Veterans Face Challenges On Campaign Trail As Economic Struggles Dominate The Debate

WASHINGTON -- Jonathan George is a stereotype of the soldier turned politician. A retired Air Force general, George flew the famed U-2 spy plane during the Cold War before earning a graduate degree at Harvard and serving on the National Security Council. But with troops no longer in Iraq and preparing to end their mission in Afghanistan, George's years of military experience suddenly matter far less than his plans to help fixed America's stalled economy.

"Nothing is more significant than the economy and jobs," said George, who is running for Congress in the Democratic primary in Indiana's 9th District. On the campaign trail, voters still respect and admire his service, bringing it up without prompting as he stumps for votes. But their admiration, he said, is "not to be translat[ed] into overriding the economy. The economy is still job one."

This focus on economic issues means that veterans, who have natural advantages when talking about the wars or foreign policy, have been forced onto often unfamiliar ground in races across the country. And just as their fellow veterans sometimes struggle to translate their military skills to the civilian job market, veterans entering politics in the economic downturn find their military resumes only go so far in appealing to voters.

"It gets you to the 20-yard line right after kickoff, but by the time you get to election day people are going to pull a lever for somebody they think is going to help them pay their mortgage, make sure their kids are safe and the country's prosperous," said Seth Lynn, a former Marine officer and political activist.

Lynn is the head of Veterans Campaign, an organization that provides training to veterans who are interested in running for office. Since 2009, he estimated, the group has held four weekend-long seminars that have reached around 300 veterans from wars as far back as Vietnam.

'We have a potential for terrific leadership in this country at all levels," Lynn said. But he told The Huffington Post that many former service members, especially those who served for 20 years, lack necessary exposure to the realities of campaigning. And he admits that his attempts to train them in that respect can only go so far, particularly in the current political climate.

"Veterans are going to need to make sure they make the case that they understand how to create jobs, whatever party they're from," he said. Lynn tells his attendees to gain private sector experience in addition to their military careers.

With all of these obstacles, the conversion rate of trainees to candidates is fairly low. Lynn said that only about ten percent of the veterans who have attended his seminars have run for office at any level, and he knows of only three candidates who have been successful.

But even when they are able to talk about familiar topics like war aims or defense spending, veterans can find campaigning to be more challenging in 2012 than it has been in years past.

Tammy Duckworth, who lost both of her legs when her Black Hawk helicopter was shot down in Iraq, is running in the Democratic primary in Illinois' 8th Congressional District. This year's campaign is her second; Duckworth also ran for the House of Representatives in 2006, as part of a large wave of Democratic veterans who became known as the "Fighting Dems." At that point, Duckworth said, her criticisms of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan were still ahead of public opinion, but her status as a veteran gave her the ability to speak out. "I get in the door where a lot of other people don't get in the door," she said.

But six years later, with American troops no longer in Iraq and the public eager to leave Afghanistan, the leeway afforded to veterans in 2006 is no longer an exclusive advantage.

"I think now when it's clear that there were no weapons of mass destruction, when we are now out of Iraq, I think the other candidates who are not veterans ... have an ability to question that a little bit more whereas they would not have been able to before," Duckworth said.

The Fighting Dems' relative lack of success also seems to speak to the difficulties veterans face on the campaign trail. While Democrats assembled some 60 candidates who had served in uniform, only four won their races. And while Rep. Pete Sessions (R-Texas), the chairman of the National Republican Congressional Committee, wrote to The Huffington Post praising veterans as "community leaders who are willing to change the way Washington does business," neither party has since attempted a similar concentrated push to elect former service members. The NRCC furnished a list of 25 veterans who are running for Congress as Republicans, some of whom are unlikely to advance out of their primaries. Its Democratic counterpart, the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, counted eight.

Still, the cachet of service resonates with voters even as the United States prepares for the end of its post-9/11 wars. Candidates who talked to The Huffington Post universally said that the appeal of their service has not diminished even as those wars have become unpopular and receded from the news.

Blair Milo, a former Navy officer and a graduate of Veterans Campaign, won the mayoral race in LaPorte, Ind., last year. She is only 28 years old, but her time as an officer at the Pentagon and aboard Navy ships allowed her to readily deflect concerns about her youth. "A lot of people say, 'you're too young, what's your experience to be able to run a city?' And it turned out to be kind of the perfect question for me to be able to say, I've actually had a little bit of different experience," she said. "It wasn't so much just a blanket veteran's status, but more the things that I had learned."

Other veterans stressed that common ground makes former service members more likely to reach across the aisle. "We don't really need to remind people that veterans are folks that know how to put others before themselves and to fight for the big picture," said Justin Bernier, the Republican candidate in Connecticut's 5th District. Appropriately, DCCC spokesman Jesse Ferguson agreed. "There is no better example of someone who will put ideology aside and be a problem solver or who can fiercely defend the middle class than someone who has served," he said.

That effect may carry over to the electorate, where veterans also enjoy status as trusted voices on issues far beyond their natural expertise or party base. A poll conducted by VoteVets, a progressive veterans' group, indicated that on a number of economic issues, voters were more likely to support positions taken by candidates who had served in the military. This was especially true of white male voters who were independent and conservative, even if the positions candidates took were fairly liberal.

Jon Soltz, the founder of VoteVets, isn't surprised by such numbers. "Veterans face the same issues as anyone else, from unemployment to the strength of their union if they are in a union job, to even protection of the lands they live around," he said. "So, this isn't about a veteran just going out and saying whatever. It's about them saying, 'Hey, I served this country, and now look what's happening to me and other veterans because Senator So-and-So voted this way.'"

And with congressional approval numbers at their lowest point in history, the uniform may give candidates an even more basic appeal. Jonathan Paton, an Army Reserve intelligence officer running as a Republican in Arizona's 1st Congressional District, recalled meeting constituents fed up with politics but willing to give him a pass.

"It's kind of like, 'Okay, you're a dirtbag because you're a politician, but maybe you might actually have some redeeming qualities,'" Paton said.