- The Washington Times - Sunday, September 21, 2014

Ryan Zinke already knew how to lead from his 23-year career as a Navy SEAL, but said his time in the Montana state Senate taught him how to represent constituents with vastly different backgrounds.

“You learn so much. You learn the process, and you learn to make sure you identify the issues,” Mr. Zinke said. “I think having served in the state Legislature gives me more of a rounded view and gives me a better grasp of the issues than a person who just served on a staff or never had to make a vote.”

Mr. Zinke, a Republican running for Montana’s sole U.S. House seat, is one of almost 150 veterans hoping to become a member of the 114th Congress.

Veterans advocates predict the number of competitive veteran candidates will increase in future elections as recent veterans have time to learn how to campaign and legislate in local politics first — though some candidates found that their lack of political experience actually helped them defeat those seen as Washington insiders.

The number of veterans in Congress has been declining for decades. While veterans made up just 20 percent of the 113th Congress as its start, former service members accounted for more than 70 percent of lawmakers in the 1970s, according to a report from the Congressional Research Service. The next Congress will also be the first without a veteran of World War II.

Bill Rausch, political director of Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America, said the veteran candidates running now are far more competitive and serious than those who ran six years ago. Previously, candidates would leave the military and run for Congress right away, lacking the experience and network necessary to win a high-profile seat.

“The challenge we see a lot with candidates is they come back immediately from service and they run for Congress, and most of those candidates don’t do well for various reasons,” he said. “They have no experience outside the military. Oftentimes, as a result of military service, they’ve moved around the country, and the [home] district doesn’t know the individual.”

Jon Soltz, chairman for the left-leaning VoteVets, said that being a veteran is “the worst platform you can have,” noting that those who served have likely not built a following in the district and don’t have wealthy friends to donate to a campaign, unlike candidates who may have come from business jobs, for example.

Gary Lambert, who lost in the GOP House primary in New Hampshire last week, said that his time in state senate was “a good training ground” in how to campaign and how to work with other lawmakers, but added a lament common to many politicians — that any decision made in office can be used against you in an election.

“Any time you have a voting record, people can use that record against you,” he said. “If you’re a fresh face and you have no record at all, you can run on whatever agenda you feel like running on.”

Mr. Lambert, who spent 35 years in the Marine Corps, said he had a hard time fundraising among fellow veterans, whom he said are traditionally low givers, and lacked the connections of Marilinda Garcia, the 31-year-old who won the primary after serving in state government.

“I’ve spent my life developing my military career,” he said. “My opponent spent her whole adult life in the state house of representatives, so she developed a following, she developed a lot of relationships that I hadn’t really had. Quite frankly, plenty of people thank you for serving, but I’m not sure it means a lot running for elected office.”

Seth Moulton, a former Marine who knocked out the Democratic incumbent in Massachusetts earlier this month, took time off before running for Congress but didn’t enter local politics, instead earning an MBA from Harvard Business School and starting his own business. He said his lack of experience in state-level politics actually helped him in the national election.

“People are tired of career politicians right now, so one of the things I found in my race is people were excited that my experience was in business and in public service, and not in politics,” he said.

Mr. Rausch said he expects the number of vets in Congress — currently 102 — to go down after the midterms.

“I think we’ll be pretty close to that number, but it’s probably going to go down,” he said. “That’s the direction we’ve been going in as it’s been related to the proportion of vets who have been serving in the country.”

Mr. Soltz agreed that the number would likely drop in January but said it’s not fair to compare the number of vets in Congress today to the number who were elected years ago, when a much larger percentage of the country’s population served in the military.

“What you’re seeing is a decline in members who are veterans because there’s no draft,” Mr. Soltz said. “When you have 1 percent of the population serving in Iraq and Afghanistan, how do you expect 50 percent of Congress to be vets? They’re just not there.”

Rather than comparing to past generations, Mr. Soltz said the number of vets in Congress should be judged in relation to how many are currently serving. And more important than just the number running for election, he said, is how many high-quality veteran candidates can actually win seats — and keep them through several election cycles.

“You’re starting to see people who are going to be in the next generation who are going to stay there,” Mr. Soltz said, noting the success of combat veteran Rep. Tulsi Gabbard, Hawaii Democrat. “You’re going to have people who are going to be there who can stay in their seats.”

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