Veterans are at the center of most competitive races to determine which party will control the Senate

By STEVE BEYNON | STARS AND STRIPES Published: October 30, 2020

WASHINGTON — There are 182 veterans running for Congress this year, some at the center of the most competitive contests that will decide which party controls the Senate. Yet the number of veterans in Congress and running is far lower than previous generations.

Overall, 53 Democrat and 110 Republican veterans won their party nominations for House races, according to the Veterans Campaign, a nonpartisan group that assists veterans running for office, and Military Times. In the Senate, 19 veterans are running as challengers or incumbents. 

The numbers of those who served in World War II, Korea, and Vietnam were much larger than the post-9/11 wars, but as veterans of Iraq and Afghanistan grow older, more are seeking political office.

"It's been in decline for the last 40 to 50 years. This year we saw a slight uptick, but overall,  it has been going down,” Seth Lynn, executive director of Veterans Campaign, said in a press conference Thursday.  " What's striking is right now if you look at the different generations ... the older generation had the greater number of veterans proportionately. But now for the first time, we have the highest portion of veterans [in Congress] among millennials. ... That's a good indication of a turnaround in the near future."

That trend, however, might not be reflected in the next Congress. There could be a slight decline after the election because 20% of veterans in Congress are not running for re-election, and several veterans running are underdogs, according to the Veterans Campaign findings. 

There are a handful of races in the Senate this year that will decide which party controls the chamber, and veterans are at the center of most of those races.

Arizona might be Democrats’ best chance to pick up a seat in the Senate. Republican Sen. Martha McSally is lagging in the polls; on Thursday, Reuters/Ipsos reported her behind 5 points. The poll this week follows a months-long trend of poor numbers for McSally. She has not won a Senate race, losing the contest in 2018 against Democrat Sen. Kyrsten Sinema. McSally was later appointed by the governor to fill the late John McCain’s seat. 

McSally was an A-10 Thunderbolt II pilot in the Air Force. She flew combat patrols over Iraq enforcing the no-fly zone in 1995. She became the first woman to fly combat missions and the first woman to command a fighter squadron. She later deployed to Afghanistan. In at least one mission, she had to provide close air support to friendly forces on the ground without a working targeting system. According to the Air Force, McSally’s squadron flew more than 7,000 hours on their deployment and expended more than 23,000 rounds of 30 mm ammunition. She served from 1988-2010 and achieved the rank of colonel.


She faces former astronaut Mark Kelly, a veteran and pilot. If he wins, Kelly would be the second Democratic senator in Arizona in 25 years, after Sinema. Kelly was a Naval pilot and flew the A-6E Intruder aircraft, and he flew combat missions in the Gulf War. 

 First-term Sen. Joni Ernst, R-Iowa, is facing a re-election challenge from Democrat Theresa Greenfield, which could play into the flip in control of the Senate. President Donald Trump won in Iowa in 2016 by 10 points. However, the presidential race has tightened with Trump and former Vice President Joe Biden almost tied in major polls conducted this month.  

Ernst served in the Army Reserves and Iowa Army National Guard. She served as a logistics officer and rose to the rank of lieutenant colonel. She deployed to Kuwait in 2003-2004 and retired in 2015 after serving 23 years. 

 Sen. Thom Tillis, R-N.C., a member of the Armed Services and Veterans’ Affairs committees, won his first term six years ago. He faces Democratic opponent Cal Cunningham. 

Cunningham is a lieutenant colonel in the Army Reserves and is an Iraq and Afghanistan war veteran. Despite a sexting scandal that broke in October, polls show Cunningham is in a strong position in his matchup with Tillis.

Democrat Amy McGrath is facing an uphill battle in Kentucky against Republican Majority Leader Mitch McConnell. One poll conducted by Quinnipiac University in September, shows McConnell ahead by 12 points.

Democrats are expected to maintain control of the House. FiveThirtyEight’s election forecast, which catalogs polls and other factors to predict outcomes, gives Democrats a 97% chance of holding the House. The forecast gives Democrats a 74% chance of taking the Senate. 

In 2018 in Texas, less than 1,000 votes kept 23rd Congressional District from flipping from Republican to Democrat, according to the El Paso Times. Democrat Gina Ortiz Jones is waging her second campaign in Texas for the contested seat, and Rep. Will Hurd is not seeking re-election. Jones is an Iraq War veteran who served as an intelligence officer in the Air Force from 2003 to 2006 and rose to the rank of captain. Her Republican opponent, Tony Gonzales, is an Iraq and Afghanistan war veteran who served as a cryptologist for the Navy from 1999 to 2019 and earned the rank of master chief. 

In Hawaii, Democrat Rep. Tulsi Gabbard, D-Hawaii, is not seeking re-election after a failed presidential bid. She was a member of the Armed Services Committee and is an Iraq War veteran who served in the Hawaii Army National Guard. She recently transferred to an Army Reserves unit in California. In June she founded a leadership political action committee, Tulsi Aloha.

Hawaii State Sen. Kai Kahele, a Democrat, seeks to take over Gabbard’s seat. He is a lieutenant colonel with the Hawaii Air National Guard and an Afghanistan and Iraq War veteran. He has flown multiple military aircraft including the F-15 Eagle and C-130 Hercules. The contest in Hawaii’s 2nd Congressional District isn’t considered competitive, according to the Honolulu Civil Beat. 

Rep. Phil Roe, R-Tenn., the ranking member of the House Committee on Veterans’ Affairs, is not seeking re-election. Roe served in South Korea in the Army’s Medical Corps. He championed bipartisan legislation to extend VA benefits for veterans exposed to Agent Orange, GI Bill protections and efforts to expand the ability for veterans to seek privatized health care outside VA facilities. 

Rep. Dan Crenshaw, R-Texas, an Afghanistan War veteran and a rising star in the GOP who deployed with SEAL Team 3, is a frequent guest on long-form podcasts with large audiences, including the Trump-supporting “The Joe Rogan Experience” and “Jocko Podcast.” Crenshaw comfortably won his 2018 contest by seven points. His district includes parts of Houston and also snakes into the city’s northern suburbs. Democrats made headways in the suburbs in 2018 which secured the party’s dominance taking power in the House. Crenshaw’s race is the most expensive in Texas and the seventh most expensive in the nation, according to reporting from the Houston Chronicle. 

Crenshaw is tied to an ongoing scandal involving the Department of Veterans Affairs. According to reporting from ProPublica, VA Secretary Robert Wilkie sought damaging information from Crenshaw regarding a Democratic House staffer to undermine her report of a sexual assault at the VA medical center in Washington. The alleged incident is still under investigation by the VA Inspector General. 

Alek Skarlatos, an Afghanistan War veteran who served as an infantryman with the Oregon National Guard, is running for Oregon’s Fourth Congressional District against Rep. Peter DeFazio, D-Ore., who has held the seat for 34 years. Skarlatos is a political newcomer and was part of the trio of soldiers who thwarted an attacked by a gunman on a Paris-bound train in 2015. The event was made into a movie by Clint Eastwood in which Skarlatos played himself. 

Twitter: @StevenBeynon