Skip to main content
Part of complete coverage on

Vets running for Congress face battle for hearts and minds

By Laurie Ure, CNN Pentagon Producer
Tommy Sowers led a team of Green Berets in Iraq. Now he seeks office in Missouri.
Tommy Sowers led a team of Green Berets in Iraq. Now he seeks office in Missouri.
  • Tommy Sowers is Democrat running for Missouri's 8th Congressional District
  • Tom Wesley is running as a Republican in Massachusetts' 2nd Congressional District
  • Both are veterans and part of a group attending seminar on how to get elected

Washington (CNN) -- Tommy Sowers conducted counterinsurgency operations in Iraq, leading a team of Green Berets.

Tom Wesley served as a pilot in the U.S. Navy, completing multiple deployments to the western Pacific at the height of the Cold War.

Both are highly accomplished veterans who say they enjoy the admiration and respect of their respective communities.

So why would they want to join the ranks of those serving in the U.S. Congress, whose disapproval ratings this month have run as high as 74 percent?

"The great thing about running in 2010 is there is so much demand for new blood out there," said Sowers, 34, a Democrat running for Missouri's 8th Congressional District seat.

Wesley, 54, is running as a Republican in Massachusetts' 2nd Congressional District race.

"I think what people are looking for is an independent-oriented voice, and beholden to no party as a Republican or a Democrat," he said. "I'm looking to bring change to Washington. I think there will be 40, 50, 60 or more freshmen coming in and that's going to be the effective third party that some of the Tea Party people are looking for."

Sowers and Wesley, along with about 100 other aspiring politicians, were in Washington to attend a campaign training workshop for veterans.

Sponsored by the George Washington University Graduate School of Political Management, in partnership with the nonpartisan group Veterans Campaign, the goal is to "demystify the process of campaigning and encourage more veterans to run for office," according to event organizers.

The daylong workshop included separate panel discussions about getting campaigns off the ground, taking a campaign into the home stretch and the all-important issue of campaign finance.

Seth Lynn, executive director of the Veterans Campaign, said his group intends to address the dearth of information available to vets about campaigning. He's a veteran himself, having served in the Marines for six years before leaving for graduate school. He's been to Iraq twice.

"It used to be that a lot more congressmen and senators had military service. And it's gone down from 75 percent during the Vietnam War to about 22 percent now," said Lynn.

According to the Congressional Research Service, 119 veterans hold seats in the Senate and House. In 1969, when those who had served in World War II and Korea had come of age, 398 of the 535 members of Congress were veterans. By 1979, that number had fallen to 298.

Pete Hegseth, executive director of the group Vets for Freedom, said he hopes to see that trend reversed as Iraq and Afghanistan veterans become increasingly positioned to start thinking about running for office.

"Iraq and Afghanistan veterans see the world differently than traditional political types," said Hegseth. "They make real-world decisions, tough decisions, and have a grounded sense of what it takes to defend our nation."

Tommy Sowers believes the fact that he's coming directly from the military in a district housing some 70,000 veterans, where "almost everyone is related to someone in the military," allows him to have a common identity. But Sowers has his work cut out for him as a Democrat running the Republican district where conservative talk radio host Rush Lambaugh grew up.

Wesley said he thinks voters these days recognize the toll taken on veterans who have served multiple tours of service.

"When I put on the uniform in 1973, it was still the end of the Vietnam War era, and when you'd go into a bar, you wouldn't get served a beer," Wesley recalled. "We've really come far beyond that now and I think people respect military service. They know what it means to go abroad and put yourself in harm's way and these people are doing it tour after tour."

But these candidates can't run on their military record alone, according to Jay Parker, a retired Army colonel and political media consultant who led a panel at last weekend's workshop titled "Crafting your Campaign Message."

Parker said many veterans who had unsuccessful campaigns in the past ran solely on issues surrounding national security and veterans' affairs. Those are very important issues, Parker said, but they're not enough to win an election.

Still, Parker said, "veterans who can connect their experience to broader issues ... about health care, about education, about community renewal -- many of them have experiences and education directly related to that, but sometimes they're not very experienced or well-advised in how to best communicate that."

Sowers is maximizing the connect-with-voters angle.

"I was born and raised there," Sowers said of the rural southeast Missouri district he aspires to represent.

"I hunt. I fish. I listen to the [St. Louis] Cardinals. I mean, it allows me to connect in a way that, coming straight out of the military, in other times in other cycles in other districts, would be much more of a challenge," said Sowers.

Both Sowers and Wesley may need to apply their military experience in ways they hadn't hoped: fighting the uphill battles they face to win.

David Wasserman, House editor of the Cook Political Report, said Wesley struggles because Massachusetts' 2nd District is heavily Democratic, despite the January win of Republican Scott Brown to replace the late Sen. Edward Kennedy, a Democrat.

"It's a rough district for any Republican who doesn't have a significant infrastructure in place or pre-existing name recognition," said Wasserman.

Wasserman said Sowers is a long shot, as well.

"Sowers is probably one of the best candidates in the country -- with an astronomically small chance of winning a seat in Congress in 2010," said Wasserman.

But these veterans are undeterred.

Wesley said he intends to "do my best," and "to run a campaign of great integrity."

"It is not about party; it is about performance," he said.

Sowers vowed to continue his "boots on the ground" strategy, as he tours every county in his district, working various jobs.

"I wrapped my truck like a NASCAR truck. I got my dog in there," he said. He has spent a day working as a convenience store clerk. He has spent another working at a milk bottling plant.

On another day, he recalled placing his gloved arm "up a cow, checking for pregnancy."

All in a day's work.