As many have reported by now, the 2018 midterm elections included a record number of female veteran candidates — candidates who won their races at higher rates than did non-incumbent male veterans. In general, the number of lawmakers who are military vets has been declining for years. But in the 116th Congress, the number of female veterans in Congress will rise from four to at least five — and could go as high as six, depending on the final results in the race of former Air Force captain Gina Ortiz Jones, a Democrat running for the House in Texas’s 23rd District.
Here’s how female veterans did in the midterms
Of the unprecedented 14 female veterans on the ballot, three were Republicans and 11 Democrats. None were incumbents, with the exception of Rep. Tulsi Gabbard (D-Hawaii), who won reelection. Of those who were not incumbents, only two ran for open seats that had previously been held by a member of their party: Martha McSally, who ran for Jeff Flake’s Arizona Senate seat, and Wendy Rogers, a Republican running for the House, also in Arizona, both of whom lost. Another ran in a newly drawn district: Chrissy Houlahan, who ran for the House as a Democrat in Pennsylvania, against an incumbent member of Congress.
Female veterans who were not incumbents have won 23 percent of their races so far; if Jones wins, this will increase to 30 percent. Male veterans who were not incumbents have won just 14 percent of their races, with three still undecided. If each of the remaining seats goes to a veteran candidate, male non-incumbent veterans’ success rate will rise to 17 percent.
That success rate is a big change from female veterans’ past record
The first female veteran who made it to Capitol Hill was Catherine Small Long (D-La.) after winning a special election in 1985. 1998 was the first year a female veteran won in a regular election: Heather Wilson (R-N.M.), now serving as secretary of the Air Force.
Since then, a handful of notable candidates have won — but as is typical for challengers, most have lost, Republicans and Democrats alike. From 2004 through 2016, Republicans nominated 10 veteran women (we exclude California, Louisiana and Washington, which use nonpartisan primaries). The two GOP winners were Wilson and McSally. During the same time, Democrats nominated 18; again, only two won — Gabbard and Illinois Sen. Tammy Duckworth, who served in the House before winning her Senate race.
Early in 2018, it became clear that things would be different for female veterans. When Amy McGrath entered the race for Kentucky’s 6th District, she was not favored to win even the Democratic primary. But her first advertisement, featuring the story of how she became the “first female Marine to fly in an F-18 in combat,” went viral, earning $300,000 within 72 hours. Fulsome media coverage of her and the other female veterans followed.
Why were Democratic veteran women so successful in 2018?
In all, Democrats nominated about as many female veterans this year as Republicans have ever nominated — but just nominating veteran women isn’t enough to get them into office. Over the past 10 years, veteran women have run as Democrats in districts that, on average, were harder to win than the districts in which Democratic non-veteran women were running. Between 2004 and 2016, female veterans ran in districts where the baseline partisanship — a term meaning the average Democratic share of the vote in the previous presidential election — was 39 percent, making them look a bit like sacrificial lambs. In 2018, this figure was 46 percent. In other words, this year more veteran women were running in districts that were winnable.
Further, voters believe veterans are better able to handle national defense than others. However, as noted above, the overall share of veterans in Congress is declining. The intersection of gender and defense may have opened doors for Democrats.
That’s because when female veterans run for office, they benefit from both high levels of trust in the military and the typical advantages of running as a woman — being perceived as less corrupt, more empathetic and more competent on such domestic issues as poverty — without the risk of being seen as too weak. They may be able to appeal across party lines in a way that male veterans and women who have not served in the military do not.
There are additional advantages for female veterans who run as Democrats. When veterans run as Democrats, they challenge the general perception that Republicans are more trustworthy on military and defense issues. Female veterans may appeal to voters because they are women who have excelled in a field that is male-dominated — and because independents and Republicans can interpret “veteran” as an indicator of patriotism and conservatism at a time when the president refers to Democrats as “treasonous” and “un-American.”
Female veterans in this cycle may also have served as a symbolic antidote to President Trump, even more than female candidates in general did. The party opposed to the president generally picks up seats in the midterms. But even given that, women who volunteered for combat offered a clear contrast to a man who took five wartime draft deferments. And as women, they could still implicitly rebuke the president’s “locker room banter” that outraged so many women.
These female veterans are a subset of a large influx of women into Congress two years into the Trump presidency. While they should be seen as a part of this group, they share an experience common to only a small subset of the population. Many have framed their candidacies as continuations of their service.
Rebecca Best (@RebeccaBestIR) is assistant professor of political science at University of Missouri in Kansas City.
Jeremy Teigen (@ProfTeigen) is professor of political science at Ramapo College and the author of “Why Veterans Run: Military Service in American Presidential Elections, 1879-2016” (Temple University Press, 2018).