Dems enlist vets in battle for Senate

 ·  Martin Matishak, The Hill   ·   Link to Article

Senate Democrats are turning to veterans in their battle to win back the majority in 2016.

Rep. Tammy Duckworth (Ill.) last week became the third Democrat with experience in the armed forces to jump into a Senate race, announcing a bid against incumbent Sen. Mark Kirk (R-Ill.).

Duckworth, a double amputee who fought in Iraq, followed in the footsteps of Missouri Secretary of State Jason Kander and former Rep. Joe Sestak, two other veterans who are seeking the Democratic nomination in crucial Senate races.

With the emphasis on military experience, Democrats seem to be taking a page out of the GOP playbook from the 2014 midterms.

That year, Republicans won an election rout by putting up Senate candidates such as then-Rep. Tom Cotton (R-Ark.), who served in the Iraq and Afghanistan wars, and state Sen. Joni Ernst (R-Iowa), who served in Iraq as a lieutenant colonel with the Iowa National Guard. Both won their races handily.

“What you’re really seeing is a maturation of Iraq veteran candidates up to the Senate level. You saw that on the Republican side last cycle,” said Jon Soltz, the co-founder of VoteVets.org, who served in Iraq as an Army captain.

Republicans say the 2016 election will be a referendum on President Obama’s national security policies, and their White House hopefuls are preparing for a vigorous primary debate over issues like the Iranian nuclear talks and fighting terrorism.

“Foreign policy and national security is going to be in the top three concerns on voter’s radar in 2016. Democrats recognize they need vocal people on this issue because they need to be taken seriously,” said GOP strategist Ford O’Connell.

By putting candidates with military service on the front lines, Democrats could help to counter charges that the party is weak on national defense.

A military record is “a strength for these candidates and they should rightfully be talking about it when it relates to people’s concerns,” said a Democratic Party source.

Democrats believe they have a real shot of winning back the Senate in 2016, when they will be defending only 10 seats, compared to the GOP’s 24.

But Democrats need a net gain of five seats to take back the majority, which is a tall order, even in a presidential election year where voter turnout is likely to be high.

It’s unlikely that the Senate will change hands unless Democrats can win in states like Illinois, Pennsylvania and Missouri that are more favorable terrain for their party.

“There are only so many permutations and combinations to wining the majority back,” O’Connell said.

Of the three announced candidates, Duckworth, who lost both legs in 2004 when the Black Hawk helicopter she was piloting was struck by a rocket-propelled grenade, is perhaps the best known and has the best shot of winning.

Kirk, himself a former Navy commander, is viewed as one of the most vulnerable Senate incumbents in the country, and Democrats are eager to take back his seat, which was once occupied by Obama.

Kander, who served as an Army intelligence officer at U.S. Central Command’s Intelligence Division before volunteering to go to Afghanistan in 2006, faces more of an uphill climb as he tries to unseat Roy Blunt (R-Mo.), the Senate GOP’s conference vice chairman.

But Kander, 33, has already received the backing of all the Democratic statewide elected officials in Missouri and the support of the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee.

Democrats have labored in recent presidential cycles to move the reddish Show Me State into the blue column, and are likely to make another all-out effort in 2016, something that could buoy Kander’s chances.

“We want the tip of the spear to be Jason Kander’s race,” said Soltz, whose organization has endorsed and donated money to all three candidates. “If that race is really close, that means we got a real good shot to expand that map” and start “really playing offense.”

Sestak represents a potential wildcard as he seeks a rematch against Sen. Pat Toomey (R-Pa.).

The retired Navy admiral and former congressman, who narrowly lost to Toomey in the 2010 Republican wave, is trying to mend fences with party leaders still chafing over his primary challenge of party-switching Arlen Specter that same year.

Stoltz said that Sestak might not be “as solidified institutionally as the other two, but I don’t see anyone who can beat him in the primary, to be honest.”

He predicted that the trio of Democrats will “play out the narrative of public service against politicians.”

O’Connell said that possessing a military background “looks good on the outside” but warned their Republican opponents “are going to play their cards wisely on the campaign trail.”

Democrats will have to “keep the car between the two white lines and not veer of into a ditch where the Republicans can pound them into the dirt,” he said.

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