From the Classroom

Military issues at the forefront as GOP battles Dems to regain power in Congress

Republicans and Democrats each use military issues in their campaigns.

A photo of a man wearing military uniform with a young child on his shoulders holding an American flag.

In a midterm election year it’s a near certainty that political candidates from any party are going to talk about military issues and lift up veterans any opportunity they get. When it comes to delivering for the people who have served the country in wars and at home, it’s a different story.

This campaign cycle is no different. With control of the House on the line and Republicans poised to defeat Democrats in competitive races across the country, it’s no accident many of the GOP’s top candidates boast military service in their backgrounds.

And the military community is primed for a change. With the botched pullout of Afghanistan and battles with the Pentagon over vaccine mandates, Republicans view President Joe Biden’s party as vulnerable on the issue.

The National Republican Congressional Committee (NRCC) sees the Biden administration as being underwater, and is counting on the historical trend that the party in the White House usually loses seats in its first midterm election cycle. In 2010 the Obama administration lost 63 Democratic seats, and in 2018 the Trump administration lost 41 Republican seats, flipping control of the House each time.

House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R) told Annenberg Media in March that he thinks Biden has made a “mistake” with Afghanistan, and there have been several instances where the president has shown weakness.

“In no time are you going to find the climate this good for Republicans at the same time that you have redistricting so you can lock somebody in for 10 years,” McCarthy told reporters during a brief, impromptu press conference on Capitol Hill.

There are more than 180 veterans running for Congress this year in 162 House and Senate races. Republicans need to net just five seats to win control of the House and only one seat in the Senate. With control of the House on the line, military service is something both political parties are promoting.

For Democrats, it’s supporting health care and providing support for modern-era veterans’ needs they see as neglected after long wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. For Republicans, it’s mostly sharp criticism of Biden’s handling of the war in Afghanistan. Expect these themes to motivate voters in some of the most important contests in the midterm elections.

Gina Ciarcia, a Republican who is running for Congress for the new 7th Congressional District in Virginia, said her husband is a Marine Corps special operator veteran who toured Afghanistan, Iraq and other places in the world, and lost many friends along the way. She said her close relationship with the military and standing by her husband at veterans’ funerals, have shown her how important it is to make sure the military is “fully equipped and mission ready.”

“With our military, we really need to focus on mission readiness operations and taking care of our veterans,” Ciarcia said in an interview at a restaurant in Stafford, Va. in March. “We need to make sure that we as a nation are caring for them because they sacrificed for us.”

Ciarcia is hoping to be the GOP nominee to challenge Rep. Abigail Spanberger this fall. The Democrat understands what service means a lot more because of her background of public service and working at the CIA, according to the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee (DCCC).

“Abigail Spanberger is committed to delivering for our veterans and making sure service members can lead healthy lives when they return home,” said DCCC spokeswoman Monica Robinson. “Thanks to Rep. Abigail Spanberger’s leadership, millions of veterans who’ve been forced to wait to receive care are now much closer to the care they deserve.”

Associate professor of political science at Stevens Institute of Technology Linsdsey Cormack, the author of “Congress and U.S. Veterans,” wrote about the political landscape surrounding military issues and how perception isn’t always reality.

“Republicans do more of the talking about veterans,” Cormack said. “But when you look at pieces of legislation introduced to change the lives of veterans, that more often comes from Democrats.”

The most recent legislation is the proposal to expand health care to veterans who were exposed to toxins. The House passed the measure with 174 Republicans voting against it. The Honoring our Promise to Address Comprehensive Toxics (PACT) bill would cover about 3.5 million veterans.

Veterans of Foreign Wars (VFW) in Washington D.C. released a statement saying the bill would help millions of toxic-exposed veterans and it includes training that is necessary for health care providers to diagnose and treat such conditions properly. VFW is a nationwide network which helps veterans file for their VA cards and to claim benefits. PACT is now awaiting for the Senate to vote before Memorial Day on May 30.

Cormack, the professor, created something known as DCinbox which is a database to capture every official e-newsletter sent by sitting members of the House and Senate. She noticed veterans were the most often talked about population. She believes that is because there are veterans belonging to each political party and everyone likes them.

