How military credentials play in November elections

Military service may insulate candidates from 'weak on defense' charges.

Andrew Duck knows he's a long-shot candidate for Congress. He's running against a seven-term incumbent, Roscoe Bartlett (R) of Maryland. He's a Democrat in a deeply red district. And he's raised only $150,000 so far, in an era when you need many times that to be taken seriously.

But he's got something on his résumé that Representative Bartlett doesn't have: 20 years of service in the Army, including time on the ground in Iraq. Will that make a difference? Probably not. Incumbents are tough to defeat. But, Mr. Duck says, when Republican voters hear his history, they're willing to give his flyer a second look.

For most of the 51 Democratic military veterans running for Congress this fall as nonincumbents – 50 for the House and one for the Senate – the climb is steep. In the House, only six are in competitive races, as defined by the nonpartisan Cook Political Report. The one Democratic Senate challenger who's a vet, Jim Webb of Virginia, is locked in a tight race against Sen. George Allen (R) after a series of mishaps by the senator.

Of the 40 Republican military vets running for the House as challengers, only five are in competitive races. So the military credential has not been a big boon to either party's roster. But the Democratic Party, which has struggled for decades with an image of weakness on security, has tried to make more of their candidates' military service than has the GOP. And even if winning election to Congress is beyond the reach of many Democratic vets, they argue that they can still help their party.

"We offer them [the Democrats] something that they didn't have when we came to the party," says Duane Burghard (D), a Navy vet who is running against Rep. Kenny Hulshof (R) of Missouri. "We can stand up with authority and legitimacy that, in fact, the Democrats offer veterans and national security a better chance."

Last week, the group VETPAC, the Veterans' Alliance for Security and Democracy political action committee, held an event on Capitol Hill in support of Rep. John Murtha (D) of Pennsylvania, who has taken major heat from Republicans for his turn against the Iraq war last year. VETPAC took over earlier this year as the lead nonparty group supporting Democratic military vets running for Congress as challengers, after the demise of the group Band of Brothers. Fundraising for VETPAC has been slow; before a fundraiser last week, it had raised only about $35,000.

Republicans say that the Democratic focus on veterans as candidates – highlighted in a party Web page called "Fighting Dems" – has been a failure. "This is the most overdone story of this cycle," says Danny Diaz, a spokesman for the Republican National Committee. "They are trying to use veterans as a PR tool and it's not working."

Still, in at least one competitive race, Rep. Rob Simmons (R) of Connecticut is using the lack of military service by his opponent, Joe Courtney, against him in a TV ad. So it may be that in some cases, military service insulates candidates from potential charges that they are weak on defense.

In the cases where Democratic vets are running competitive races, it's hard to say if it's military service that has made the difference. An impressive résumé doesn't get a challenger far without political and fundraising skill. It also helps if the incumbent is vulnerable and the political leanings of the district are favorable.

Joe Sestak, a retired vice admiral in the Navy, has raised more than $1 million and is giving 10-term Rep. Curt Weldon (R) of Pennsylvania a run for his money. Because of Admiral Sestak's high-level service, including time in the White House, "he has relationships with donors and political types that regular service-members don't have," says Amy Walter, House race analyst for the Cook report.

But "people know Weldon, he has a relationship with voters," Ms. Walter adds. "Will those relationships outweigh a desire for change?"

According to the Cook list, the other competitive Democratic challengers who are vets running for Congress are: Ken Lucas of Kentucky, Tammy Duckworth of Illinois, Patrick Murphy of Pennsylvania, Chris Carney of Pennsylvania, and Eric Massa of New York.

Among GOP veterans running as challengers, the five competitive candidates are: Van Taylor of Texas, Chris Wakim of West Virginia, Max Burns of Georgia, Martha Rainville of Vermont, and Mac Collins of Georgia.

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