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Why Democrats Fall So Hard for Military Candidates

Democrats anxious about the white working-class vote found fresh hope last week in the gangbusters campaign launch of an otherwise unknown former fighter pilot named Amy McGrath. In a viral video announcing her U.S. House campaign, McGrath, clad in a bomber jacket, directs a steely stare at the camera and tells a powerful story: As a young girl, she tried to change the law barring women from combat by writing to her representatives in Washington, only to be snubbed by her U.S. senator, Mitch McConnell. Yet she persevered, and “flew 89 combat missions bombing Al Qaeda and the Taliban.”

The video quickly became a sensation, already scoring 1 million YouTube views—three times the number of people who voted in the last election in Kentucky’s 6th District, where she plans to run. In 36 hours of the video release, McGrath raised nearly $200,000 in online donations.

It’s not hard to understand why Democrats are sending the video around, and sending checks in her direction: 45 years after George McGovern’s bust of an anti-war campaign, 37 years after President Jimmy Carter’s ill-fated hostage rescue mission and almost three decades since Michael Dukakis thought it was a good idea to take a tank ride, Democrats still believe they have to prove they’re not a bunch of national security softies. Republicans have colonized the “guns and guts” vote so thoroughly that they’ve started to see every tough-talking Democrat who comes along as the next savior of the party. Before McGrath, the working-class hero du jour was Randy Bryce, or “Ironstache,” the Wisconsin Army vet and House candidate whose introductory video melted Democratic hearts as he skewered Speaker Paul Ryan’s attempt to repeal Obamacare. He raised serious coin, too: $430,000 from 16,000 donors in about two weeks. And some Democrats already are fanning a crush on Iraq War vet Seth Moulton to top the presidential ticket in 2020, even though he’s not yet 40 years old and has only won two elections on the Massachusetts North Shore.

It all makes sense on paper. There’s just one problem. Ever since the Iraq War, Democrats have always recruited a robust slate of military vets. And they usually lose.

It might be emotionally satisfying for Democrats to see a bad-ass veteran talk about landing fighter jets on aircraft carriers while proudly wearing the Democratic badge. But the warm feeling obscures the fact that viral videos, no matter how patriotic, don’t turn deep red districts blue. Every dollar that goes to flashy pipe dreams like McGrath or Bryce is a dollar that doesn’t go to the dozens of dull candidates with a plausible shot at flipping a seat. (And, yes, most people who win House races are dull. Turn on C-Span for five minutes if you don’t believe me.)

It’s not just McGrath or Bryce. Democrats are betting heavily on military veterans to break through what political polarization and gerrymandered districts have done to their seat share in Congress, and particularly the House of Representatives, where they are down to 201 seats, versus 234 Republican ones. The New York Times reported last month that “Democratic Party leaders are aggressively seeking former members of the military” to flip Trump districts, both because they represent a challenge to career politicians, and because they take the security-toughness card away from Republicans. About 20 Democratic veterans have announced challenges in Republican House districts, with more expected before summer is out.

There’s no inherent problem with Democratic candidates who are veterans. But it’s a lazy assumption that red turf can be easily poached by a candidate who can stir some feel-good patriotism and bring a healthy dose of swagger from the “real America.” If you’re a Democrat, sharing a video of a McGrath or a Bryce affirms to your social media networks that your party isn’t made up of precious snowflakes. Donating might seem like a chance to support that vision of the party—full-throated, muscular, ready to fire the jets for 2018. (“This is the Kind of Ad that Keeps Paul Ryan Up at Night,” crowed Mother Jones, about McGrath’s video.) But the question that matters is how to identify and prioritize winnable seats. The quest for vets threatens to turn the party into a bunch of deluded Don Quixotes, chasing after districts far out of Democratic reach.

Democratic fascination with veterans as a congressional strategy began in 2006, when public frustration with the Iraq War was peaking. Forty-nine general election House candidates were branded as “Fighting Dems.” Only five won, four of whom took Republican-held seats. But putting veterans up front gave Democrats extra credibility when criticizing the war.

