In Trump's shadow, military veterans vie for Senate control
By TRAVIS J. TRITTEN | STARS AND STRIPES Published: October 12, 2016
WASHINGTON — Military veterans running for office in key races across the country are hoping to clinch a top Election Day prize – control of the Senate – but their campaigns are engulfed by the growing political fallout over Donald Trump’s comments about groping women.
Nervous Republican leadership were working to shore up support in congressional races, including Senate elections in Arizona, Missouri, Nevada and Illinois where veterans are locked in tight competition, while Trump lashed out on Twitter against the many members of his own party who have disavowed the reality television star.
“The very foul mouthed Sen. John McCain begged for my support during his primary (I gave, he won), then dropped me over locker room remarks!” Trump tweeted about McCain, who is running for re-election in Arizona and announced Saturday that he will not support the GOP presidential nominee.
McCain and veterans in at least three other Senate races could determine whether Republicans or Democrats seize a majority in the chamber, giving the winner more power over legislation such as defense budgets and the approval of Supreme Court justices.
To get a majority, Democrats need to win just four additional seats in the Senate and for Hillary Clinton to win the presidency, an outcome that appears increasingly likely.
After months of friction over the GOP nominee’s incendiary campaign, Trump’s raunchy comments about forcing himself on women and grabbing their genitals – recorded in 2005 – are causing a schism in the Republican Party and uncertainty that could play into Democrats’ hands. House Speaker Paul Ryan on Monday effectively conceded Republicans would lose the presidency and said he would focus on congressional races instead.
“There’s nothing good about Trump sliding for Republicans,” said Kyle Kondik, the managing editor of Sabato’s Crystal Ball, an election polling website at University of Virginia Center for Politics.
McCain, a former Navy pilot who appears to be the Senate front-runner in Arizona, has seen his entire re-election campaign entangled with Trump.
The brash-talking, one-time underdog began his presidential campaign last year by attacking McCain’s status as a war hero – McCain spent more than five years as a prisoner of war in Vietnam – and has handed the senator one headache after another.
Trump proposes allying with Russia in Syria while McCain has spent his time as chairman of the Armed Services Committee railing against Russian President Vladimir Putin and that country’s increasingly belligerent foreign policy. Then in July, the New York businessman sparred with a Gold Star family whose son was killed while serving in Iraq.
For months, McCain backed Trump’s nomination despite the stream of controversial comments about POWs and the Gold Star family, but that ended suddenly over the weekend when the senator withdrew his support.
“All of those things I thought were very wrong but then when Mr. Trump attacks women and demeans the women in our nation and our society that is a point where I just have to part company,” McCain explained Monday during a debate in Arizona, referring to the video that surfaced of Trump using vulgar terms and bragging to an entertainment reporter about using his fame to make sexual advances on women.
Now, with the Arizona race entering its final weeks, McCain is trying to unify the Republicans in the state around his re-election. He released an ad reminding voters that he “chose to stay in a prison camp until his fellow soldiers had a chance to go home” and ripping his challenger, Rep. Ann Kirkpatrick, a Democrat with a substantial record on veteran legislation.
“McCain has never been in a better position to support our servicemembers and ensure they have the resources and capabilities they need for today’s increasingly complex security environment,” his campaign spokeswoman Lorna Romero wrote in an email to Stars and Stripes.
Despite being the front-runner, McCain’s problems do not end with Trump. His decades in the Senate – he was first elected in 1986 – and his most recent unsuccessful bid for the presidency in 2008 has at times overshadowed his military service. His high visibility and past willingness for political compromises has divided members of his own party and many veterans.
“The problem with John McCain is there are a lot of conservative Republicans who don’t like him,” said Jennifer Duffy, the senior Senate editor for the nonpartisan Cook Political Report in Washington, D.C.
Most likely the blow-up will play into Democrat hands.
