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ANALYSIS

Next Congress will have fewer veterans, but they could wield power

U.S. Rep. Gabby Giffords and her husband, veteran and former astronaut Mark Kelly, attend a memorial service in Tucson, Ariz., on Jan. 8, 2020. Kelly, a Democrat, beat out incumbent Republican Martha McSally, also a veteran, to claim the late John McCain's Senate seat.

CHRISTOPHER BROWN, ZUMA PRESS/TNS

By MARK SATTER | CQ-Roll Call | Published: November 12, 2020

WASHINGTON (Tribune News Service) — Come January, fewer lawmakers on Capitol Hill will have served in the military than in previous cycles, continuing a trend that is decades in the making. But those who have served will generally be younger, and more diverse.

Although a handful of veterans are still in the midst of competitive congressional races, the makeup of the 117th Congress is coming into view after more than a week of ballot counting. The coming Congress will include at least 80 veteran lawmakers in total, 15 of whom will be newcomers.

The figures are the latest in a trend of dwindling numbers of lawmakers with military experience, as the proportion of veterans in Congress has steadily declined for decades. During the 92nd Congress in the early 1970s, at least 70% of lawmakers in both chambers were veterans. Today, about 15% of lawmakers have served in the military.

The trend can also be seen in the most recent cycles. At the beginning of the 115th Congress, there were 101 veterans in office. That number fell to 94 veterans at the start of the current Congress.

But the incoming class of veteran lawmakers could be formative, despite its small size. Many of them are older millennials who sought out military experience after 9/11, according to Seth Lynn, the director of Veterans Campaign, a nonprofit that aims to install veterans in civic leadership positions.

Seven to nine incoming lawmakers, depending on the outcomes of races that have not yet been called, will be veterans of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, joining two dozen of their fellow service members on Capitol Hill.

Among the freshmen are former Marine Corps Capt. Jake Auchincloss, D- Mass., and former U.S. Army reservist Peter Meijer, R- Mich. They are part of a growing cohort of younger veterans who oppose American involvement in the Middle East and want to pull U.S. forces from ongoing conflicts abroad.

"The U.S. is perpetually fighting the last war. We've been in a post-9/11 mindset for two decades and are distracted by counterinsurgency and nation-building when that does not present an existential threat," Meijer told CQ Roll Call in September.

And as the ideologies of young lawmakers shift, so might their demographics. This election cycle saw 24 female veterans who earned major party nominations for House seats, twice as many as in 2018. Because of the competitive nature of many of the races, however, it is not yet known if the total number of female veterans in Congress will change.

"Whatever the final tally, women veterans performed exceptionally well, especially given the challenging races they faced," said Navy veteran Kate Kranz Jordan, the Veterans Campaign's managing director.

Races across both chambers proved to be competitive this cycle, resulting in some high-profile battles for veterans seeking office.

Arizona Democrat Mark Kelly is a former NASA astronaut and Navy pilot who flew combat missions in the Persian Gulf. He beat out incumbent Republican Martha McSally, also a veteran, to claim the late John McCain's Senate seat.

Texas Republican Ronny Jackson is President Donald Trump's former physician and a former Navy rear admiral who is filling the seat vacated by House Armed Services ranking member Mac Thornberry.

Hawaii Democrat Kai Kahele won the seat held by Democratic Rep. Tulsi Gabbard after Gabbard's unsuccessful presidential bid. Kahele is a lieutenant colonel in the Hawaii Air National Guard.

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