More military veterans running for office at a time when fewer are in Congress

This Memorial Day brings 300-plus veterans running for Congress.

May 28, 2018, 4:08 PM

Memorial Day is typically left untarnished by politics but the president’s tweet Monday morning, which suggested that fallen U.S. troops would be “very happy” with his administration's performance, quickly brought Washington into the mix.

Twitter backlash aside, and in some cases because of it, this Memorial Day brings more service members seeking office in the nation’s capital than in years past. Over 400 former service members are running or have run for Congress in this year’s midterms, according to With Honor, a “cross-partisan organization” that supports veterans.

And the surge comes at a critical juncture for veterans on Capitol Hill.

Fewer veterans served in Congress last year than previous years, making up just 20 percent of the Senate and 19 percent of the House in 2017, according to the nonpartisan Pew Research Center. Comparatively, veterans made up 81 percent of the Senate and 75 percent of the House roughly 45 years ago, according to Pew.

Today, veterans like Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., a former Navy commander and prisoner of war, Sen. Tammy Duckworth, D-Ill., who lost both legs when her Black Hawk helicopter was downed in Iraq, and Rep. Brian Mast, R-Fla., who also lost limbs in combat while serving in Afghanistan, are among the over 100 veterans across both chambers who’ve entered a different kind of service to the nation, on Capitol Hill.

Americans remain confident in the military, according to a Gallup poll released the Friday before Memorial Day, and are more confident in the military than any other institution. The reasoning, the poll said, is partly because of the professionality of the military and the “importance of what military does for the country.”

Lt. Col. Amy McGrath — one of the 400 veterans seeking office in 2018 — hopes to benefit from that connection come November. A Democrat running in Kentucky’s 6th Congressional District, McGrath was the first woman to fly an F/A-18 fighter jet in a combat mission for the Marine Corp.

In a March interview with ABC News, McGrath said she thinks voters are looking for “people who served their country, not their political party.”

“That’s really resonating,” she said.

McGrath was inspired after the 2016 election but her training as a Marine led to her decision to run, she said. “As someone who has been a Marine, how do you change things? You step up to the plate. And you are the one who says, ‘Put me in,’” she said.

Lt. Colonel Amy McGrath stands beside an F/A-18 in Virginia Beach, Va., where she was part of a squadron in 2007. McGrath, running as a Democrat for a House seat in Kentucky, was the first woman to fly an F/A-18 in combat for the Marine Corps.
Amy McGrath

Richard Ojeda is also a military veteran running as a Democrat for a House seat, but in West Virginia. The former state senator and Iraq war veteran frequently describes his anger upon returning from war in campaign speeches.

“I found kids in my backyard that have it worse than the kids that I saw in Iraq and Afghanistan,” Ojeda said days before the West Virginia primaries in May at an event with voters. “And that's unacceptable. I cannot accept that. And then when I ask myself, what did my brothers die for? They didn't die for this.”

Veterans running across the country also frequently bring up leadership in their campaigns, a perceived skill Ojeda and others attribute to their time in the military.

“I've led men in combat,” he said. “I'm not going to let somebody claim to be a leader when they don't even have no sense of what that word means. And that's why I got into this.”