Kirkpatrick, an attorney who was elected to the House after losing an earlier election, supports a new war authorization for anti-terrorism operations in Iraq, Syria and elsewhere – something lawmakers have avoided since just after 9/11 – and has backed key moves to improve veteran health care. Kirkpatrick raised the alarm in 2014 over dangerous patient wait times at the Department of Veterans Affairs and was among co-sponsors of a veteran suicide prevention bill, the Clay Hunt SAV Act, which was widely back by veteran groups, campaign spokesman D.B. Mitchell told Stars and Stripes.
“When it comes to the VA, Ann was the first member of Congress to contact the inspector general about the Phoenix wait-list scandal and when she called on then-director [Gen. Eric] Shinseki to conduct a nationwide audit of VA wait times and practices, the VA acquiesced within 24 hours,” Mitchell wrote in an email.
Rep. Joe Heck was among the first in a wave of Republicans who disavowed Trump over the weekend – and immediately received blowback -- following the GOP nominee’s explosive comments about groping women.
Heck, a physician and brigadier general in the Army Reserve, is running against Catherine Cortez Masto, a Democratic former state attorney general, for the Senate seat being vacated by Democrat Minority Leader Harry Reid. It is a tight race and one of the few and best opportunities for Republicans to gain a seat from Democrats.
Heck read a statement Saturday to a Nevada rally amid tepid applause and loud pro-Trump heckling.
“I accept that none of us are perfect. However, I can no longer look past this pattern of behavior and inappropriate comments from Donald Trump,” he said, telling the audience he will not vote for Trump or Clinton.
Heck, a moderate, is running in an increasingly diverse state against a woman who could be the first Latina in the Senate.
He was pinned with a star after being elected to the House and has spearheaded a complicated effort to overhaul the military’s commissary and health care system as chairman of an armed services subcommittee. He is among the few candidates this election cycle who are still serving in the military and Heck said his experience would give him an advantage as a senator.
“I’ve run the full range of emotions, the trials and tribulations and accomplishments that somebody can have in a military career,” Heck told Stars and Stripes.
Cortez Masto hammered Heck through the weekend for his turnabout on Trump, saying the Republican had supported the brash businessman after he praised Russian President Vladimir Putin, suggested reneging on the NATO alliance in Europe and claimed Clinton and President Barack Obama founded the Islamic State group.
“GOPers like [Heck] only jumped [the] Trump ship after knowing he’d sink theirs,” her campaign tweeted Monday.
Cortez Masto is running on a platform of ridding elections of dark money, protecting Social Security, immigration reform and increasing the minimum wage.
Jason Kander, Missouri’s 35-year-old secretary of state and former Army National Guard captain, became a minor internet sensation in September with a campaign ad on gun regulation.
During a 30-second spot, Kander assembles an AR-15 rifle while blindfolded, touting his military service and advocating for background checks to keep guns from terrorists.
“In the Army, I learned how to use and respect my rifle,” said Kander, a Democrat. “In Afghanistan, I’d volunteer to be an extra gun in a convoy of unarmored SUVs.”
In the wake of the Trump recording, Kander sensed an opportunity and went after his incumbent Republican opponent Sen. Roy Blunt, saying Blunt refused to “put our country before politics” because he has continued to back Trump despite an exodus of other party members.
Blunt, who never served in the military, is a longtime Republican lawmaker who served in the House and was elected to the Senate in 2010. Blunt’s re-election might be closely tied to a Trump victory in the state. Meanwhile, Democrats see the race as an opportunity to take a GOP Senate seat.
“Republicans are really worried about it because it is a state they should hold … Kander is a really attractive candidate,” Kondik said.
Kander enlisted in 2003 and served as an intelligence officer until he left the National Guard in 2011. During a four-month deployment to Afghanistan in 2006, he volunteered as a shooter on several convoys – a rarity among his fellow officers – and was described as “outstanding” and “superb” by his superiors, according to his released military personnel records.
Kander said the Senate needs more lawmakers with military experience because Congress has refused to address national security issues such as passing a new war authorization. The number of veterans in Congress has dropped off in recent decades, according to the Congressional Research Service.
“Congress hasn’t even seriously debated updating the [Authorization for the Use of Military Force] for the threat of [the Islamic State group],” Kander said. “We have folks that don’t either understand the threat of [the Islamic State group] or don’t have the courage to address it.”
