Just Under 20% of the 2018 Congress Class Were Veterans. Here’s What We Learned from This and Other Elections.

veterans in elections - American Veterans Honor Fund

A total of 38 veterans ran for Congress in 2018, a mixed bag of Democratic and Republican candidates from varied backgrounds but sharing one important commonality in military or intelligence experience. The results, while mixed, illuminate many takeaways and learning opportunities for veterans who are eyeing a future run for elected office. Increasing veteran representation in office remains a high priority, as not only do veterans carry a high level of public confidence but they also possess a strong and varied worldview. And so, taking the time to study past success and failures of veterans in elections will help clear the path for those coming forward next.

In the 2018 midterm election, we saw a slight decline in the percentage of veterans in the freshman class of representatives. The total number of those with military or CIA experience in the class of 111 was 22, for a total of 19.8%. This is a decrease from the 2016 figure of 26%, however the 2018 number still represents a higher figure than other recent years such as 2013 (17%). 

A few districts changed colors in 2018, flipping from Republican to Democrat and vice versa. For the districts flipping from Republican to Democrat, eight such victories for the party came at the hands of veteran candidates. A key difference that has been studied at length is the increase in investment into veteran candidates by the Democratic party, which saw an opportunity to take control of the House by garnering a stronger veteran vote through representation.

veterans in elections - American Veterans Honor Fund

No less than 20 of the Democratic candidates running in 2018 were veterans or those with military experience, according to NPR. The idea was to add a level of credibility with the more conservative-leaning voters, as even the staunchest conservative may still bat an eye at the idea of a candidate who has spent time fighting for his or her country. With the priority being turning control of the House blue, Democrats needed every chance they could seize to make this goal a reality. 

This investment didn’t pay off fully, but it wouldn’t necessarily be classified as a failure, either. One defeated veteran, Dan Feehan (MN-1), lost his race by a mere 1,300 votes, giving him reason for continued hope for a renewed campaign later down the road. His priority is bipartisan leadership and unity within the country, he said in a news interview with KEYC News Now. Throughout his tenure with the Army as a part of Operation Iraqi Freedom, which earned him numerous awards and a Commendation Medal with Valor, Feehan learned the importance of a unified front against all types of adversaries. He puts this priority forward on a platform of hope as he looks ahead to a 2020 rematch against Rep. Jim Hagedorn.

The numbers can be interpreted in numerous ways. Of the 38 Democratic veteran candidates running in 2018, just five would go forward to win their respective elected seats. This number can be increased to eight when including candidates who had intelligence and/or CIA experience. In contrast, 30% of the districts in which a Democrat took over the seat from a Republican were taken over by a veteran or intelligence candidate.

While perhaps not all of the heavier investments in these candidates paid off, not all blame can be placed on the candidate themselves. Rather, one must take a look at the circumstances surrounding each election when taking away lessons for future attempts. For example, flipping a district is historically difficult. Many veteran candidates were faced with the task of flipping a district, and some of these candidates were running with less experience than their opponent. Veteran or not, this is a big ask for any candidate. For another, a candidate must have a well rounded amount of experience and plans for their position, should they receive the winning number of votes. Veteran experience alone is not enough to carry a candidate to victory; having a well-planned and thought out campaign is instrumental in any success.

Continued priority must be placed on supporting veterans who wish to launch a campaign for elected office. Reflecting on the losses and successes of veterans in elections is an important way to mold the future. While the 2018 election results may not be the rosy picture we’d all like to see, there are important takeaways (and positives) to be further studied and learned from. As the 2020 election looms, these takeaways will be important for veterans hoping to secure their own spot with the confidence of their voters.

During the 2018 election, this came to a head with a record number of candidates with military experience. Among those ranks was a group that would see a surge: female veterans. Interestingly, of the record 14 female veteran candidates on the ballots, 11 of them ran as members of the Democratic party, representing a partisan shift in strategy. Read more here.

Veterans Running for Office - American Veterans Honor Fund

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