Every time Dan Feehan shakes hands with voters in rural Minnesota, the reality of war is only as far as his right wrist.
Feehan, a veteran who served two tours in Iraq, has worn a memorial bracelet in honor of Drew R. Pearson for nine years, a tribute to a mentor who served with Feehan in Iraq before he was killed in action in 2008. For the first-time candidate, the metallic bracelet is a constant reminder of why he is running and what he hopes to achieve.
“(I am) grounded in the understanding that every form of policy is in some way a matter of life or death,” he said. “I literally carry it with me every day.”
Feehan, one of dozens of military veterans the Democratic Party has turned to ahead of November’s midterms, is far from alone, either.
Democrats have recruited, nurtured and funded dozens of veterans aiming to unseat Republicans in November. The strategy cuts against the common Republican attack that most of the military leans red and Democrats want a less robust military, a refrain repeatedly pushed by President Donald Trump.
The effort is reminiscent of a similar strategy employed in 2006 by then-DCCC chairman Rahm Emanuel, who recruited and backed veterans in a series of close races. But this year it comes at a time when voters, in the eyes of political operatives, are deeply skeptical of cookie-cutter politicians and searching for unique nominees who break the mold.
A key force behind the effort has been Seth Moulton, a 39-year old congressman from Massachusetts and former Marine Corps officer. Through his political action committee Serve America, Moulton has backed veterans running for House seats across the country, elevating people like Feehan, Chrissy Houlahan in Pennsylvania and Gina Ortiz Jones in Texas.
Serve America is now expanding their efforts by adding to their Moulton-backed veterans and broadening their universe by adding a number of young and first-time candidates to its list who, while not serving in the military, meet a standard of service for the Massachusetts Democrat.
“I don’t think you have to be a veteran to be a great leader,” Moulton said in making the announcement. “But I do think that veterans fundamentally understand what it means to put the country first in front of personal politics.”
The new list includes Air Force veteran MJ Hegar in Texas and Navy veteran Josh Welle in New Jersey, along with Iowa’s Abby Finkenauer, New Jersey’s Andy Kim and Ohio’s Aftab Pureval, all of whom have not served.
The goal for Moulton is simple: The Democratic Party is in “the worst position it’s been in since the 1900s,” so it’s time to change things up, recruit young leaders and remake the party.
In his view, veterans are central to that strategy.
Emily Cherniack, founder and executive director of New Politics, recruits veterans from both parties to run for office. One of their programs that helps service veterans explore a run for office graduated more than 500 people from over a dozen cities last year.
“We’re really about demystifying the political sphere for people and framing Congress as another call to service instead of the antithesis to the culture of sacrifice and service,” Cherniack said.
Voter apathy to traditional politicians
The downturn of veterans in Congress was somewhat predictable. After World War II, the size of the American military declined, as did the number of all Americans with military experience. According to Pew Research Center, that number was only 8% in 2014.
With that came less representation.
The number of veterans in Congress has been on a steady decline ever since the 1971, when an astonishing 72% of member of Congress and 78% of Senators were veterans. The current veteran representation in Congress has hovered around 20% for almost a decade, a historic low for the deliberative body.
With more veterans of conflict in Iraq and Afghanistan returning home and looking to lead their country, operatives on both sides of the aisle say there is a stable of unique veteran candidates across the country. But in the era of Trump, where uniqueness is prized, Democrats decision to turn to veterans in 2018 hinges on voters across the country, fed up with typical politicians, are looking to candidates with distinct backgrounds.
“We understand that we need to work together, that we need to work across the aisle and serve the people and boot some of these politicians out who are in Washington for all the wrong reasons,” said Dan McCready, a Marine Corps veteran and Democratic nominee in North Carolina’s Ninth District.
And most of the veterans draw a direct line between their combat experience and their ability to work with people who disagree.
“Post 9/11 veterans, I think we’re really shaken by our experiences,” McCready said. “And will put country before party and country before anything else.”
Making a splash
The veteran candidates running for office are not running quietly. They are garnering massive attention for touting their combat experience.
Hegar, an Air Force veteran and Purple Heart recipient running in Texas’s 31st District, released a video titled “Doors” last week. The video, which chronicles Hegar’s life story and the doors she had to break through to get to where she is today, quickly went viral and, to date, has more than 1.9 million views.
Amy McGrath, a former Marine combat pilot, became the darling of the anti-Trump resistance earlier this year when she released a video titled “Told Me” about all the attempts to stop her from becoming a pilot. That video has more than 1.8 million views on YouTube.
Both videos, in the eyes of Democratic operatives working on the midterms, show voters are hungry for candidates that break the mold – something veterans uniquely offer.
Hegar, whose central Texas race is seen as solidly Republican, explained the reason more veterans are stepping up to run for Congress – even in difficult districts – is the fact that “we’re used to running wherever the fire is.”
“And right now, it’s in DC,” she said. “I think we have a record high level of dysfunction in Congress. And that’s not a coincidence that there’s a record low number of veterans in Congress.”
A number of other veterans echoed Hegar, stressing that veterans are not only running to represent their district, they are running to restore a sense of bipartisanship and doing it as a group.
“I think veterans are uniquely qualified right now to bring us together,” said Houlahan, a retired Naval officer running in suburban Philadelphia. “I was never asked what party I was part of when I was in active duty.”
“The veterans running this year are running together,” added Ken Harbaugh, a former Navy pilot and the Democratic nominee in Ohio’s Seventh Congressional District. “They are running as a team. They are running because they really do mean it when they say country over party.”