VoteVets gets into the 2016 race early

 ·  Martin Matishak, The Hill   ·   Link to Article

The progressive group VoteVets is promising to play in 2016 Democratic primaries in an effort to put more veterans in Congress. 

The advocacy group has weighed in early this election cycle — already endorsing Democrats in three pivotal Senate races and a House contest — to level the playing field and give candidates who have served in the military the best shot possible at federal office.

“If we have a vehicle that we can dominate Democratic primaries with, that’s what we’re going to do,” Jon Soltz, the group’s co-founder, told The Hill on Monday.

The two-tour Iraq War veteran said that in 2006 and 2008, his group played along with the Democratic Party’s “red to blue” strategy, particularly in House races — electing veterans like Patrick Murphy in Pennsylvania and John Boccieri in Ohio. But now “they’re gone” after GOP waves in swing seats. 

“If we’re going to help get veterans elected, then where are we the biggest elephant in the room? It’s usually in Democratic primaries in safe seats,” Soltz said. “I’m not so much playing the red to blue game as much as I’m playing the let me put veterans in Congress game.”

There certainly is precedent for VoteVets — which claims 450,000 members and spent roughly $8 million on the 2014 primaries — stirring up races before the general election.

In last year’s midterms, the Democratic organization went big for Seth Moulton in Massachusetts, Mark Takai in Hawaii and Ted Lieu in California — all of whom won their primaries and went on to victory in November. The group also put some heft behind Ruben Gallego in Arizona.

But VoteVets wasn’t as successful on the Senate side, where the group poured millions into races in states like Alaska, Iowa and Arkansas only to see Democrats lose in a good year for the GOP. 

Ultimately, Soltz said his group’s influence can be felt more in smaller races than in statewide contests. 

“We will never dominate a Senate race,” Soltz admitted, “because nobody really dominates a Senate race.”

Still, that could change in 2016, as more veterans put their names on the ballot.

VoteVets has already endorsed the Senate bids of Illinois Rep. Tammy Duckworth, Missouri Secretary of State Jason Kander and former Pennsylvania Rep. Joe Sestak, giving each the maximum contribution of $5,000 in the first quarter of the year.

The group has already helped Duckworth, who lost both her legs when her helicopter was shot down over Iraq, raising $12,000 for her challenge to centrist Sen. Mark Kirk (R-Ill.). VoteVets raised around $90,000 for her 2012 House race and expects to double that figure in 2016.

But Soltz said he wasn’t sure VoteVets would spend on Kander’s steeper uphill bid to unseat Sen. Roy Blunt (R-Mo.), adding, “if we can make that play, it means Democrats have a really good shot to take back the Senate.”

VoteVets spent $800,000 on Sestak’s behalf to help him defeat party-switching Sen. Arlen Specter in the 2010 Democratic primary. He will need the group’s network again to win a rematch with Sen. Pat Toomey (R-Pa.).

Soltz brushed off concerns that Sestak had burned bridges with Democrats during that insurgent bid.

“I just think that he does things the way he wants sometimes. He’s an admiral, and he runs things like an admiral, and that doesn’t always fit with politics,” he told The Hill. “They should just find a way to work together and let’s get on.”

For 2016, the group has also backed former Maryland Lt. Gov. Anthony Brown as he pursues the House seat being vacated by Rep. Donna Edwards (D).

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