Meet the Vets Running for Congress, the Largest Group of Candidates Who Served in a Decade

Meet the Vets Running for Congress, the Largest Group of Candidates Who Served in a Decade

By Rebecca Kheel

There’s a new crop of veteran candidates running in this year’s midterm elections, and they are part of the largest number of political hopefuls with military experience to seek office in years.

In New York, a rising Democratic star’s military resume and pro-abortion rights campaign are giving the party hopes of hanging onto control of Congress. A grieving Green Beret husband in Washington state launched into politics and the Republican right after his wife’s death.

And a Black female Air Force veteran running as a Republican in Indiana has turned her bid for a seat her party hasn’t won in nearly a century into one of the most competitive races in the country.

Those are just a few of the 196 Republican and Democrat veterans competing for a seat in Congress on Nov. 8. This year’s cohort of major party nominees is the highest number of veteran candidates since 2012 and 14 more than in 2020. Many are incumbents, but a majority would be fresh faces in the Capitol, according to data from the Veterans Campaign, a nonpartisan nonprofit that trains veterans to run for office.

Republicans are expected to win at least the House, and many of the veterans running this year are in races that could determine which party controls Congress next year. The number of veteran candidates exceeds 200 when factoring in independent, third-party and write-in candidates who have little shot of winning, according to data provided by With Honor, a political action committee that supports veterans running for office.

Democrats have been hoping to defy the odds with pro-abortion rights campaigns after a Supreme Court ruling that abortion was not a constitutional right, but Republicans, who have been focusing on inflation, have recently seen momentum shift back toward them.

“Hardworking Americans are hurting from Joe Biden’s disastrous, failed economic policies,” Jen Kiggans, a Navy veteran running for the House in Virginia, said at her debate against Rep. Elaine Luria, D-Va., this month.

Those who track veteran candidates say it’s important to have people with military experience in public office because they have the potential to be more nonpartisan than their peers. Still, it has become difficult for even veterans in Congress to compromise as politics becomes increasingly polarized on even defense issues, such as whether the military’s diversity efforts are too “woke.”

“There is the opportunity to work across party lines with shared military service,” said Seth Lynn, executive director of the Veterans Campaign. “It doesn’t always happen. Maybe it rarely happens. But the opportunity is there, and it’s because it’s one of the only things that sort of still trumps partisanship in D.C. and across the country.”

Indeed, many of the veterans running this year are on the far right of the political spectrum and have falsely denied President Joe Biden won the 2020 presidential election, despite dozens of court cases and reviews in various states that have failed to provide any proof of fraud that could have affected the election outcome.

That’s not necessarily because veterans are moving further to the right, but rather the Republican Party is and more of the veterans running this year are Republicans than Democrats, Lynn said.

“You’re seeing more right-wing veteran nominees because you’re seeing more right-wing nominees and Republicans are nominating a lot of veterans,” he said.

Democratic veteran candidates are largely following the party line on issues such as promising to protect abortion access, accusing Republicans of wanting to cut Social Security and Medicare, and casting the election as a fight to save democracy from extremist supporters of former President Donald Trump.

Political polarization has grown to the point that a recent NBC News poll found 80% of Republicans and Democrats believe the other party “poses a threat that if not stopped will destroy America as we know it.”

Rye Barcott, CEO of With Honor, said he does not think veteran candidates are becoming more extreme, just that those who are more radical are louder. Still, Barcott said he does worry about the extreme voices drowning out the “principled” veterans his group is trying to elect.

The candidates whom With Honor supports, who come from both parties, have to take a pledge to serve with integrity, civility and courage, and are expected to join Congress’ For Country Caucus, a bipartisan group of veterans who have the stated goal of making the legislature less polarized, if elected.

“The important piece from our perspective is getting principled veterans elected, who have a proven record not only of service but are committed to working across party lines and compromising and getting things done, because that’s the only way that things get done,” Barcott said.

Here’s a sampling of some of the veterans hoping to be sent to Washington for the first time or, in one case, be given a chance to do more than keep the seat warm for a few months.

Pat Ryan, New York-18

Democratic Army veteran Pat Ryan unexpectedly won a special election in August to serve the remainder of a term for a House district in southern New York left open when Antonio Delgado became the state’s lieutenant governor, and he’s now hoping voters will give him a full term in November’s general election.

