Republicans draft veteran candidates to reclaim House majorityApril 9, 2021
Republicans blew a chance at winning the House majority in 2020, with a number of weak recruits unable to take advantage of a better-than-expected national environment on Election Day.
To avoid a similar fate in the 2022 midterms, the GOP is taking a page out of Democrats’ 2018 playbook: finding veterans to run for office.
In the first three months of the off-year, party recruiters are reporting a surge of enthusiasm from a diverse crop of prospective candidates, including women and people of color. National Republican Congressional Committee leaders have so far talked to 112 recruits in their 47 target districts. But they say they are particularly excited about an uptick in interest from those who served in the military — a trend they think will serve them well in competitive districts.
Democrats won the House four years ago thanks to a collection of candidates who were veterans or had national-security experience, a profile that seemed to appeal to swing voters. GOP strategists are acutely aware that they narrowly missed the House majority in 2020 due, in part, to recruitment failures in key districts. And they’re determined to assemble a roster of candidates that can close the five-seat gap and secure control of the chamber.
“We’ve got a built-in advantage. I think, if you look at polling, about two thirds of our veterans tend to be Republican,” said Rep. Don Bacon (R-Neb.), a retired Air Force general who is working to recruit more candidates from the military. “The Democrats were smart, too, in trying to emphasize that area. Fact is: It’s the most trusted institution in America.”
Jen Kiggans, a former Navy pilot who now serves as a Virginia state senator and nurse practitioner, is expected to formally launch a run next week against Democratic Rep. Elaine Luria in the Tidewater region. Harold Earls IV, a retired Army captain who summited Mt. Everest and led the elite unit that guards the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier in Arlington National Cemetery, just announced a run in suburban Atlanta. And in the Orlando area, Cory Mills, an Army Bronze Star recipient who survived two bombings in the Middle East, is already running against Rep. Stephanie Murphy (D-Fla.).
Even more are considering campaigns. Zach Nunn, a state senator who flew 700 air combat hours in the Air Force, may challenge Democratic Rep. Cindy Axne in Iowa. Nick De Gregorio, who became a veterans’ advocate after spending nine years in the Marines, is mulling a run in northern New Jersey. Another Marine veteran, Oceanside City Council member Christopher Rodriguez, might run in southern California. And state Rep. Chris Croft, a retired colonel who served 30 years in the Army, is thinking about challenging Democratic Rep. Sharice Davids in Kansas.
Recruitment last cycle was dampened by the 2018 rout, when Democrats flipped 43 seats, including some deep red districts, thanks to suburban distaste for Donald Trump. It spooked some GOP candidates from running two years later in 2020 when Trump himself would be on the ballot.
But the combination of a better-than-expected 2020 cycle and the promise of new and perhaps more favorable district lines is coaxing prospective candidates out earlier than usual. Now with the majority within reach, recruiters are hoping veterans can help the party’s appeal, not necessarily with defense or foreign policy credentials, but with their history of service and a desire to transcend the gridlock in Washington.
Colin Schmitt, a New York Republican state assemblyman and Army National Guardsman, said his time delivering critical supplies to his state’s frontline workers during the pandemic, inspired him to launch a run for Congress in Hudson Valley in a district that includes the U.S. Military Academy at West Point.
“I’ve seen that firsthand, coming in and being able to be a sign of relief,” he said, describing his Covid-related missions. “That’s certainly a motivator for serving. It seems every day there’s more partisan divide, more bitterness. Listen, we need to move beyond that.”
Schmitt said he hopes to contrast his time in the National Guard with what he described as the hyper-partisanship of his opponent: Rep. Sean Patrick Maloney, the chair of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee.
Even though Covid has limited trips to Capitol Hill, recruiters from the NRCC and outside groups describe intense early interest among prospective candidates. Some 340 candidates have already filed to run in 284 districts so far, according to the NRCC. While many of those candidates are not top-tier or contesting winnable districts, committee officials are comparing it with 2010 — the last time they took back the House. At this point in that cycle, only 165 candidates had filed.
