Democrats hope candidates with national security experience could reshape the House

PHOTO: Elissa Slotkin, a Democratic candidate for Congress from Michigan, speaks during a news conference at her campaign headquarters in Lansing, Mich., July 31, 2018.PlayMike Householder/AP
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Abigail Spanberger spent eight years working overseas for the CIA.

Andy Kim served as an Iraq expert in the Obama administration.

Elissa Slotkin spent 14 years in the Bush and Obama administrations, including three tours in Iraq and roles in the Office of the Director of National Intelligence and State and Defense Departments.

PHOTO: Elissa Slotkin, a Democratic candidate for Congress from Michigan, speaks during a news conference at her campaign headquarters in Lansing, Mich., July 31, 2018. Mike Householder/AP
Elissa Slotkin, a Democratic candidate for Congress from Michigan, speaks during a news conference at her campaign headquarters in Lansing, Mich., July 31, 2018.

Democrats, in their effort to take control of the House, are relying on a slate of candidates with intelligence and national security experience in Republican-held districts, who, together with a large cohort of veterans, are working to court voters disenchanted with a Republican-led Congress and Trump administration.

“It’s a strength for Democrats this year, and it’s what makes their field of candidates strong and of such a higher caliber than some of the Democrats who have run in the past,” David Wasserman, the House editor for the nonpartisan Cook Political Report, told ABC News.

In interviews, many of the candidates said they’d put the skills developed addressing complex issues in the national security realm towards problem-solving in Congress and building relationships in a polarized House.

“The last place that partisan politics belong is in national security. That’s the approach that I bring to my public service,” Kim, who is running in New Jersey against GOP Rep. Tom MacArthur, said in an interview with ABC News.

Tom Malinowski, who served as the Washington director for Human Rights Watch between stints on President Bill Clinton’s National Security Council and the Obama State Department, pointed to work with Republican Sens. John McCain and Lindsey Graham on sanctions and human rights issues relevant experience for Capitol Hill. His campaign has also released an ad featuring praise from McCain from his Senate confirmation hearing.

“That experience translates well to the challenges we’re going to face in bringing the Congress together on issues like health care and infrastructure,” said Malinowski, who is running against GOP Rep. Leonard Lance.

For their part, Republicans have also fielded a number of candidates and incumbents with strong national security credentials.

PHOTO: Republican U.S. Senate candidate John James speaks during a rally in Pontiac, Mich., Oct. 17, 2018. Paul Sancya/AP
Republican U.S. Senate candidate John James speaks during a rally in Pontiac, Mich., Oct. 17, 2018.

John James, a 37-year-old African-American West Point graduate who spent eight years in the Army and served in Iraq, has excited GOP officials in his uphill battle against Sen. Debbie Stabenow, D-Mich.

Michael Waltz, a former Green Beret who spent 21 years in the Army and served in the White House and Pentagon under President George W. Bush, is running in Florida’s sixth congressional district to replace Rep. Ron DeSantis -- a Harvard Law School graduate and former Navy lawyer running for governor.

And Rep. Will Hurd, R-Texas, a former undercover CIA officer, is on track to win reelection in a swing district carried by Hillary Clinton in 2016, where he’s being challenged by Gina Ortiz Jones, an Air Force veteran.

But at a time when Trump has disparaged world organizations like NATO and the United Nations, praised dictators and autocratic leaders, and embraced the label of “nationalist,” Democrats see a chance to offer a contrast to voters and burnish the party’s national security image by aligning more closely with multilateral cooperation.

“In a globalized world, with globalized threats, you can’t just go it alone and I think that the idea of just poking a finger in the chest of our allies, as this administration has done, it just doesn’t make us safer,” Slotkin, who is running against Rep. Mike Bishop, R-Michigan, said in a recent interview with ABC News.

PHOTO: House Intelligence Ranking Member Adam Schiff speaks at the Council on Foreign Relations, Feb. 16, 2018, in Washington, D.C. Tasos Katopodis/Getty Images, FILE
House Intelligence Ranking Member Adam Schiff speaks at the Council on Foreign Relations, Feb. 16, 2018, in Washington, D.C.

Rep. Adam Schiff, D-Calif., the top Democrat on the House Intelligence Committee, has worked to make his party more conversant on national security, inviting officials to speak to members and holding special order speeches on the floor.

“Ever since Vietnam there’s been a challenge for Democrats to establish their bona fides on national security, and within the base of the Democratic Party, the focus is more on domestic issues,” he said. “I think has caused more members of Congress to focus on domestic issues, and we’ve ceded too much ground to the GOP on national security and defense.”

Senior Democrats also view Trump and some congressional allies’ hostility towards the intelligence community and the Justice Department -- a product of frustrations with special counsel Robert Mueller’s ongoing Russia investigation -- as an opportunity for the party.

“There’s never been an administration in modern American history that's been more disrespectful of the work of our intelligence community,” Sen. Mark Warner, D-Virginia, the top Democrat on the Senate Intelligence Committee, said in an interview before a national security event with Virginia Democratic candidate Jennifer Wexton.

In an effort to appeal to voters’ distrust of government, Spanberger led a group of more than 100 Democratic candidates -- including those with backgrounds in the military, which remains among the most trusted institutions in America -- in a letter pledging to reform campaign finance and lobbying rules.

GOP strategists admit that the party has struggled to land attacks on some candidates with national security backgrounds and service records, but argue that Democrats on the ballot won’t be able to distance themselves from the national party, and criticism of the Obama administration.

“While their service is admirable and appreciated, the stone cold truth is they’re unable to run from a progressive agenda that is at odds with the vast majority of the voters in these respective districts,” said Jesse Hunt, press secretary for the National Republican Congressional Committee.

As an example, Hunt pointed to Democrat Amy McGrath -- a former Marine fighter pilot running against Rep. Andy Barr, R-Ky., who has been criticized by Republicans for calling a U.S.-Mexico border wall “stupid.”

McGrath has said she supports investing in more technology to secure the border, rather than a wall.

Democrats are facing a challenge of their own: how to draw attention to their candidates’ backgrounds of service in government and the military in an election dominated by pocketbook issues like health care and the economy.

A recent ABC News–Washington Post poll found that the economy and health care are among the top issue for voters, along with taxes, immigration and changing the way Washington works.

In a recent ad in Michigan, Slotkin highlighted her mother’s struggle to fight ovarian cancer after losing her job and health insurance. And Spanberger, the former CIA officer challenging tea party favorite Rep. Dave Brat, R-Va., in the Richmond area, said in an interview that the House’s vote on the GOP Obamacare repeal plan led her to decide that she would “definitely run” for office.

Schiff said candidates’ backgrounds can send a message to voters even if they’re talking about other issues on the trail.

“Voters won’t choose your party if they don’t think your party will keep the country safe, and these new Democrats coming in with profound nationals security experience will strengthen the party on a key issue for voters,” he said.

Malinowski, the former assistant secretary of state for Democracy, Human Rights and Labor in the Obama administration, agreed.

“I don’t think it’s the primary voting issue in my district,” he said of national security. “I do think voters nonetheless want somebody who is solid and experienced, and they look at my national security experience as reassuring even if the issues they’re voting on may be domestic ones.”