West Point graduate, Ryan served two combat tours in Iraq as an Army intelligence officer. His campaign materials prominently feature his military service, with his website vowing he will bring West Point’s motto of “duty, honor, country” to Congress.

“I was willing to put it on the line for our country, to put myself at risk in service of something bigger than myself, and I think a lot of people feel and I agree we need more of that ethos in politics right now,” Ryan said in a recent interview with Military.com.

Ryan’s victory in the special election was seen as one of the first concrete signs of electoral backlash against the Supreme Court’s decision overturning nationwide abortion rights, giving Democrats hope they can win on pro-abortion rights platforms in November. Ryan’s general election race in the Hudson Valley district is rated “lean Democrat” by election forecaster Cook Political Report.

Ryan said he applauds Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin’s recent move to ease service members’ access to abortion and would like to see it codified so a future administration can’t reverse it. He also said the Department of Veterans Affairs should broaden its recent decision to provide abortions to veterans in cases of rape, incest or where the life or health of the mother is at risk.

In his short time in Congress, he has already gotten one bill passed by the House, and it was a veterans bill. Specifically, it would expand VA home loan eligibility to more Guardsmen and reservists. If elected to a full term, Ryan said he’d push to establish grants for a veterans peer-to-peer support program, as well as expand veterans’ families’ access to mental health care.

Ryan also said he thinks it’s important to have veterans in Congress with combat experience making foreign policies decisions.

“We need people at the table making foreign policy decisions who’ve actually been on the receiving end, way out on the edge, as I was in Iraq on two deployments, understanding how grave and serious the decision is to send young men and women into combat,” he said.

Ryan’s opponent in the general election is Colin Schmitt, who is a sergeant and automated logistical specialist in the New York Army National Guard‘s 53rd Troop Command.

Schmitt, a New York assemblyman, joined the National Guard in 2015 after having a “really great experience” interacting with Guard leaders as a staffer for the New York State Senate’s Veterans, Homeland Security and Military Affairs Committee, he told Military.com in a recent interview. Schmitt was activated for the domestic response to COVID-19, when he helped transport supplies to the emergency field hospital set up in New York City’s Javits Convention Center and to other community groups in need of masks, sanitizer or other items.

Schmitt said he thinks his experience in the Guard has made him a “more well-rounded leader” and taught him resiliency. Asked what policies he would advance in Congress to support service members and veterans, he pointed to his opposition to the VA’s proposal to close a hospital in the district. The idea was part of a broader VA infrastructure realignment plan that has since been scuttled by sitting lawmakers. Schmitt also cited support for the same peer-to-peer veteran support program Ryan vowed to advance.

“There’s a lot of things that can divide us, but doing the right thing for veterans and thanking people for their service, that’s what I’m all about,” Schmitt said.

Don Bolduc, New Hampshire

Retired Army Brig. Gen. Don Bolduc is hoping to unseat incumbent New Hampshire Democratic Sen. Maggie Hassan in a race seen as vital for control of the Senate.

Bolduc served in the Army for 36 years, a career that included 10 tours in Afghanistan and earned him two Purple Hearts.

Since his retirement from the military in 2017, he has become a mainstay on Fox News and has made other media appearances, blasting the Biden’s administration’s chaotic withdrawal from Afghanistan as the result of “wishful thinking,” saying moves Chairman of the Joint Chiefs Gen. Mark Milley took at the end of the Trump administration to ensure a smooth presidential transition “fall somewhere between treason and dereliction of duty,” and calling Pentagon efforts on climate change “dangerous.”

Bolduc also spent more than a year spreading the lie that Biden stole the 2020 election, though two days after winning his primary in September, he said he had “come to the conclusion” the election “was not stolen.”

Still, in a recent interview with Military.com, Bolduc said he would be a “unifying voice” as a veteran in the Senate.

“We can see that we have a polarization of our parties, Republican and Democrat, not able to come together any longer for the things that matter for Americans that I think veterans and the service of veterans really focus on,” he said.

Asked about the apparent contradiction of casting himself as unifying after denying the 2020 election results, Bolduc said he was “not dwelling in the past.”

