2020 was a watershed moment for female Veterans running for Congress. According to Radio.com, “In all, 28 women veterans ran for Congressional seats on Election Day– a significant increase over prior years.” While all but one challenger lost their elections, four incumbent female Veterans were able to come out on top to secure their seats for another term. In total, seven female Veterans will be serving in the 116th Congress, a record number. Here are some of the notable winners:
Newly elected Congresswoman, Mariannette Miller-Meeks, will begin her first term in 2021 in the House of Representatives serving Iowa’s Second Congressional District. Representative Miller-Meeks “is an ophthalmologist and retired U.S. Army Reserve lieutenant colonel from Ottumwa.” Representative Miller-Meeks, a Republican, won an incredibly close race against Democrat Rita Hart-just six votes! Representative Miller-Meeks is the only new female Veteran elected to office in 2020, per Radio.com.
Senator Joni Ernst “is the first woman to represent her state in Congress and the first woman combat veteran elected to the Senate in United States history.” The former Army Reserve and National Guard lieutenant colonel was up against Democrat challenger, Theresa Greenfield. Greenfield is not a Veteran. Ernst secured her victory with 51.8% of the vote on Election Night.
Democratic Congresswoman Mikie Sherrill graduated from the US Naval Academy in 1994 and then spent another 10 years in active duty. According to her Congressional biography, “She flew missions throughout Europe and the Middle East as a Sea King helicopter pilot, worked on the Battle Watch Floor in the European Theater during the Iraq invasion, and served as a Flag Aide to the Deputy Commander in Chief of the U.S. Atlantic Fleet.” On November 3rd she went up against Republican challenger, Rosemary Bechhi. Becchi, who is not a Veteran, had previous experience in government working at the IRS and serving “on the majority staff of the U.S. Senate Finance Committee as tax counsel.” Sherrill secured a sound victory with 53.3% of the vote.
There were also some notable losses for female Veterans in 2020.
One of the most watched races of the year in Congress was in Arizona, as two Veterans squared off against each other for one of the state’s Senate seats. The Republican incumbent, Martha McSally, was the first female to fly in combat and served 22 years in the military. She was defeated by former Navy captain and NASA astronaut, Mark Kelly. Both were fundraising all-stars, hauling in a combined $144 million for their campaigns. But Kelly outraised McSally considerably, raking in $89.7 million compared to McSally’s $89.7 million, which could have been the tipping point in their election. McSally infamously joked that supporters out to “fast a meal” in order to donate to her campaign, a comment that received considerable backlash amidst the dire pandemic economy. Kelly ultimately received 51.2% of the vote, and the victory.
Amy McGrath took on the sizable challenge of unseating the Senate Majority, Mitch McConnell, in Kentucky. While both are Veterans, McGrath was “former Marine fighter pilot with 20 years of service and the first woman to fly combat missions for the Corps.” McConnell served in the Army Reserve in 1967 “but was deemed medically unfit for service and discharged five weeks later.” Mitch has served in the Senate for decades and is a primary power broker in the Republican party. But the Democrats and McGrath raised money like mad to defeat him-$88 million went towards the cause of defeating Mitch. However, McConnell stumping as a bulwark against the ascendant “Radical Left” was able to comfortably achieve victory with 58% of the vote.
When considering the results of the 2020 elections, it appears that a primary factor in whether these female Veterans won or lost was incumbency. Remember, all but one challenger lost amongst our female Vet candidates. 2020 was a highly polarized election year with Republicans gaining in the House and the Democrats overcoming the Republicans in the Senate. For some like McSally, it may be that she was a victim of the referendum on Trump, as much as their own failures.
But there is a silver lining moving forward. While the percentage of Veterans serving in Congress has diminished greatly over the years, we are seeing more and more candidates from the post-9/11 wars running for office. As this election cycle saw the highest percentage of female Veterans running ever, it is safe to assume that as more and more younger Vets are sworn into office, the number of them who are women will only continue to grow.
The number of Veterans elected to serve in the 117th Congress of the United States beginning in 2021 represents a shrinking contingent of elected Veterans in our legislature. This is the lowest Veteran representation in Congress since World War II.