They’ve served in the military, now they’re looking to serve in Congress

Ahead of Tuesday’s primary election, military veterans aren’t just being courted by the candidates. In many states and in many races they are the candidates and they could be pivotal in deciding which party controls Congress. It’s a story the PBS NewsHour’s Capitol Hill Correspondent has been working on. Lisa Desjardins joins Correspondent Briana Vannozzi.

Vannozzi: Lisa, without giving away too much of what you’re working on, you’re looking at this pattern that we’ve seen develop within the Democratic party, veterans who are running. New Jersey’s 11th Congressional District happens to be a really good example of that. So without giving away too much, why is this the political moment for Democrats to put forward veterans to run in these races?

Desjardins: That in a way is one of the questions we’re trying to answer in this piece. We’re developing a number of theories, the characters we talked to are developing theories, but you’re right, New Jersey 11 has sort of become this strange kind of whirlpool of a national trend where we’re seeing a historic number of veterans running for Congress this year in both parties, but especially Democrats. It has to do in some ways because Democrats are more often the challengers. They have, more often, the space to run this year because there are so many Republicans in Congress now. But talking to veterans who are running and those who are helping them run, they believe that it’s popular this year because people want to get past partisanship, and veterans are people who are seen as those who have put country above politics in the past, and perhaps can do it again. Now, not every veteran is apolitical or bipartisan, some are very partisan, but they have that credential in a way that most other people don’t.

Vannozzi: They’re seen as breaking that partisan line. I mean, is that what kind of gets them in the door there, so to speak?

Desjardins: Yes, and I think it’s mostly subconscious. Some of them, you will see, and in New Jersey 11th you’ll hear this too, they are running, many of them saying, I can work with the other side. In fact, we talked with Mikie Sherrill, who is the leading Democrat in this race, and she said, most of the people I worked with when I was in the Navy were Republicans, and I can work with them again. So they’re brandishing their credential of working with all kinds of people in the military as something that they can use in a Congress that’s been partisan, and that we know voters are rejecting, that partisanship. So, they’re hoping that that helps them appear bipartisan. When they get in Congress, that’s the real test, right?

Vannozzi: Right. And in that particular district, you’ve got Mikie Sherrill, the former Navy pilot, federal prosecutor, but you’ve also got Antony Ghee on the Republican side who is also being backed by some of these bipartisan veteran groups. So are they the ones, or are there certain groups, or who or what are helping to create this platform? Or is it just the candidates individually saying, I want to go beyond my service to my country and serve my country in this way.

Desjardins: It’s both. There are some candidates, like we’ve seen in Kentucky with Amy McGrath, that have sort of run on their own, and run despite their party infrastructure backing a different candidate. She ended up winning the Democratic primary and now Democrats, of course, love her and they’re backing her. But there are other candidates like Mikie Sherrill, like Antony Ghee , who are in fact seeing support from these newer, kind of in the last five years, veteran groups. It used to be that veterans wanted to get policy changes made, but now these groups are realizing, hey we actually need veterans in Congress. We are at a historical low for the percentage of Congress that is made up of people who’ve served in the military, less than 20 percent, so veteran groups are saying we need more people who have served, we’re going to start by getting more candidates who are veterans on the ballot.

Vannozzi: OK, let’s turn elsewhere in New Jersey because we do have some other areas that weren’t necessarily considered a toss-up and now are a toss-up. I mean we have the 5th district, Josh Gottheimer is really raising a lot of money. We’ve got Sen. Menendez’ race against Bob Hugin. Let’s just talk about that very quickly. His poll numbers are slipping, so at the very least his standing within voters, their sentiment, is dropping, but what about his clout from a national perspective?

Desjardins: Right. There’s one poll showing that Menendez is within four points of losing this race. It’s just one poll. We don’t know how serious this is for him or not, and there’s a different way he is looked at on The Hill right now. After he survived his trial, after he survived the Ethics Committee looking at him in Congress, that was all just in the last year or less, he actually regained his footing as the ranking Democrat on Foreign Relations in the Senate. That’s a very powerful position. I think what’s happened is two things: Democrats are trying to get past all of his past, and he’s returned to a position of very serious clout, not just in Foreign Relations, but also on the immigration issue. Republicans the other way. They do not seem to respect him in quite the same way, but I think that is political. They’re waiting to see if he’s vulnerable. If he does get through this election, I think in politics, memories can be very short.

Vannozzi: Sure. When the numbers dipped and then they came back up again, but we do have sort of that divide within the Democratic party still, the ultra progressive and the more moderate. Just quickly, the Democrats are looking to get 25 seats flipped in the House and they need three Senate seats. Could that happen, and are veterans sort of their pathway to doing that?

Desjardins: It could definitely happen in the House. Veterans are absolutely the pathway to do it. And I will say one thing more, New Jersey is going to be essential. I think New Jersey and Pennsylvania might be the two most important states for Democrats. After that California, but we have to wait and see what happens in the future. New Jersey is going to be key to deciding the balance of power in this country come November.