Since then, Democratic House strategists, and willing Democratic primary voters, have continued to lean on veterans, even though their batting average has only gotten worse. According to data provided by the Veterans Campaign and Military Times congressional reporter Leo Shane III, Democrats nominated 43 veterans for House races in 2016 and 54 in 2014. Each time, only three veterans won, and all succeeded fellow Democrats. No Democratic military veteran has defeated an incumbent House Republican since 2012, when Tammy Duckworth of Illinois took out the vitriolic Joe Walsh, who publicly complained that Duckworth talked about her service too much. (She also defeated an incumbent Senate Republican last November.)

Before Duckworth, four Democratic vets took Republican-held seats in the 2008 election, but that was hardly a model class. Two of the four were defeated in their 2010 reelection bids, and a third resigned after charges of groping and sexual harassment. Today, there are only 18 veterans in the House Democratic caucus, eight of whom were first elected in 2006 or thereafter.

To be fair, a poor electoral track record is no reason for Democrats to give up on military veteran candidates. Those who served bring valuable experience and perspective to a governmental body that funds our armed services and plays a major role in national security policy. And swiping a district across gerrymandered lines is an exceedingly difficult task, regardless of a candidate’s biography. Just because many veterans fall short doesn’t mean lawyers, business owners or local legislators would offer better odds.

But candidates with compelling bios and polished videos do create a “shiny object” problem at the national level, distracting Democratic attention from bigger problems with the party’s messaging and connection to working-class voters, and from the races that provide the most plausible path to the speakership.

Democrats need to flip 24 seats to take control of the House. According to the Cook Political Report as of late July, there are 52 Republican-held seats that are competitive, and that’s under a generous definition of “competitive,” including 23 seats deemed “likely” to remain in Republican hands. Kentucky’ 6th District, where McGrath is running, doesn’t make the cut—the incumbent, Rep. Andy Barr, has won the seat by about 20 points in the past two elections, and both Donald Trump and Mitt Romney won the district by double digits. The only way McGrath wins in a district like that is if the bottom completely falls out from under the GOP. A fighter jet video is not going to tip the district over.

Nor, by the way, does Wisconsin’s first congressional district, where Bryce is challenging Speaker Ryan, make the competitive list. The district’s pinkish hue— Obama snatched it in 2008, though Trump notched a double-digit win here in 2016—has always given Democrats false hope that Ryan was vulnerable. But he’s never had a close race, and he’s run 10 times.

No doubt Bryce shows promise (though his three previous electoral defeats for local offices in the past five years dampens expectations), as does McGrath. And politics is not always easily gamed. Just because a race is not classified as competitive today does not mean it won’t be tomorrow. But should Democratic small donors plow resources into a couple of massive long shots on the basis of slick videos that tell us little about the candidates beyond a thumbnail biography?

Democrats have already felt the pinch in their pocketbook this year, after Jon Ossoff, the Democratic nominee in Georgia’s 6th District in June, proved to be the political equivalent of an investment bubble. The week after he scored a Daily Kos endorsement in January, Ossoff took in $400,000, an initial pace similar to McGrath and Bryce. With few other races competing for attention, and offering the tantalizing possibility of delivering Trump a blow in the Republican Deep South, Ossoff eventually raked in a record-breaking $23.6 million, not counting money from outside organizations.

In retrospect, the Ossoff campaign was not the best vehicle for Democratic financial resources. But today’s impulsive click-driven small donor armies absorb lessons about as well as a toddler. Much like amateur stock market day traders looking to get rich quick, they want to bet on feel-good prospects, and are easily sold by fancy presentations. Moreover, many progressives have soured on the Democratic Party establishment. They are not inclined to make the safe investment in party infrastructure, such as the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, which—because it is built for immediate wins and not grandiose long-term 50-state strategies—tends not to get overextended on sparkly long shots.

There’s little about being a veteran that makes it easier to speak on the bread and butter issues that matter in elections, a lesson Democrats learned the hard way in 2004—when former NATO Supreme Allied Commander Wesley Clark flamed out as a primary candidate, and then another military veteran, Sen. John Kerry, lost in the general election to a guy who’d avoided the Vietnam War, but was far more plainspoken. Weakness with the white working class certainly hampers the Democrats’ ability to take advantage of Trump’s abysmal job approval and Congress’ meager legislative output. But to solve that problem, Democrats can’t simply call in the cavalry, no matter how many times they try.

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