In Northern Virginia, a host of veterans eyeing congressional seats

August 4, 2011

In Northern Virginia, military veterans eye congressional seats

Across the country, about one in five members of Congress is a military veteran. Northern Virginia might be sending a whole platoon.

This year, retired Army Col. Chris Perkins (R) announced he would run to unseat Rep. Gerald E. Connolly, the Democrat in the Fairfax County-based 11th District. Next door in the 10th District, retired Air Force Gen. John Douglass (D) is challenging Republican Rep. Frank Wolf.

Douglass is the second consecutive military man to take on Wolf, following retired Air Force Col. Jeffery R. Barnett’s (D) unsuccessful bid last year. To the south, retired Army Col. Patrick Murray (R) failed last cycle in his campaign against Democratic Rep. James P. Moran for the 8th District seat; he might run again next year.

Simple geography helps explain why so many veterans in the Washington region have chosen to run for Congress. The Pentagon sits in Arlington County, and huge numbers of active and retired military personnel — particularly veteran officers — live in Northern Virginia.

The quartet of candidates might have high ranks, but they have little record of success. Barnett and Murray both lost by more than 20 percentage points, and Douglass and Perkins go into their races as underdogs. What’s not clear is whether they are picking the wrong races — against incumbents in tough districts — or whether their candidacies are fundamentally flawed.

On the plus side, military candidates come equipped with compelling personal stories and instant credibility on national security issues.

“We have 90 percent-plus public approval rating for the military,” said Perkins, a former Green Beret. Congress, by contrast, is experiencing historically low popularity.

Veterans can also claim to bring valuable experience to the table.

“The skills that one does pick up in the military are directly applicable to political campaigns and service,” said Barnett, who is considering another run against Wolf. He said that officers can bring “concepts of organization and leadership and inspiration and strategic thought” to a campaign.

Political disadvantages

But they often lack other ingredients that can make for a successful candidate — political experience, name recognition, fundraising chops and personal wealth.

Last year, Moran took heavy flak from Republicans for accusing the party of nominating candidates who haven’t “performed in any kind of public service.” Accused of belittling Murray’s military background, Moran later clarified that he meant Murray had no record of civic engagement, noting that Murray hadn’t even voted in Virginia until recently.

Fair or not, because career officers are typically asked to move around the nation and the globe, it can be difficult for them to establish deep roots in one place or engage on local issues.

“You can’t serve your country from your congressional district,” said Bert Mizusawa, a brigadier general in the Army Reserve who lost a Republican primary bid in Virginia’s 2nd Congressional District last year.

The winner of that race, Scott Rigell (R), a former member of the Marine Corps Reserve, had to beat not only Mizusawa but also retired Navy Capt. Ben Loyola and ex-Navy SEAL Scott Taylor.

Although those men had more extensive military backgrounds than Rigell, he had better name ID — Rigell owns well-known auto dealerships in the Hampton Roads area — and significant personal wealth that he used to boost his campaign.

In the contest against Connolly, Perkins acknowledges that he will have to raise a significant sum — at least $2 million, if recent races are a guide — and he got a decent start by raising $120,000 in the second quarter of the year. But he said he doesn’t believe in candidates dumping their own money into their races. “I wouldn’t self-fund, even if I was a billionaire,” he said.

Connolly narrowly escaped defeat last year, edging businessman Keith Fimian (R) by fewer than 1,000 votes. But he beat Fimian with relative ease in 2008 and probably will benefit from having President Obama atop the ticket again in 2012.

Wolf has been winning reelection by wide margins for nearly 30 years, meaning Douglass will have a steep hill to climb. And although the redistricting process is not complete, Connolly’s and Wolf’s districts are expected to get safer for the incumbents once the new lines are drawn.

At the start of the 112th Congress, there were 118 members of the House or Senate — 22 percent overall — who had served or were serving in the military, according to the Congressional Research Service. In a report profiling the new Congress, the CRS noted that the number of veterans on the Hill “reflects the trend of a steady decline in recent decades.” Thirty years ago, there were 298 veterans in the House or Senate, and 40 years ago there were 398.

Richard H. Kohn, a history professor at the University of North Carolina who studies relations between Congress and the military, said that many Hill veterans in past years were “citizen soldiers” who served short stints in the military — often because they were drafted — and then went on to other careers. Since the draft ended in 1972, that number has declined.

“What seems interesting to me is [of] the veterans that I see running for office . . . a larger percentage of them seem to be professional officers who have either retired or for some reason have left the service,” Kohn said.

Why would there be an uptick in such candidates?

“My speculation would be that you’ve got more highly educated officers than in the past, more politically attuned and more politically conscious,” Kohn said, adding that research has shown members of the professional military vote in larger numbers than they did previously.

Perkins plans to rely heavily on his military background in his race against Connolly, and he thinks his service makes him ideally suited for the job. But he’s not arguing that only veterans have what it takes to fix what ails Congress.

“I just think we need less career politicians and more leaders,” Perkins said, “and the military is an obvious” place to find them.

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