With elections two months away, there's a quiet surge sweeping the nation from Maine to California, as veterans steeled from tours in Iraq and Afghanistan test their mettle in a new and bare-knuckled arena. They're running for Congress.
Two years ago, much was made of the "Fighting Dems" seeking seats in the House and Senate. Only a few prevailed. This time, the Republican Party is not lacking for candidates, since it counts 11 men in its camp who have had recent combat tours, equal to the number of battle-tested Democrats trying for congressional seats.
Having served in the armed forces by no means guarantees success on Election Day. Still, the potential influx of veterans, particularly with no end in sight to today's wars, will most likely, in the years ahead, change the face of Congress, which has been relatively light on vets since the Vietnam era.
One of the Democrats' best prospects is in the Midwest, where ex-marine Ashwin Madia, 30, is holding his own in an against-the-odds battle for an open seat in a suburban Minneapolis district that has sent Republicans to the House for the past 48 years.
The race pits an Iraq war veteran against a veteran of political wars in the state capital. "I don't have experience in St. Paul, but I have experience in Baghdad," boasts Madia, a lawyer and former captain. His only previous election win came when he was chosen the student body president at the University of Minnesota, but he turned heads when he won the Democratic-Farmer-Labor Party's endorsement last spring over a rival favored by the state's political establishment up to and including former Vice President Walter Mondale.
Three tours. On the West Coast, the GOP is betting on Duncan D. Hunter to capture his father's (and namesake's) seat in the San Diego area. Hunter, 31, who was working for a high-tech firm on 9/11, met with Marine recruiters soon after and enrolled in the first Marine Officer Candidate School convened in the wake of the attacks. Since then, Hunter has served two tours in Iraq—he saw fierce fighting in Fallujah during his second deployment—and one more recently in Afghanistan.
So far, he's outgunning his rival in this largely Republican enclave on several counts. His war chest is fat, his name identification is huge, and helping to lead the charge is his father, the top Republican on the House Armed Services Committee, who is retiring after 28 years in Congress. A captain in the Marine Reserves, the younger Hunter, making his first bid for office, has a succinct slogan that speaks volumes: "Called to serve, ready to lead."
He says he's running "for the same reason I joined the Marine Corps after 9/11, to protect America and keep it safe."
Even in the unlikely event that Hunter stumbles, this sun-soaked district crowded with sailors and marines will still end up electing a man who has left boot prints in Iraq and Afghanistan. Hunter's rival is Democrat Mike Lumpkin, 43, once the deputy commander of all U.S. special operations forces in Iraq—roughly 2,000 Army Rangers, Green Berets, and Navy SEALs scattered in 40 locations. Lumpkin was in and out of hot spots before retiring from the Navy in 2007 after 21 years. "I was in Central and South America on counternarcotics operations when my opponent was in grade school," he says. "I have a master's degree in national security. I'm more than just a guy who stood behind a rifle."
Analysts say other top prospects nationally include two Ohioans, Republican Steve Stivers, a state senator who served in Iraq as a lieutenant colonel in the Army National Guard, and Democrat John Boccieri, an Air Force major who flew C-130 Hercules cargo planes in Iraq and Afghanistan. Another leading contender is western New York state's Jon Powers, an Army captain and artillery platoon leader in Iraq, who is running as a Democrat.
It's difficult to generalize about the troops who have laid down their arms and shed their uniforms to run for office. Some are political newcomers; some are not. Some already hold office at the state or local level. A handful are decent bets for House seats, but a larger number are destined for defeat, according to political analysts following the races.