Four American F-15 pilots in Alaska.
For Gina Ortiz Jones, the military was more than just a career: it was a path to the American Dream. “I know what it’s like to be on free and reduced lunch. I know what it’s like to live in subsidized housing,” Ortiz Jones said in an interview with the HPR. Ortiz Jones won an ROTC scholarship to study at Boston University; after graduation, she served a total of more than 15 years in the U.S. Air Force and the national security sector.
Now, Ortiz Jones sees the opportunities that enabled her success story being challenged by the Republican Congress and Trump administration. From attempts to repeal Obamacare to budget cuts, she sees a government eager to leave behind some of the country’s most vulnerable populations. She’s running for the congressional seat in Texas’s 23rd District to fight back. Ortiz Jones isn’t alone; from New Jersey to Pennsylvania to Kentucky, former servicewomen are vying to become Democratic standard-bearers in what are expected to be some of the most closely contested midterm elections. While these women come from very different districts, they share a common reason for running: to give a wake-up call to an out-of-touch Congress and reckless president. Between their strong personal narratives, policy knowledge, and persistence on the campaign trail, these women may prove crucial in the partisan battle for congressional control. If these women are successful, the Democrats will have a strong chance to retake the House in 2018.
Hard Fought and Hard Won
Only four female veterans currently serve in Congress—two in the Senate and two in the House. But with six female veterans launching serious campaigns against Republican incumbents, that number could more than double in 2018.
The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee is recruiting female veterans as a part of a larger effort to encourage progressive veterans to run for office. Veteran recruitment was a key prong in the Democrats’ strategy in 2006, when they picked up 31 seats in the House. It was the first time they controlled the chamber since 1994. The Democrats seek to ‘reclaim the flag’ from the Republican Party, which has recently been seen as more patriotic. Groups like VoteVets and Rep. Seth Moulton’s (D – Mass.) Serve America PAC have actively supported progressive veteran candidates through endorsements and fundraising efforts.
The influx of servicewomen running for office comes at a time of dwindling military representation in Congress: currently, veterans compose 18 percent of the total membership, down from a peak of 73 percent in 1971. Calls for female representation at all levels of government are also gaining in potency.
With Americans’ concerns about North Korea and terrorism growing, these candidates are putting their national security expertise at the center of their campaigns. In an interview with NBC News, Air Force veteran Chrissy Houlahan said, “It’s not necessarily the skills that one gains in the military, but the perspective as an active-duty servicemember.” Houlahan is running for Pennsylvania’s 6th District in suburban Philadelphia.
For Ortiz Jones, representation is one of the key pillars of her candidacy. “When I worked for five-and-a-half months under [the Trump] Administration in the Executive Office of the President, I saw firsthand how his policies would affect my communities: as a woman, as a veteran, as an LGBT American, and as a first generation American,” she said. She believes these communities were being left behind, so she decided to run Congress, where she could act as a legislative check on the White House.
Still, past campaigns by female veterans have showed that they are not immune to the challenges other women face while running for office. In 2012, Tammy Duckworth (D – Ill.) ran a successful campaign to unseat Republican Rep. Joe Walsh. Ahead of their televised debate, Walsh said the only thing Duckworth would be debating was what outfit to wear. Duckworth, a former Blackhawk helicopter pilot who lost both of her legs and nearly an arm in Iraq, blasted the remark as sexist, and fired back in the debate, saying “Yes, sometimes I do look at the clothes that I wear. But for most of my adult life, I’ve worn one color—it’s called camouflage.” In 2016, Duckworth won a promotion to the Senate, and is now one of two female veterans in the upper chamber.
Marshalling the Resistance
The women veterans running for the House this cycle have been unabashed in their criticism of the president. Questioning both his policies and his fitness for the job, many have lambasted Trump for compromising the dignity of his office. Mikie Sherrill, a former U.S. Navy helicopter pilot running in New Jersey’s 11th District, took a veiled swipe at Trump in her opening campaign ad. She referenced his infamous response to the Charlottesville white supremacist rally, in which he said “both sides” were responsible for the outbreak of violence. Sherrill recounts her grandfather’s fight for survival after his bomber plane was shot down in World War II, saying, “For my grandfather it was never blame on both sides. The Nazis were in the wrong, period.”
