Senate Candidates Dress to Highlight Their Military Experience

 ·  Laura Meckler, Wall Street Journal   ·   Link to Article

WASHINGTON—What's the dress code for a Senate candidate? In many states this year, it includes military fatigues.

At least five candidates in close Senate races are playing up their military service, running TV and online ads that include photos of them in uniform. The ads serve the general purpose of introducing the candidates to the public, but they may take on an additional resonance at a time of heightened terrorism fears and global instability.

"Radical Islamic terrorists are seeking to cause the collapse of our country," Republican Scott Brown of New Hampshire says in a TV spot released last week, the most explicit in linking military service to the fight against terrorism. As the ad lingers on a photo from Mr. Brown's service in the Army National Guard, he promises to "keep out the people who would do us harm.''

At least four other Senate contenders have appeared in uniform in spots run by their campaigns or its allies: Republicans Tom Cotton of Arkansas, Dan Sullivan of Alaska and Joni Ernst of Iowa, as well as Democrat Gary Peters of Michigan. Democratic Sen. Jack Reed of Rhode Island, who is considered to be on a safe path to re-election, is also running an ad reflecting his military service.

A screen grab from a Gary Peters campaign ad in Michigan on YouTube. Peters for Michigan, via YouTube

Mrs. Ernst has made an appeal to veterans a central part of her campaign. She took a two-week break from campaigning this summer for active duty with the Iowa Army National Guard, and her first event after that was an appearance with former service members to talk about veterans' health care and related matters.

Mr. Peters, the Democratic Senate nominee in Michigan, released an ad this month that highlights his service as a way of promising he would think carefully before committing U.S. forces to conflict.

"The decision to put men and women in harm's way is one of the toughest ones you can make. And I will always think of the people I served with," he says.

The military is one of the nation's most respected institutions, so candidates with ties to the armed services have long sought to capitalize on them. Several of this year's candidates began talking about their service months ago.

"It makes you look less political. It makes you look like a public servant," said Jon Soltz, an Iraq war veteran and chairman of VoteVets.org, which endorses mostly Democrats for office.

Military service may carry even more weight with voters after the recent beheadings of Westerners by Islamic State and the U.S. strikes against the militant group. Service "may mean something new for the viewers and voters, because they are feeling less safe today than they were a few weeks ago," said Elizabeth Wilner, who tracks political advertising as vice president of Kantar Media Ad Intelligence.

A screen grab from a campaign ad for Iowa candidate Joni Ernst on YouTube. Joni Ernst for U.S. Senate, Inc., via YouTube

In Alaska, Mr. Sullivan has another purpose for emphasizing his Marine Corps service. It is in part his response to criticism that he lived outside Alaska from 2002 to 2009—years that he was overseas with the Marines and then working for the Bush administration in Washington.

In a recent TV ad, his wife defends his absence this way: "After 9/11, my family left our home in Alaska so my husband, Dan Sullivan, could defend our country."

Ads supporting Mr. Cotton, running for Senate in Arkansas, make more of his military background than they do of his current job as a Republican member of the House of Representatives.

"Tom Cotton has always served our country with honor, integrity and character. It is something Washington can use a little more of," says the announcer in an ad by the Government Integrity Fund Action Network. The spot includes seven photos of Mr. Cotton in uniform.

Polling and demographic data suggest campaigning on issues such as terrorism and the threat posed by Islamic State may be effective, particularly with rural voters. Iowa, Arkansas, Alaska and New Hampshire are all more rural than the average state.

A Wall Street Journal analysis of a September poll from the Pew Research Center found that more than 80% of those who live in rural locations consider terrorism to be a "very important" issue in 2014. By comparison, 69% in urban areas see terrorism as a "very important'' issue.

Alaska, Arkansas, Iowa and New Hampshire, as well as Michigan, all have larger-than-average veteran populations. Nationally about 9% of Americans over the age of 18 are veterans. In Alaska the figure is 13%, while veterans make up about 11% of the adult population in Arkansas and New Hampshire.

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