Well-funded vets groups prepare for 2016 battle

 ·  Austin Wright, Politico   ·   Link to Article

When VoteVets, the group that helps elect Democratic veterans to Congress, squares off against Concerned Veterans for America, which runs attack ads against vulnerable Democrats, it will be a contest between two of the nation’s brand names among billionaire political activists: Tom Steyer and the Koch brothers.

VoteVets doesn’t disclose its donors, but Federal Election Commission records reviewed by POLITICO show it’s received as much as $890,000 from the NextGen Climate Action Committee backed by Steyer, the left-wing environmentalist mega-donor. VoteVets has also received contributions from other environmental groups, including Al Gore’s Alliance for Climate Protection, along with the United Steelworkers labor union and other big-money outfits that largely support Democrats, according to the Center for Responsive Politics.

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Concerned Veterans is bankrolled by the political network run by right-wing billionaire activists Charles and David Koch, according to an investigationby The Washington Post.

The effectiveness of the two groups, which are increasingly important to their respective parties in promoting national-security strategy, is a testament to the ability of military issues to sway public opinion — and the willingness of mega-donors on both sides to pour money into causes that tap into that power.

But the fact that billionaires can so successfully harness the credibility of those who’ve fought in wars doesn’t sit well with some veterans advocates.

Paul Rieckhoff, founder and CEO of Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America, expressed deep misgivings about the veteran label being used to advance partisan agendas.

“Unfortunately, now, almost everything in our space is politicized,” said Rieckhoff, whose group is pushing to improve veteran access to health care, end the backlog of VA disability claims and reduce veteran unemployment. Rieckhoff said he was concerned that political veterans groups were being confused, especially in the news media, with nonpartisan veteran service organizations that put their advocacy for veterans above any political agenda.

Last year, Stars and Stripes columnist Tom Philpott said in an article about Concerned Veterans for America, “In my 37 years covering veterans’ issues, I have never seen veteran issues used more cynically or politicized more thoroughly than during the past several years.”

A recent meeting between VoteVets Chairman Jon Soltz and four House members he helped get elected offered a window into the largely hidden proxy war between the mega-donors on both sides of the aisle seeking to use the veteran credential to win seats in Congress.

The meeting took place on a recent evening at the Capitol Hill restaurant Bullfeathers, where Soltz and the lawmakers, all veterans, plotted how to elect more Democratic military veterans to Congress — with Soltz’s group expected to put millions into the effort.

Soltz is an Iraq War veteran who now argues — through op-eds and cable news appearances — that the United States, with few exceptions, should stop getting entangled in foreign wars.

He’s motivated in part by the scars of 2004, when he got his start in politics doing damage control for then-Democratic presidential candidate John Kerry when Kerry’s military record was being attacked by the Swift Boat Veterans for Truth.

He now fights fire with fire, using similarly ruthless tactics against anyone who stands in the way of the Democratic veterans he’s trying to get elected to Congress — even spending hundreds of thousands of dollars in primary battles against fellow Democrats.

“We study races very closely, and we know when there’s a path to victory,” Soltz said. “We tend when we go in with independent expenditures to go in with a tested message that works — that hurts the person we’re trying to hurt.”

VoteVets, for instance, spent $600,000 last year to run an ad in Massachusetts touting Rep. Seth Moulton for his military service — and blasting Moulton’s Republican opponent, Richard Tisei, for voting against a state budget proposal that sought to boost funding for veteran programs.

Moulton, who was at the table at Bullfeathers drinking a glass of water as his fellow lawmakers sipped beer and wine, said Soltz was a major reason for his victory — especially during the Democratic primary, when he came from behind to oust incumbent John Tierney.

“My pollster told me we couldn’t win,” Moulton said.

Moulton defended Soltz’s methods, saying he was “doing important work to bring veterans into Congress.”

“We live in a time when there’s never been fewer veterans in Congress in our nation’s history,” he said. “We need more people in Washington who understand the consequences of war.”

Rep. Ruben Gallego of Arizona credits VoteVets with providing him the training and resources he needed to mount a successful bid for a seat in Congress. The other two lawmakers at the Bullfeathers meeting — Reps. Mark Takai of Hawaii and Ted Lieu of California — also say VoteVets played a major role in their victories.

“Having a national organization like VoteVets support us was a huge deal,” Takai said.

The group spent $7 million to $8 million in each of the last three election cycles, Soltz explained, and is gearing up for another big cycle. At his meeting with the four House members, he listed the House candidates he plans to support in 2016: former Marine Salud Carbajal in California, Army veteran Tom Cullerton in Illinois and former Maryland Lt. Gov. Anthony Brown, an Army veteran who served in Iraq.

The big test for VoteVets, though, could be on the Senate side.

Soltz said Rep. Tammy Duckworth’s bid to take down Republican Sen. Mark Kirk in Illinois was “the No. 1 race in our history.” The group is also backing Missouri Secretary of State Jason Kander in his bid to challenge Republican Sen. Roy Blunt and is backing former Rep. Joe Sestak of Pennsylvania in his rematch against Republican Sen. Pat Toomey.

Soltz’s efforts are about more than winning elections, though.

He has advocated for liberal priorities such as renewable energy — which is also a major priority for Steyer’s fund and other environmental groups that back VoteVets. The veterans group has spent hundreds of thousands of dollars on ads touting biofuels and other alternative energy sources as a way to break “our addiction to oil,” which, the group says, benefits oil-producing countries like Iran.

“All too often,” Soltz wrote last year, “the terrorist organizations targeting our troops overseas and our citizens at home are funded by the oil profits of our enemies.”

He noted that his group has supported one Republican congressional candidate, Rep. Walter Jones of North Carolina, a leading critic of U.S. wars who faced a GOP primary challenge last year.

Retired Gen. Wesley Clark, left, stands with Veteran activist Jon Soltz, before speaking against President Bush's Iraq policy during a news conference. | AP Photo

On the other side, Concerned Veterans for America, run by Fox News contributor Pete Hegseth, is pushing for a more muscular U.S. foreign policy and is seeking to give veterans the option of government-subsidized private health care — a priority that aligns with the Koch agenda.

The legislative and political director for Concerned Veterans, Dan Caldwell, pushed back on the comparison between his group and VoteVets, saying his group doesn’t endorse candidates for office, has praised Democrats in ads and puts forward detailed policy papers on issues like improving the VA.

Concerned Veterans, though, ran ads in the run-up to last year’s midterm elections attacking vulnerable Democrats like Sen. Jeanne Shaheen of New Hampshire and then-Sen. Kay Hagan of North Carolina. The group also put up ads in support of then-Rep. Tom Cotton, the Republican Iraq war veteran who ousted Democratic Sen. Mark Pryor in Arkansas.

And the mega-donors who support the dueling missions of Concerned Veterans and VoteVets are likely to continue sending them checks to capitalize on the influence that veterans groups could have in next year’s elections.

In 2016, Soltz said, “I would expect us to spend more than we’ve ever spent before.”

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