They’ve traded their battle dress uniforms and weapons for business suits and BlackBerrys. But for more than 20 Iraq and Afghanistan war veterans running for Congress, the campaign trail is just an extension of their sworn duty to protect the nation and defend the Constitution.
“The fight for democracy frankly isn’t in a village in Iraq or a mud hut in Afghanistan; it’s right here at home,” said Mike Lumpkin, a retired Navy SEAL and Democrat who is running for the California’s open District 52 seat. “I’m looking to continue my public service.”
Neither the Democratic nor the Republican Party keeps definitive lists of war veterans running for Congress. But at least 11 Republican and 10 Democratic veterans of Iraq and Afghanistan are thought to be running active campaigns to win one of the 435 House seats nationwide.
Two Iraq veterans - one from each party - are challenging incumbents in the Senate.
The number of Iraq and Afghanistan veterans competing in Tuesday’s general election is about double that of 2006. With veterans of other military campaigns running in congressional contests throughout the country, 2008 may have more veterans on the ballot in generations.
“A big part of it is veterans recognize and have seen … the serious implications of what Congress can do in wartime,” said Pete Hegseth, an Iraq war veteran and chairman of Vets for Freedom, a group dedicated to electing congressional candidates who support the war.
“When you’ve got the U.S. Senate coming within two votes in July of 2007 of setting a timeline for withdrawal, I think a lot of veterans looked around and said, ‘My goodness, our elected officials do have the power to determine the extent to which we’re given the capacity to succeed or to not succeed on the battlefield.’ ”
Veterans running as Republicans support the Bush administration’s war policy, while the bulk of the Democrats are opposed to the war and want U.S. combat forces out of Iraq.
But most on Tuesday’s ballots are long shots, with only three or four having a legitimate chance of winning, political analysts say.
“I think some of them find it a hard transition from military to political candidate,” said Nathan Gonzales, an election analyst at the Rothenberg Political Report. “It’s very different - from campaign and giving speeches to fundraising.”
One of the most interesting House races in the nation this year pits two Iraq war veterans against each other: Mr. Lumpkin, who was selected for promotion to captain upon his retirement and whose 21 years in the Navy included a stint as a liaison to Congress for Special Operations Command, and Duncan Duane Hunter, a captain in the Marine Reserves.
Polls show that Republican Mr. Hunter has a significant lead for the seat, which his father, the retiring Rep. Duncan Hunter, has held since 1981.
The only Iraq and Afghanistan war veteran currently in Congress is Rep. Patrick J. Murphy, a Democrat who in 2006 narrowly knocked off Republican incumbent Michael G. Fitzpatrick to win Pennsylvania’s District 8 seat. He is expected to beat back a challenge from Tom Manion, a retired Marine lieutenant colonel whose son died while serving in Iraq.
But with last year’s surge of U.S. troops helping quiet violence in Iraq, pushing the conflict’s troubles off the front pages of newspapers, Republican Iraq war veterans are more emboldened to run for office this election cycle than in previous years.
Another inspiration for “pro-mission” Republican veterans to run for Congress this year was an accusation by Rep. John P. Murtha, Pennsylvania Democrat, in 2006 that a group of Marines killed civilians “in cold blood” a year earlier in the Iraqi village of Haditha.
“We don’t need other congressmen from other conflicts jumping around and telling us what our war looks like and that we’re war criminals,” Mr. Hegseth said.
Mr. Murtha - a Vietnam veteran in his 18th term - is expected to survive a challenge from Iraq veteran William Russell.