polar opposites on lots of things: he's a supporter of President Donald Trump, and would love his endorsement. She worked in the cabinet of Trump's predecessor, Barack Obama, and thinks Trump is putting national security at risk. Edwards would like to kill Obamacare; Sullivan wants a public option and the ability of the federal government to negotiate with prescription drug companies on prices. He's a big Second Amendment supporter, while she'd like to ban assault weapons and pass universal background checks.
But both, when describing their reasons for running, come back to a common motivation: they are military veterans. They have served their country, and want to serve again. And it doesn't have a thing to do with what party you're in.
"In the Marines, nobody ever asks if you're a Democrat or Republican. People barely ask where you're from," says Sullivan, a businesswoman who is an Iraq Marine Corps veteran and was Obama's assistant secretary of Veteran's Affairs. "I think that veterans in Congress approach the job from a place of service, from a place of doing what's right for your country. That comes before anything else," adds Sullivan.
Edwards couldn't agree more.
"Every veteran raised their right hand and took an oath" to defend and service the country, says Edwards, a businessman who is a Navy veteran and former town police chief. "Veterans, all of us, want a different type of representation in Washington. Much more than [advocating for] the policy, we want honest people in Washington, ethical people in Washington," he adds.
At a time when Congress is deeply unpopular and, by all accounts, a rather unpleasant place to work (68 House members, 20 Democrats and 48 Republicans, resigned or are retiring this year, along with three GOP senators), veterans are stepping up. More than 400 vets have announced candidacies for Congress alone, about half of them younger generation veterans, according to Ellen Zeng, political director of With Honor, a group that backs both Republican and Democratic vets for office. (The group, which asks contenders to back a pledge for civility, honesty and courage in office, has given its OK to both Edwards and Sullivan.)
Those candidacies could up the veteran quotient in Congress, where fewer than 19 percent of members have served, or are currently serving, in the military. In contrast, between 1965 and 1975 at least 70 percent of members had military experience, peaking at 75 percent in 1967 in the House and 81 percent in 1975 in the Senate, according to the Pew Research Center.
Vets are also running for governor. At least eight are seeking their state's top job, including both South Carolina party nominees, Democrat James Smith and Republican Henry McMaster. Veterans are also touting their military records in state legislative races. In May, Republican Tim O'Neal, a Bronze Star winner, won a special election for a Pennsylvania state legislative seat Democrats have held since its creation in 1968. An ad for O'Neal during the campaign said O'Neal was serving his country while his Democratic opponent was living at his parent's home playing video games.
"Veterans in Congress approach the job from a place of service, from a place of doing what's right for your country. That comes before anything else."
Veterans can have a tough time building candidacies, Zeng says, since they must by definition spend time away from their home communities, and aren't as practiced with such unapt campaign tasks as raising money. But in other ways, "they are extremely valuable from a tactical sense. They make great candidates," adds Matt Walter, president of the Republican State Leadership Committee, which works to elect Republicans to state legislatures. "They know how to have a clearly defined mission, develop relationships and mobilize those partnerships toward those missions," he says.
Veterans surely have a special concern for military and veterans issues, such as getting good and timely care from the Veterans Administration, helping vets deal with PTSD and supporting military families while their loved ones are away, advocates and candidates say. But it's more that that, they note, citing the dysfunction in Washington that would have doomed a military squad in a war zone.
Veterans all say the same thing when they talk about serving in the military or political area, Zeng says, and it's "mission first. When you have military veterans who are principled" running the government, "you're putting people in charge who have the interests of the country at heart," she says.
For a vet, the exhausting and often frustrating aspects of political service aren't as daunting, they say. Being forced to spend a lot of time away from your family? Work with people from vastly different backgrounds, and put the bigger goal ahead of any personal disputes? Make decisions that affect the livelihoods and very lives of many Americans?
Been there. Done that.
There's a sense, even among those who have radically different political ideologies, of what it means to be in the foxhole together – and how truly dangerous it is when individuals allow those differences to interfere with the mission at large, military experts say.
"I think the kind of leadership skills you develop in the military are excellent in any form. They'll be valuable here," says Rhode Island Democratic Sen. Jack Reed, a former Army Ranger and paratrooper who also taught at West Point military academy. "It's dealing with a whole host of different people from different parts of the country. It's also being committed to a national goal and objective – something bigger than yourself."
Texas State Sen. Van Taylor, a Republican running for Congress, says he has seen that dynamic play out in the state legislature. Even though the Texas body is heavily Democratic, Taylor says, he managed to get bipartisan support for every bill he's offered there.
"The people of their [Democratic] districts sent someone there to represent them. It might not be who I would have chosen, but that's who they sent to represent," Taylor says. In the Marine Corps, Taylor says, "it's about respect for the individual. Everybody who wears the uniform is a Marine. In the military, you show up, and the unit is the unit," he adds.
Aside from bringing a unique perspective to political posts, veterans can also help restore faith in public service, says Emily Cherniack, executive director of the bipartisan group New Politics, which works to elect people who have come from public service in the military, education and the Peace Corps. "The system is broken down and they want to be part of the solution," she says. The current political environment "doesn't reflect the values they risked their lives to protect."
This year includes what political experts say is an unusual number of Democratic and female veterans running. Some of that is a function of the changing demographics of the military and of Congress itself, but it's in many cases the female candidates who are shaking things up. Amy McGrath, a Democrat running to unseat Rep. Andy Barr, R-Ky., has a powerful ad campaign featuring her status as the first female Marine to fly in an F-18 on a combat mission. Iraq war veteran Gina Ortiz Jones could add a Democratic seat in Texas's most competitive congressional district, the one now held by GOP Rep. Will Hurd.
"Many women are running because we feel it is our responsibility to work toward a more just future, not just for ourselves, but for our children," says Mikie Sherrill, a former Navy helicopter pilot running for an open, competitive congressional seat in New Jersey against Republican Jay Webber. " So of course, women veterans embody both that sense of service to our country and our desire to fight for our future."
The Democratic candidates aren't shying away from criticizing their commander-in-chief, either. "The way this president has approached national security has been irresponsible and reckless," says Sullivan. "It puts the national security of the country at risk."
That's a message other Democratic vets are making as well, says Jonathan Soltz, an Iraq war veteran and chair of VoteVets, which works to elect Democratic veterans to office. "Veterans aren't running for Congress so they can work with Donald Trump. They're working to defeat Donald Trump," Soltz says, adding that the Democrats would still work with Republicans in Congress.
And VoteVets' candidates won't be hesitant to criticize power in their own ranks, he says. "We're veterans. We're not an agency of Nancy Pelosi," Soltz says, referring to the House Democratic leader.
Democrats don't appear to have taken the national security or defense issue away from Republicans; nor have they commandeered the veterans vote. Exit polls show that Trump won the votes of vets by a 2:1 margin in 2016, for example.
But ultimately, veterans and their advocates say, it's less about votes and politics than it is about values. With Honor, for example, asks its endorsees to sign a pledge – and part of that pledge includes a commitment to meet with a member of the opposing party at least once a month. "Are they going to put the country first?" Is the question the group asks military veteran-candidates, she says. And in November, they'll learn whether they have that opportunity to serve again.