In Cormack’s book she explores which political party actually makes legislation that favors veterans and who’s introducing those bills.

“It’s really easy for everyone to say, ‘I love veterans,’ that’s very easy,” Cormack said. “That doesn’t cost anything, it is much harder to say, let me craft legislation and work to get that legislation passed so that these veterans can get these sorts of benefits.”

Both Republicans and Democrats use similar tactics by placing veterans in their ads, while their messages are different. Especially when they are fighting for the majority of seats in Congress ahead of the critical midterm elections.

Communications consultant Eric Schmeltzer, who works with VoteVets, a political action committee that advocates for veterans, explained that Republicans tend to use patriotism in their messaging. That’s usually saying they’re strong for the troops and they stand by the troops, while Democrats who use veterans in their advertising talk about how they are taking care of veterans, he said.

Meanwhile, the parties work hard to recruit candidates with a military background in congressional districts that are a toss up and where military issues play a big role. Schmeltzer said that veterans are considered among the most trustworthy voices, to speak to people about whatever issue it happens to be and both parties realize that.

“There’s some great veterans running … in seats that people wouldn’t have thought are winnable, but may end up winnable because of the strength of the candidates there,” Schmeltzer said.

Schmeltzer pointed to California’s 25th District, redrawn through redistricting as the 27th. It was a very close race when Republican Mike Garcia defeated Democrat Christy Smith by 333 votes in 2020.

Garcia is a U.S. Naval officer and uses that on the campaign trail. His website notes that while on active duty, he “flew over 30 combat missions during Operation Iraqi Freedom in the skies above Baghdad, Fallujah and Tikrit.”

Also on the June 7 top-two primary ballot is Democrat Quaye Quartey, not as well known as Smith, who is looking for a rematch. Quartey has at the forefront of his campaign 20 years of service as an intelligence officer in the military.

Quartey went to Stanford University to study business. He said it was during his time at Stanford when he first realized how America had changed. Between his immigrant father’s influence and while Black Lives Matter movement shook the world, Quartey was inspired to run for office.

“I’m looking to serve again and my thing is I’m looking to serve others and not to be served,” Quartey said in an interview. “And I think genuine servant leadership is what we need at this point in our country at all echelons of government and also in the private sector, and that’s what I’m doing — and that’s why I’m looking to run for office and looking to defeat Mike Garcia.”

As a veteran, Quartey said there is a certain amount of accountability that was built into his DNA from serving for so many years and from leading both men and women. He also highlighted responsibility, service to others and humility as veterans’ character traits.

“When I look at January 6, and the insurrection, and I look at a veteran like Mike Garcia, who comes from a similar place as me, that he was able to vote to decertify the election because he was told to do so by the far right,” Quartey said. “That is something that most veterans can’t excuse — I can’t excuse — and there’s over 25,000 of our veterans here in the Antelope Valley in Santa Clarita Valley, and that’s something that Mike’s gonna have to answer to.”

Garcia’s campaign did not respond to requests for comment.

There are around 19 million U.S. veterans in America, according to the Department of Veterans Affairs. While the majority of older than 55-years-old veterans voted for President Donald Trump in the last election according to Military Times, younger generations supported the Democratic Party. A Military Times poll published on Oct. 26, 2020, showed Trump winning an overall 52% of veterans compared with 42% for Joe Biden.

Donald Lombardi, a 65-year-old veteran, said he thinks veterans vote based on the candidate. Lombardi, who is also a professor at the Stevens Institute of Technology, had served as second lieutenant at the Marine Corps and Communications and Intelligence. He said that one thing is certain, that many veterans will show up to cast their votes in the midterms.

Lombardi believes that veterans vote on who they think is going to meet their needs, candidates who are honest, direct and thoughtful. He said he hopes the political division can be left on the side when dealing with issues that impact peoples’ lives and wishes for unity in the country.

“I really am looking forward to a reduction of the back and forth, the backbiting, the internal fratricide, and looking forward to us rallying together,” Lombardi said. “I’m looking forward to seeing more leaders that are going to really take care of our company, our community. And really the community being a common unity. And going back to what Benjamin Franklin said, we must hang together, or surely we will hang together separately.”