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Veterans in Congress are increasingly young and female — and key to bipartisanship, study says

Dan Crenshaw and his wife, Tara, at a campaign event in May. (Mark Mulligan/AP)

Dan Crenshaw was not new to the battlefield before an IED explosion tore into his face and claimed his eye in Afghanistan.

The former Navy SEAL had already seen two combat tours before arriving in volatile Helmand Province in 2012. He stayed in the Navy for four more years after his serious wounds, including two other overseas postings, before leaving the service in 2016.

His name may be familiar for two reasons. One, his injury was mocked days ago on “Saturday Night Live,” and the joke drew wide condemnation. And second: Crenshaw has entered a new billet as Representative-elect for Texas' 2nd Congressional District.

Crenshaw is part of a wave of veterans elected to office Tuesday, one of at least 77 members elected who will join 15 other veterans in the Senate who were not up for reelection.

While the number of veteran lawmakers has declined after World War II and Vietnam, more younger veterans and more women veterans are joining the ranks of Congress — and advocates have said that they can smooth partisan hysteria and put Washington back to work.

The military pulverizes individualism and emphasizes teamwork. All succeed or all fail. That may explain data that suggests that veterans are more likely than nonveterans to co-sponsor bipartisan legislation, according to the Lugar Center, a Washington-based nonprofit that tracks congressional behavior.

The number of veterans elected Tuesday “shows a hunger in the electorate for outsiders, service, and country over party,” said Rye Barcott, chief executive of With Honor, a political action committee focused on electing a bipartisan field of veterans to curb gridlock.

(The group received a $10 million donation in September from Jeffrey P. Bezos, chief executive of Amazon. He also owns The Washington Post.)

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In the last Congress, 55 percent of veterans in the Senate scored above a two-decade historical average for bipartisanship, up from 43 percent among nonveterans, With Honor found in a study with the Lugar Center.

In the House, the figures are 43 percent vs. 34 percent, the group said.

Veterans are courted by both parties for another obvious reason — to blunt their own unpopularity. The military is the most respected institution in the country, Gallup found, with polling for Congress showing dismal numbers.

With Honor has said veterans made up more than half of Congress in recent decades, but the decline of veterans in Congress has eclipsed the overall dip of veterans in the U.S. population. The Brookings Institution recently found that the number of veteran lawmakers is at 19 percent — a near-historic low.

With Honor endorsed 39 candidates who pledged that they would, among other things, meet and work with opposing party members. At least 17 were elected, Barcott told The Washington Post, with seven others too close to call by Wednesday afternoon.

Many veterans who lost their bids overperformed, Barcott said — like former Marine fighter pilot Amy McGrath, who lost a tight and bitterly contested race to Republican incumbent Rep. Garland “Andy” Barr in Kentucky’s 6th Congressional District.

Former helicopter pilot MJ Hegar, a Democratic viral ad star endorsed by With Honor, was also narrowly defeated in Texas’ blood-red 31st Congressional District by GOP Rep. John Carter.

Barcott’s group was pleased overall with the results, which may provide a road map for PACs to boost the profile of veterans, who are disadvantaged from the start for two reasons, he said.

While the military draws from many corners of society, most veterans are not as well-heeled and politically connected as their competition. And military service across the world can make it difficult to establish roots in one place.

Crenshaw overcame those obstacles, and perhaps mindful of his pledge, did not shy away from questions over President Trump’s role in divisive rhetoric.

“I would always call for him tone down the rhetoric sometimes and lower the temperature,” he told CNN on Wednesday. “It would certainly help.”

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