- The Washington Times - Tuesday, April 27, 2010

The wars they fought in are still raging, but a surge of veterans from the battlefields of Iraq and Afghanistan are already running hard for public office and shaking up congressional races across the country.

It is estimated that the number of candidates with military records on the 2010 ballot will double compared with just two years ago. With polls showing some voters unhappy with incumbents and nervous about defense and security issues under President Obama, many of the challengers fresh from the ranks are mounting strong challenges in local and state races.

“With each year, the quantity and the quality of the veterans seeking office is increasing,” said Pete Hegseth, the executive director of Vets for Freedom, a nonpartisan political action committee that supports candidates who are hawks on national security.

Mr. Hegseth said veterans are getting into the 2010 races for many of the same reasons as other reform-minded candidates.

“Veterans are driven by the same frustrations that the public has with what is happening in Washington … the fiscal irresponsibility and the financial crisis that our country is facing,” the 29-year-old Iraq veteran told The Washington Times.

Neither the Republicans nor the Democrats officially track the number of veterans running for Congress, but political action groups estimate as many as 40 Iraq and Afghanistan warriors-turned-politicians are competing in party primaries across the country this year.

The surge of new veteran candidates comes as the number of lawmakers with military service has plummeted. Steadily declining since the end of World War II, there are just 95 Army, Navy, Marine, Air Force and National Guard veterans in the current House of Representatives, a postwar record low of just over 21 percent of the total.

Many such candidates are running as Democrats — including formidable candidates like Rep. Joe Sestak, a retired admiral and the highest-ranking military man ever to serve in Congress, who is locked in a tough Senate battle in Pennsylvania’s Democratic primary with incumbent Sen. Arlen Specter.

But most of the veterans seeking office this year are campaigning as conservatives and looking to emerge from crowded Republican primaries — a prospect that hasn’t exactly been embraced in some GOP circles.

In Pennsylvania’s 12th Congressional District, long held by the now-deceased Democrat John Murtha (himself a vet), retired Army officer and Desert Storm veteran Bill Russell was rebuffed by the Republican Party’s state leadership. The leadership chose instead to back millionaire businessman Tim Burns as the handpicked GOP candidate in the May 18 special election to serve the remaining months of Mr. Murtha’s term.

Mr. Russell, who made a surprisingly effective run at Mr. Murtha in 2008, pulling 42 percent of the vote in the heavily Democratic district, didn’t appreciate the slight and is running against Mr. Burns in the same-day primary for the GOP nomination to seek a full term in November.

The race echoes some of the themes from 2009’s controversial special House contest in upstate New York, with charges that GOP insiders and decision-makers are out of step with the grass-roots candidacies of outsiders like Mr. Russell.

Mr. Russell said in an interview that he sees the parallels.

“Party leaders absolutely tried to engineer the selection of a candidate who was 30 points down in the polls, and it’s all a business-as-usual, back-room deal based on them wanting a candidate who could be self-funded — despite the fact that I’ve outraised Mr. Burns three-to-one,” Mr Russell said Monday.

But he said there’s a big difference with the New York race, where divisions between the official Republican nominee and a conservative challenger helped the Democrats score an upset win.

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