Democrats back military veterans as candidates in their battle to retake the House

U.S. Rep. Tulsi Gabbard, D-Hawaii, speaks at the Kona Town Hall Meeting on April 11, 2017. Gabbard, who served with the Army in Iraq in 2006, was elected to the House in 2012.PlayAP
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Exactly one year before the 2018 midterm elections, one of Democrats' key strategies to retake the House is coming into focus. In a wide range of districts around the country, Democrats are placing their bets on military veterans.

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"There's no doubt that veterans have unique qualifications and experiences that give them important credibility with Democrats, independents and Republican voters alike," Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee spokesman Tyler Law told ABC News.

Party officials acknowledge that when they were looking for strong recruits to replenish the Democratic party bench this year, their teams often sought candidates with military experience. But, they argue, veterans have also stepped up in droves and decided to run on their own since the presidential election last year.

The DCCC expects 30 or 40 of its candidates next year will be veterans, a major uptick from recent cycles.

VoteVets, an organization that supports Democratic candidates, told ABC News they recently hired additional staff to handle the increased number of calls from veterans who are thinking about running for office. The group’s co-founder, Jon Soltz, said the DCCC reached out to his group early on, despite the fact that the two organizations have not always seen eye to eye. In 2014, VoteVets backed Rep. Seth Moulton’s, D-Mass., campaign against a sitting Democratic incumbent. This year, though, the two teams are meeting monthly to review the status of veteran candidates’ campaigns.

“This was an equation that worked for Democrats in 2006,” Soltz told ABC News, referring to the last time the Democrats won back the majority in the House. “People trust a veteran as a messenger. They are running because they want to continue to serve their country. They can talk to working class Americans where the Democratic party is struggling.”

Soltz said his organization had already raised $850,000 this year through small dollar donations and expects to bring in $1 million dollars by the end of the year.

Chrissy Houlahan is one of the candidates they have endorsed.

PHOTO: Chrissy Houlahan, center, is running in one of the 23 districts around the country where Hillary Clinton won but a Republican holds office. Democrats think these are some of their best chances for picking up seats.Credit: Chrissy Houlahan for Congress
Chrissy Houlahan, center, is running in one of the 23 districts around the country where Hillary Clinton won but a Republican holds office. Democrats think these are some of their best chances for picking up seats.

An Air Force veteran and entrepreneur, Houlahan was working to improve early childhood literacy in Philadelphia this time last year, but told ABC News she felt compelled to run against the incumbent Republican in her district after the election.

“I had this sinking feeling that our country was in peril and there was a new call to action,” she told ABC News over the phone.

The military runs deep in Houlahan’s family. Her parents met because her father, a naval pilot, served in the Naval squadron of her mother's father.

“I have five active duty cousins right now in the Navy and the Army. This is my family business,” she continued.

“I don’t understand how the right has managed to hijack patriotism and service,” she continued. “When you ask me why I am a Democrat, it is because I think it is the party of justice, the party of caring. Having grown up as a Navy brat, and my mom was also a Navy brat, we take care of each other. We take care of our military families. We take care of our veterans.

“I think there is a false narrative that Democrats aren’t patriots or that veterans aren’t Democrats,” Houlahan added. “Some of the most patriotic people I know are Democrats and many, many veterans I know are also.”

Moulton’s new political action committee (PAC) also endorsed Houlahan.

“Veterans we have elected have become big-time surrogates in Washington. They can speak on issues that other people can’t,” Soltz said.

He told ABC News he thinks the party noticed Moulton and other newly elected veterans, such as Rep. Tulsi Gabbard, D-Hawaii, Rep. Ted Lieu, D-Calif., and Sen. Tammy Duckworth, D-Ill., quickly stood out when they arrived on Capitol Hill and easily broke through on the national stage.

“They are extremely relevant for the Democratic party and they end up speaking nationally a lot,” Soltz said.

According to the Congressional Research Service, the number of veterans serving on Capitol Hill has steadily declined in recent decades. Only 19 percent of the current members of Congress have military experience, compared to 73 percent in 1972.

PHOTO: Rep. Seth Moulton talks to volunteers for Ralph Northam campaign. Northman, an Army veteran, won his race to be Virginias next governor this week.Credit: Serve America PAC
Rep. Seth Moulton talks to volunteers for Ralph Northam campaign. Northman, an Army veteran, won his race to be Virginia's next governor this week.

Moulton has taken it upon himself to recruit and fund other candidates with military service.

“One thing I hear when I do town halls in my district is that [people] want me to get out and make sure Democrats are winning across the country,” Moulton told the Concord Monitor last week. So far he has endorsed 12 veterans in swing districts for next year. “These are truly inspiring leaders so I’m proud to support them.”

In September, Moulton hosted a series of events in Boston for some of his recruits to meet donors, receive media training and speak to reporters. Over the last quarter, he raised more than $600,000 on behalf of other House Democratic candidates, which was more than any other member outside of party leadership, according to his staff and the Boston Globe.

Moulton was recruited in part by New Politics, a bipartisan organization that supports national service alumni and military veterans running for public office.

A common theme among the younger class of Democrats who are also veterans has been that do not always fall in line with the party bosses. Gabbard, for example, was one of the first elected Democrats to back independent Sen. Bernie Sanders in the 2016 presidential primary and Moulton has been known to publicly disagree with House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi.

Soltz said that is part of their appeal: “We pick folks in particular, because they are independent thinkers.”

PHOTO: Dan McCready, a father of four, campaigns in North Carolina.Credit: Byron Baldwin
Dan McCready, a father of four, campaigns in North Carolina.

Dan McCready, running in North Carolina’s Ninth District, said he was recently asked on the campaign trail how he would avoid becoming “part of the problem” in Washington.

“I told him I didn’t care what Paul Ryan or Nancy Pelosi had to say, I just wanted to fight for people for my district,” McCready said during an interview with ABC News and pivoting on a follow-up question about whether Pelosi should stay leader of the House Democrats next year.

New Politics and VoteVets have both endorsed McCready as well.

McCready was an economics major in college, but joined the Marine Corps after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks. He was working for a company building solar farms last year, before deciding to run.

“It hit me last year how divided our country has become, how dysfunctional Washington has become, and I realized that is not going to magically get better over night,” he told ABC News over the phone. “That is not going to change until new leaders step up and serve.”

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