Gizzi on Politics May 4, 2009

How Many Vets?

The most dramatic development in the 1946 mid-term elections was the Republican recapture of the House and Senate after 16 years in Democratic hands. But another change came in the percentage of House members who were veterans: Fifteen months after World War II ended, more than 70% of U.S. representatives had served in the armed forces.

Many, like freshmen Representatives John F. Kennedy (D.-Mass.) and Richard Nixon (R.-Calif.), had been elected shortly after their service in World War II. Others, such as Democratic Representatives Lyndon Johnson (Tex.) and Henry (Scoop) Jackson (Wash.), served in the armed forces while holding their congressional seats until President Franklin Roosevelt said that lawmakers could not do both at the same time.  

Still others followed the examples of Republican Representatives James Van Zandt (Pa.) and Frank Osmers (N.J.) and relinquished their seats to go into battle. Van Zandt, who had enlisted in the Navy as an apprentice seaman in World War I and was later national commander of the Veterans of Foreign Wars, resigned his seat in 1943 and was shipped out to the Pacific. Following his discharge as a captain, Van Zandt returned to the House in 1946, and served until he ran unsuccessfully for the Senate in 1962. (He continued serving as a rear admiral in the Navy reserve.) Osmers retired from the House in 1942 at age 35, saw action as a U.S. Marine, and won his old seat back in 1951.  

These days, 101 out of 435 House members are veterans, according to Congressional Quarterly. This figure includes reservists and Army and Air National Guard veterans. Much of this decrease in congressmen who have served in uniform obviously has to do with changed times. There hasn’t been a draft in 38 years and there is no world war.  
But the number of veterans in Congress is now on the upswing. In 2006, a number of veterans who ran as Democrats — Pennsylvania Representatives Joseph Setak and Patrick Murphy among them — won House seats on solidly anti-Iraq platforms. Last year, a few Republicans with military backgrounds who supported U.S. action in Iraq (notably Tom Rooney of Florida, Pete Olson of Texas, and Brett Guthrie of Kentucky) were triumphant in House races.  

With 2010 around the corner, at least two veterans running for Congress are attracting increasing interest on the right.  

Back From Fallujah And Running

Military service seemed a natural for Vaughn Ward. A high school football player in Jerome, Idaho, and Boise State graduate, he had ancestors in uniform dating back to the Civil War. So, in 1995, he joined the Marine Corps. Following his discharge, he joined the CIA and served as an operations officer in the Middle East. Ward was later reactivated as a Marine and had seven months of combat duty as a rifle company commander in Iraq.

“And that’s a big part of why I’m running for Congress next year,” Ward told me during a recent visit to Washington. “Because I got sick of hearing [House Speaker] Nancy Pelosi and [Senate Majority Leader] Harry Reid saying that ‘we’re losing in Iraq.’ We weren’t losing in Iraq and aren’t now. But that kind of talk from our leaders is just an example of how we’re losing our core values in America.”  

Now 40, a father of two, and holder of an MBA from the University of Maryland, Ward is running hard for the Republican nomination in Idaho’s 1st District (Boise). The race draws particular attention because this is the district with the highest percentage of Republican voters now held by a Democrat — Walt Minnick, who won his first term in ’08 largely because past Republican opponents had never forgiven Republican Rep. Bill Sali after he won a hard-fought, six-candidate primary in ’06.   

In his race against Sali, Minnick eschewed liberal positions and promised voters that, in Ward’s words, he “would be there for you, which is a way of saying Pelosi and the Democrats would give him a pass on bills that would be too controversial to explain at home.” Minnick did vote against the Obama stimulus package, but Ward warns that “the most important vote is for speaker and [Minnick] was for Pelosi” and predicted “He will be there when Obama and Pelosi really need him.”  

One of the problems with veterans as first-time candidates has been that, despite their noble service, many enter the political wars with no campaign experience at all. Not so Vaughn Ward, who has been a volunteer for conservative candidates since he was a teenager and was legislative assistant in the office of former Sen. (1992-98) Dirk Kempthorne (R.-Idaho). Despite having many of the same disagreements with John McCain as numerous conservatives, Ward worked in the Arizonan’s 2008 presidential campaign as the full-time campaign quarterback in Nevada. McCain, in turn, has endorsed fellow veteran Ward for Congress despite the likelihood of a competitive primary.  

Former Rep. Sali (lifetime American Conservative Union rating: 100%) has signaled he wants a rematch with Minnick next year. But while many conservatives feel sympathy for Sali because he was abandoned by so many members of his own party, they are nonetheless nervous about renominating him mainly because he carries a six-figure debt from his last outing. Other Republicans considering the race include first-term State Sen. John McGhee and former State Controller Keith Johnson (one of the runners-up to Sali in the ’06 primary).

Because of his experience in Iraq, Ward has been an in-demand speaker at Rotary and Kiwanis luncheons and meetings of the Jaycees and the American Legion. While Navy veteran Jack Kennedy said as a House candidate in 1946 that “The new generation offers a new leader,” Vaughn Ward says these days, “It’s time that my generation takes the reins.”

Zaccaria Flying High

When North Kingston (R.I.) Councilman and U.S. Air Force veteran Mark Zaccaria was the Republican nominee against Democratic Rep. James Langevin in ’08, he raised only $53,000 and drew only 30% of the vote.  

“And that was a terrible year for Republicans — just awful,” Zaccaria told me during a trip to Washington. “And with Barack Obama and [Democratic Sen.] Jack Reed leading the ticket, all the worse here.”  

But with the same zeal he demonstrated as a U.S. Air Force lieutenant during the Vietnam War, Zaccaria is back and determined to unseat four-termer Langevin (lifetime ACU rating: 18%). Asked why this campaign should be any different from the one he waged last year, the GOP hopeful explained that with an earlier start, he will have raised as much by the end of the year as he spent in the entire ’06 campaign.  

“And there is no presidential or Senate candidate at the top of the ticket,” Zaccaria added. “And this year the Republican Party here is recruiting candidates to fill out the statewide ticket. There will finally be a top-down effort next year.”  

Any discussion about James Langevin inevitably turns to the tragedy of his childhood accident with a police pistol. Langevin is a quadriplegic, the first elected to Congress and a nationally known spokesman on universal health care (which the Rhode Islander calls his top priority in politics).  

“We all have a place in our heart for Jim,” said Zaccaria, “But that doesn’t mean I can’t criticize his record, which I have done.” Zaccaria specifically cited Langevin’s support for the Obama’s near-trillion-dollar stimulus package and $3.6 trillion budget as positions “that will devastate small businesses here in Rhode Island.” The GOP hopeful also contrasts his background as a small business owner with that of career government man Langevin, who has been state legislator, secretary of state, and congressman.  

Although he mentions his career in the Air Force less often than his experience in business, Zaccaria firmly believes it is important to have veterans in Congress. As he puts it, “Maybe we wouldn’t have these severe cuts in defense and so much spending on domestic programs we don’t need if we had more congressmen who understood investing in keeping America safe.”