“I don’t know how often or how many times I have to say that I am not focused on 2020. I am focused on 2022 and beyond. I am focused on the future,” he said. His critics are “trying to drag us back. They’re trying to use divisiveness. I’m not. I’m trying to use unity. I am moving forward.”

In terms of supporting veterans and service members if elected, Bolduc said his priority would be to “fix the VA.” Specifically, he proposed taking primary care out of the VA’s purview and giving that responsibility to private doctors. He said he’s been passed around to five primary care VA doctors in the five years since he retired.

“Every time you have a different primary care provider, it’s a two-hour to two-and-a-half-hour process for them to interview,” he said. “They don’t even get to know you. They don’t get to know you as the patient to be able to provide health care for you.”

Hassan, who is campaigning on what she describes as a record of bipartisanship, as well as on Democratic stances such as abortion rights, sits on the Senate Veterans’ Affairs Committee. Cook Political Report gives her the edge in the race, rating it as “lean Democrat.”

Jen Kiggans, Virginia-02

It’s Navy veteran vs. Navy veteran in this race for a toss-up district along Virginia’s Eastern Shore that is seen as critical in the battle to control the House.

Republican Jen Kiggans is seeking to unseat Democratic Rep. Elaine Luria, a nuclear-trained surface warfare officer who served in the Navy for 20 years.

In her four years in office, Luria has earned a reputation for conducting fierce oversight of her former service, criticizing Navy shipbuilding plans as insufficient, and crossing party lines to support sizable increases in the defense budget. But she also risked backlash from Republicans in her district by serving on the congressional committee investigating the Jan. 6, 2021, attack on the U.S. Capitol by Trump supporters.

Kiggans, who serves in the Virginia state senate, was a Navy pilot for 10 years, flying H-46 and H-3 helicopters, and deployed twice to the Persian Gulf. After leaving the Navy, she used GI Bill benefits to attend nursing school, becoming an adult geriatric primary care nurse practitioner.

Kiggans has cited her military experience in trying to fend off attacks that she has extreme positions on issues such as abortion and the 2020 election, telling a voter in September that she’s “a mom, a Navy veteran and a normal person,” according to The Washington Post. Her campaign did not respond to an interview request. Kiggans has called a nationwide abortion ban after 15 weeks of pregnancy “common sense” but has not said whether she would vote for it. She has also repeatedly sidestepped questions about whether Biden was legitimately elected, but has not explicitly endorsed stolen election lies.

On her campaign website, Kiggans also points to her military experience in pledging that she will work toward “securing critical funding for military bases and installations, never voting for defense cuts, and always advocating for military families.” The site also says she supports more job and career training for veterans and “long-overdue reforms to our broken VA so our veterans and their families can get the care they need, when they need it.”

Jennifer-Ruth Green, Indiana-01

Black Republican Air Force veteran Jennifer-Ruth Green leans into her military experience prominently in her campaign materials, declaring on her website’s homepage that she will bring “battle-proven leadership” to Congress and calling her campaign platform her “battle plan.”

Green, who is hoping to flip the Indiana district for the first time since 1930, is looking to unseat freshman Democratic Rep. Frank Mrvan, who serves on the House Veterans’ Affairs Committee as the chair of its technology modernization subcommittee.

Her background — she is one of only two Republican female veterans of color running this cycle — has helped propel the race to become one of the most competitive in the country, with Cook Political Report rating it as a toss-up with a slight edge toward Democrats.

Green graduated from the Air Force Academy in 2005, starting her career in aviation before becoming a special agent with the Air Force Office of Special Investigations. Her military career included a deployment to Iraq as a mission commander for counterintelligence activities. She has retired from active duty, but continues to serve in the Indiana Air National Guard.

She supports the “America first” foreign policy espoused by Trump and incorrectly states that the Biden administration’s National Security Strategy labels domestic terrorism as the country’s primary threat instead of China. She’s also leaned into the GOP culture wars, saying on “Fox and Friends” in May that she “wholeheartedly” disagrees with critical race theory, which she described as a theory that all systems are inherently racist.

“If it were, I would not have the opportunity of becoming a lieutenant colonel in the Air Force and the Indiana Air National Guard,” she told the program.