And recruiters say they like the diversity of the candidates who have filed by late March: 78 women, 59 candidates of color and 78 veterans.
The number of veterans in Congress is at a historic low; it has been generally declining since the end of the Vietnam War. But Democrats said they found that candidates with a background in national security were inspired to run in 2018 after seeing Trump elected. Of the 43 Democrats who won GOP-held seats that year, a dozen were either veterans or had significant national security experience.
Now some GOP recruiters said they have found similar recruits after the Jan. 6 riots at the Capitol.
“That scared them. And they want to right the country,” said Sarah Chamberlain, the president of the Republican Main Street Partnership. In searching for 2022 candidates, she said veterans were self-recruiting. “These guys — and women — have fought in battle. And now they’re like, ‘Listen, it’s time to serve here because we don’t want to see the Capitol surrounded by fencing and shut off from the people in this country.’”
For their part, Democrats scoffed at the idea that veterans could run successfully for Congress as Republicans after the insurrection — an attack egged on by Trump, the current standard bearer of the party.
“You can serve this country and still be against America. Just ask Robert E. Lee,” said Jon Soltz, a founder of VoteVets, a liberal group that backs candidates who served in the military.
And he suggested any candidates who forcefully disavowed Jan. 6 would struggle to get the nomination, citing freshman Rep. Peter Meijer (R-Mich.), who leaned on his time in the Army to win a tough battleground seat in 2020 but has been under fire politically after he voted to impeachment Trump.
“It’s just so far-fetched for me to think that they could run Peter Meijers in all of these battleground districts that would appeal to the voters at a time when Peter Meijer is probably gonna lose a primary,” Soltz said.
About a dozen or so Republican veteran candidates contested top swing seats last cycle. Only a handful won, but GOP leaders are tellingly urging many those who came close to try again in the midterms in a potentially more favorable environment.
Republican recruiters are hopeful that at least a half dozen of their 2020 veteran nominees will run again, especially in states that are gaining congressional seats in 2022, including Alek Skarlatos, a former Army National Guardsman in Oregon, Wesley Hunt, an Army helicopter pilot in Texas, and Anna Paulina Luna, an Air Force veteran who lives on the western coast of Florida.
In the Midwest, Esther Joy King, an Army reservist who ran a strong 2020 challenge against then-DCCC Chair Cheri Bustos (D-Ill), is already gearing up for another run. And GOP leaders hope that Marine veteran Tyler Kistner will seek a rematch with Rep. Angie Craig (D-Minn.). Former Navy SEAL Derrick Van Orden launched a second run against Ron Kind (D-Wis.) this week.
The NRCC tapped Rep. Carol Miller (R-W.Va.) as its 2022 recruitment chair. First elected in 2018, Miller was the only woman in the GOP’s freshman class that year, compared with some three dozen new Democratic women — a disparity that motivated other Republican congresswomen and party strategists to redouble their efforts.
Two years later, Republican women dominated in swing districts, significantly outrunning Trump. Their numbers in Congress went from 13 to 31 in one cycle, momentum they are eager to maintain.
“People have realized how large a tent the Republican Party is,” Miller said in an interview. “And I think their eyes have been opened through the last couple years, and we’ve got dynamic people. There’s no stereotype.”
In the 2020 cycle, Republicans were plagued by recruitment flops in key seats, including those held by Reps. Elissa Slotkin (D-Mich.), Antonio Delgado (D-N.Y.) and Lauren Underwood (D-Ill.). Even still, they came tantalizingly close to winning back the House. And party leaders are determined this year to put every seat in play.
And while they’re betting veteran candidates will help them create a wide battlefield, House Republicans don’t have that same infrastructure as Democrats, who launched VoteVets in 2006 to help anti-Iraq War candidates. (The group With Honor does support veterans from both parties.)
Republicans hope to change that this cycle. Bacon said he’s offered his services to help find strong military candidates and says the party realizes their value.
“I do find most veterans, whether they get elected Republican or Democrat, have a higher propensity to work across the aisle,” he said. “What we have in Congress right now is a dysfunction. You got people who demand 100 percent. They’re not even willing to take 90 percent.”