Still, Missouri voters seemed to be leaning toward Blunt, despite strides by Kander, Kondik said.
Jack Jackson, a retired Marine Corps colonel and co-chair of Blunt’s veteran coalition, said serving in the Senate is “more than just putting on the uniform” and brushed off the secretary of state’s viral campaign ad, saying any soldier out of boot camp should be able to do the same.
“It was no big deal,” Jackson said. “I can still tell you my serial number on my rifle. We were all required to do that.”
Blunt sits on the powerful Appropriations Committee, which helps draft the federal budget. One of his top legislative achievements for the military and veterans was pushing a bill called the Mental-Health Exposure Military Official Record Act, which would have created a Department of Defense system to track traumatic brain injuries among troops, according to Jackson.
However, the bill languished in committee and never passed.
Jackson said Blunt understands military families because the senator has a child who graduated from the Naval Academy and served. Matt Blunt was a Navy officer who served a six-month deployment to Great Britain following 9/11 and was later elected as Missouri governor.
“I think he has a feel for what families go through when one of their spouses go off to war or one of their children,” Jackson said.
Sen. Mark Kirk, R-Ill., a retired Navy Reserve commander know for outspoken and sometimes incendiary comments, tweeted out his reaction within hours of Trump’s recorded comments becoming public Friday.
Trump “is a malignant clown -- unprepared and unfit to be president of the United States,” wrote Kirk, who in June called the GOP nominee bigoted and racist while campaigning for re-election in a Democratic-leaning state.
Kirk’s 23-year Navy career and experience as an intelligence officer would normally be an advantage in his Senate race. But he has struggled against another veteran with a compelling story and service record, Rep. Tammy Duckworth, a Democrat who lost both of her legs in 2004 when the Black Hawk that she was co-piloting was downed by insurgent fire.
Democrats see the Illinois race as another strong opportunity to gain a seat in the Senate from Republicans.
“I think there is fairly wide agreement that Duckworth is in the lead to take that seat. I don’t know if Kirk has run a great race,” Kondik said.
Kirk, who has tried to move toward the political center, originally won his seat during a year that did not involve a presidential race. Now, polls show Illinois – a state that heavily favored Obama in 2008 and 2012 – leaning toward Clinton and that will likely give Duckworth a boost amid heavy turnout among Democrats on Nov. 8.
Obama was campaigning for Duckworth in Illinois over the weekend, calling her a “tough lady, but with a big heart” and hammering Trump as “insecure.”
Kirk, who is chairman of a military and veterans panel of the Appropriations Committee, has gone after Duckworth for her time as director of the Illinois VA before being elected to the House in 2014 and has joined with two whistleblowers who claim the congresswoman ignored veteran abuse and wrongdoing.
“Sen. Kirk has worked with the very same whistleblowers that came to Tammy Duckworth and were told ‘it’s just the way it is’ at the VA,” Eleni Demertzis, director of communications for the campaign, wrote in an email to Stars and Stripes.
The Duckworth campaign has said the problems raised by Kirk at a Chicago VA hospital involved a single employee yelling and two related whistleblower lawsuits were thrown out of court while a third was settled. Her campaign countered by criticizing Kirk for exaggerating his military record during his 2010 election, including a claim that he was fired on while flying over Iraq, which he later admitted never happened.
“For Mark Kirk to attack another veteran like Tammy Duckworth who has done so much for veterans, it’s really just disgraceful,” Army Capt. Emily Miller, whom the campaign identified as an Afghanistan combat veteran, said in a recently released Duckworth ad.
There are no excuses for Donald Trump’s offensive behavior. Cindy & I will not vote for him. My full stmt: https://t.co/MOw0rx4LSI— John McCain (@SenJohnMcCain) October 8, 2016
Well said. As the father of a 3-year-old son, I don't want him to grow up seeing his President set that sort of example. https://t.co/lQbsbeeAFu— Jason Kander (@JasonKander) October 8, 2016