Her military experience was the focus of a recent controversy in the campaign when news outlet Politico reported she received a poor performance review in 2010 that said she did not meet leadership, professionalism and judgment standards.

The review cited two incidents, one where she loaded her weapon inside a military facility and another where she walked away from the rest of her group while visiting a facility in Iraq, according to Politico. During the Iraq incident, she alleges she was sexually assaulted by an Iraqi serviceman grabbing her breast and exposing himself.

The evaluation stalled her career, and she was removed from active duty in 2012 as part of a larger force reduction, according to Politico. Green’s campaign did not respond to a request for an interview.

Green has maintained the evaluation was retaliation for her reporting the assault after a superior told her not to, and accused Mrvan or his supporters of “illegally” obtaining and leaking her military records to smear her. Politico said in the article the records were obtained through a public records request and given to it by someone outside Mrvan’s campaign.

J.R. Majewski, Ohio-09

Republican Air Force veteran J.R. Majewski was considered to be in a toss-up race against longtime incumbent Democratic Rep. Marcy Kaptur until an Associated Press investigation undercovered that he inflated his military record. The race is now rated “lean Democrat” by Cook Political Report.

Majewski had talked on the campaign trail about “tough” conditions while deployed to Afghanistan and also tweeted that he’d “gladly suit up and go back to Afghanistan” while criticizing the Biden administration’s withdrawal. But military records obtained by AP show the closest he got to the war zone was a six-month deployment to Qatar to help load cargo planes.

Most of Majewski’s time in the Air Force, which lasted from 1999 to 2003, was spent based in Japan, according to the records obtained by AP.

The news agency also reported that he misrepresented the circumstances that led to his demotion and prevented him from reenlisting. While he had said he got into a “brawl” at an Air Force dormitory in 2001, records published by AP show he was cited for drunk driving.

Majewski, who did not respond to an interview request, has offered shifting defenses for himself, including at one point claiming his deployment to Afghanistan was not in his records because it was “classified.” He has since said he misunderstood the paperwork he cited to claim his deployment was classified. In a lengthy statement on his website earlier this month, he argued that he never intentionally misrepresented his service and accused political opponents of trying to “stoke confusion or diminish my service.”

On his website, Majewski, who was outside the Capitol during the Jan. 6 riot but maintains he never entered the building and has not been charged in connection with the attack, vowed to “support our troops at all times, without question.”

Joe Kent, Washington-03

Republican Army Green Beret veteran Joe Kent first entered the public eye after his wife Shannon, a Navy cryptologic technician, was killed in an ISIS suicide bombing in Syria in 2019.

He has since carved out a political path on the far right, winning his primary election by defeating an incumbent Republican congresswoman who voted in favor of Trump’s impeachment over the Jan. 6 attack. Trump has endorsed Kent.

His Democratic opponent in the general election race, which Cook Political Report rates as “lean Republican,” is Marie Gluesenkamp Perez, who is running a pro-abortion rights campaign and is seeking to appeal to working-class voters.

Kent joined the Army at 18 and applied to join the Special Forces shortly before the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. His Army career included 11 combat deployments. He joined the CIA after retiring from the Special Forces and left after his wife’s death.

Kent has blamed his wife’s death on “unelected bureaucrats” who opposed Trump’s attempts to withdraw U.S. troops from Syria, a goal the former president never accomplished in the face of fierce pushback from military officials and members of Congress in both parties.

Now, Kent, who did not respond to an interview request, is running on an “America first” platform and espousing many of the same falsehoods as Trump, including that the 2020 election was “rigged and stolen” and that those arrested in connection with the Jan. 6 Capitol attack are “political prisoners.”

Kent, whose campaign website pledges to “end our endless wars,” has vowed to impeach Biden in part over last year’s withdrawal from Afghanistan, which was marred by chaotic scenes of desperate Afghans scrambling to get onto U.S. military evacuation flights and the death of 13 service members in an Islamic State suicide bombing. He also said that after years of focus on counterterrorism, the military must make “a decisive pivot to fighting a modern nation,” particularly China, “in every warfare domain, especially cyber and information warfare.”

https://www.military.com/daily-news/2022/10/28/meet-vets-running-congress-largest-group-of-candidates-who-served-decade.html

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