From the Battlefield to the Campaign Trail

In Minnesota congressional race, a veteran of Iraq takes on a veteran politician.

Ashwin Madia, a former Marine, won the Democratic endorsement to pursue the seat vacated by Congressman Jim Ramstad (R).

Ashwin Madia, a former Marine, won the Democratic endorsement to pursue the seat vacated by Congressman Jim Ramstad (R).

By + More

One of a spate of Iraq war veterans running for Congress, ex-Marine Ashwin Madia is holding his own in an against-the-odds battle for a House seat in Minnesota.

But four years in the corps, including a six-month tour in Baghdad, didn't make it that much easier for him to perform one of the unpleasant tasks in politics—asking people for money.

The 30-year-old lawyer says an appeal to his patriotism from a freshman congressman turned his head around. "Marine, you're not asking for you," the lawmaker told him. "You're asking for your country."

The marching orders came in May on Capitol Hill from Democrat Patrick Murphy of Pennsylvania, a former captain in the Army's 82nd Airborne who holds the distinction of being the only Iraq combat veteran to win a House seat in 2006.

Several combat veterans, most of them Democrats, sought federal office then, but few "Fighting Dems" prevailed. High-profile victors included Sen. Jim Webb of Virginia, a former Marine commander who was decorated in Vietnam, and Rep. Joe Sestak of Pennsylvania, a retired vice admiral who led an aircraft carrier battle group during fighting in Afghanistan. Other Democrats lost marquee contests, notably Tammy Duckworth of Illinois, a Black Hawk pilot who lost both her legs when her helicopter was hit by a rocket-propelled grenade in Iraq.

This year, there's a new surge of Iraq war veterans seeking seats in Congress—about 10 Democrats, including Madia, and about nine Republicans. One inside the GOP tent is California's Duncan D. Hunter, who, as a captain in the Marine Corps Reserve, saw two tours in Iraq and one in Afghanistan. He is expected to win his father's (and namesake's) seat.

Candidates for office have always trumpeted military credentials, if they have them, but particularly so in the wake of 9/11. In noisy campaigns, the biographical detail is a symbolically rich way to convey to voters "the obviously desirable traits of sacrifice, selflessness, patriotism, duty to country," observes political scientist Jeremy Teigen of Ramapo College of New Jersey. "People can digest those concepts with just that one little tag: 'military veteran.' "

But being a veteran doesn't always do much to help win elections. Teigen analyzed recent House races, looking only at contests that pitted a Democrat against a Republican, eliminating incumbents who did not have to face a major-party rival. He cast a wide net with respect to veterans; he included anyone with active-duty service, from a theoretical former supply clerk at Fort Dix in New Jersey to a Congressional Medal of Honor winner.

In 2006 House races across the nation, Republican veterans did slightly better than nonveterans, but Democratic veterans had no significant advantage over Democrats lacking military backgrounds. "The 'Fighting Dems' were an extremely important symbolic plank in the effort to retake both chambers, but the success Democrats enjoyed cannot be placed at the feet of veterans," Teigen says.

Madia, a lawyer who had the rank of captain, served in Baghdad for six months beginning in September 2005. Though he carried an M9 pistol, he's quick to point out that he wasn't kicking down doors and searching for terrorists. When questioned, he acknowledges that roadside bombs, mortars, and missiles posed a threat.

"I saw brave marines, brave soldiers, and also brave Iraqis. Judges who risked their lives just going to work. I saw bravery in action, people who were willing to roll up their sleeves and work," he says. "We need more of that in Washington to get our great nation back on track again."

He returned to Minnesota after leaving the Marines and practiced intellectual property law. He left that job to campaign full time under the banner of the Democratic-Farmer-Labor Party.

Madia is running in a district that has sent Republicans to the House for the past 48 years.

While his Republican opponent, state Rep. Erik Paulsen, has never worn the uniform, he brings other advantages to the contest. He is a former aide to the retiring Rep. Jim Ramstad, who held the seat Paulsen and Madia are seeking. Paulsen, 43, is in his seventh term in the Minnesota House, is a former House majority leader, and has never lost an election. He was leading in the chase for campaign cash as of June 30, having raised nearly $1.4 million to Madia's $1 million.

Updated on 8/15/08