Many of the former servicewomen further condemned the president following his Twitter announcement that he would ban transgender people from serving in the military. For Ortiz Jones, a gay woman who served under “don’t ask, don’t tell,” Trump’s animosity toward transgender members of the military is alarming. “It’s disheartening on so many levels,” she told the HPR. “You would have thought we were beyond that. We’ve already studied this. It is in our national interest to let these men and women serve.”
Healthcare has been another marquee issue, often providing compelling lines of attack against Republican incumbents. Navy vet Pam Keith decided to challenge freshman representative Brian Mast (R – Fla.) after he voted in favor of the American Health Care Act, the unpopular bill that would have repealed Obamacare. “When his constituents were begging to talk to him and tell him why the vote to repeal Obamacare was a horrible idea, he wasn’t even willing to listen to them,” Keith said while announcing the formation of an exploratory committee for a run for Florida’s 18th District.
Healthcare is about more than just politics for these candidates. When Ortiz Jones’ mother was diagnosed with colon cancer, she described her decision to leave the Air Force to take care of her as an easy one—“you have many jobs during your life, but you only have one mom.” Ortiz Jones, who criticized Republican incumbent Will Hurd for waffling on the AHCA before ultimately voting against it, sees an eventual issue in terms of military readiness if the United States fails to provide affordable healthcare to its citizens. “There is a national security aspect when not enough kids are healthy enough to grow up and serve our country.” With the Democrats hoping to make 2018 a referendum on the GOP’s bungled handling of healthcare, such criticisms may prove potent on the campaign trail.
Don’t Count Out an Underdog
While female veteran candidates are certainly generating buzz in the early stages of the campaign cycle, they still face a series of challenges going forward. A burst of grassroots energy in response to Trump’s election may crowd the Democratic primaries, preventing candidates from being able to ‘save their fire’ for the general election.
While fundraising poses another challenge to many of these first-time candidates, they have used their moving personal stories to solicit small-dollar donations from all across the country. Often employing grassroots fundraising tools like ActBlue, these women have kept close pace with their rivals’ fundraising, with some even out-raising the incumbents.
Former Marine Lt. Col. Amy McGrath is seen as one of the top recruits for the Democrats heading into 2018. McGrath was a particularly strong performer in third-quarter fundraising, doubling the total funds of incumbent Andy Barr in Kentucky’s 6th District. McGrath’s name was vaulted into prominence by her viral opening campaign ad. In the ad, she describes her journey to becoming the first female Marine to pilot an FA-18 fighter jet in combat. McGrath flew 89 missions bombing al-Qaeda and the Taliban during her time in the U.S. Marine Corps. In Texas’s 31st District, M.J. Hegar, who served three tours in Afghanistan as an Air Force search and rescue pilot, raised the least in the third quarter; however, she closely trailed her opponent, who has served for eight terms. Hegar, a Purple Heart recipient, received plaudits in 2017 for her book Shoot Like a Girl, an account of her time in Afghanistan.
But these six candidates face deep challenges in their red-leaning districts. Trump prevailed over Clinton in four of these districts in the 2016 election, and five of the six incumbent representatives won elections by double-digit margins. Notably, however, Trump underperformed in comparison to the Republican house candidates in each of these six districts. Democratic strategists are hoping that this indicates a pool of “Trump-skeptic” voters that may be willing to support Democratic candidates like McGrath and Hegar.
A Path to Victory
While these women face a long road ahead, they represent a burst of enthusiasm from a group that was formerly scarce in the political world. With strong fundraising and inspiring backstories, the slate of female veterans running on the Democratic side of the aisle may represent model candidates for the party: political outsiders with national security credentials that appeal to many constituencies.
Come 2018, these women may make the leap from leaders in the armed forces to leaders in Congress. They’re promising to not hold anything back: “You have to have the moral courage to say when the emperor doesn’t have any clothes,” said Ortiz Jones. If their prowess on the campaign trail is any indicator, female veterans may be uniquely qualified to do so.
Image credit: Keith Brown/Wikimedia Commons