Iraq War Vets Run for Congress in Greater Numbers

Twice as many veterans of the Iraq war are running for Congress than in 2006, and this year Republican candidates outnumber Democrats.

Although many of the veteran candidates still face primaries and some are long shots, the outcome in November could well increase the number of combat veterans serving in Congress, a group that has been dwindling since 2000.

The Iraq veterans are running at a time when public opinion favors U.S. withdrawal from Iraq. Democrats, meanwhile, are trying to expand their 37-seat majority in the House, at least partly on the strength of that issue.

These veteran-candidates also will share the ticket with a presidential race that offers a sharp contrast: Presumptive Republican nominee John McCain supports a continued U.S. presence in Iraq, while Democratic front-runner Barack Obama and rival Hillary Rodham Clinton want U.S. troops withdrawn.

Veterans running for Congress also are split. Republican candidates are "pro-victory," says Kieran Michael Lalor, a Republican candidate in New York and the founder of Iraq Vets for Congress, a group of Republican House candidates. "No good comes from a precipitous withdrawal and a lot of good would come from a stable functioning democracy in the Middle East."

Despite the unpopularity of the war, it's unclear if a candidate's connection to Iraq will drive voters in November. The economy has surpassed the Iraq war as the issue of top concern to voters, points out Nathan Gonzales, political editor of the independent Rothenberg Political Report.

Veteran candidates "are going to have to prove they can speak on a wide variety of issues including the economy," he said. "They're going to have to run a real campaign, raise a whole lot of money and make the case why the incumbent should be fired."

At least 10 Democratic and 20 Republican Iraq veterans are running for the House, and none for the Senate.

Key races include several open seats:

•Minneapolis suburbs:Democrat Ashwin Madia, a Marine, will take on GOP state Rep. Erik Paulsen, a former aide to retiring Rep. Jim Ramstad. Madia, a lawyer, worked with Iraqi officials to develop the country's justice system.

• Northeastern Ohio:Longtime GOP congressman Ralph Regula is retiring from a seat held by his party since 1950. Democratic state Sen. John Boccieri, who flew C-130 cargo planes in Iraq for the Air Force, will face state Sen. Kirk Schuring.

•Buffalo area:Republican Tom Reynolds is retiring. Former Army staff sergeant David Bellavia, who wrote a memoir about facing battle in Fallujah, is in the race on the GOP side. Jon Powers, an Army platoon leader in Iraq, is among the Democrats running.

•San Diego area:Three of the seven candidates seeking the seat being vacated by retiring GOP Rep. Duncan Hunter have Iraq combat experience. Hunter's Marine reservist son, Duncan D. Hunter, and retired Army colonel Rick Powell are among the Republicans. Former Navy SEAL commander Mike Lumpkin is among the Democrats. The primary is June 3.

•Maine:Democratic Rep. Tom Allen gave up his seat for a Senate bid. Democrat Adam Cote could come up against Republican Charlie Summers, whose wife campaigned for him while he was still deployed in Baghdad, after a June 10 primary.

"There are a lot that are actively pursuing political office, and more this year than last time, and that's because there are more veterans," says Jon Soltz, head of Vote Vets, a political action committee that supports Democratic candidates who are Iraq vets. They also want the United States to get out of Iraq and turn the military mission toward Afghanistan, he says.

"This isn't the people 40 years ago who came to Washington to protest. These are people who want to come to D.C. so we can take the fight to (Osama) bin Laden."

There are currently 35 combat veterans in Congress, down from 41 in 2001, according to figures from the Military Officers Association of America (MOAA). Only Rep. Patrick Murphy, D-Pa., served in Iraq.

Overall, the number of veterans in Congress has declined sharply since its peak in 1977, when more than three-quarters of Congress had served in the military. Now only 24% have, MOAA figures show.

In 2006, about a dozen Iraq veterans ran for office, almost all of them Democrats. Murphy, the only successful candidate in 2006, faces a challenge this year from Republican Tom Manion, a Marine veteran whose son Travis was killed by sniper fire in Iraq last year.