The Nation's Pulse

Those Fightin’ Dems

Veterans running on the donkey ticket won't live up to the hype they've enjoyed.

By 11.6.06

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Only five or six of the dozens of military veterans running for Congress on the Democratic ticket today will win their House and Senate races, and maybe fewer. That will be quite ironic, after the drumbeat over Democratic military-vet candidates this year -- especially considering the generally favorable electoral environment. But for things to turn out any differently, the leading election prognosticators would need to be wrong, as would the leading pollsters, as would just about everyone except the Democratic activists, bloggers, and pushers who began touting these candidates in the first place.

These "Fighting Dems" were supposed to help turn the tables on the GOP with their national-security credentials. That, in any event, was the emerging storyline this year -- a nice one for Democrats looking to overcome the party's perception problem on national security. This election still looks very favorable for the Democratic Party, of course, which augurs well for their preferences on Iraq. It's also true that even one or two decorated Democratic veterans could figure hugely in the 110th Congress as spokesmen for the un-Bush view on national security. But the vaunted "Fighting Dems" could fizzle to as few as two people by tomorrow morning.

Going into today's elections, only nine Democratic military vets are rated as competitive by the Cook Political Report, Larry Sabato's Crystal Ball, and the Evans-Novak Political Report. Among these nine, two look strong, two are tossups, and the rest are trailing. More than half are down in the latest polls. Perhaps most revealingly, the two favored to win also happen to be the beneficiaries of scandals which had everything to do with the legal troubles and ethical transgressions of incumbents.

The likely winners:

Joe Sestak and Chris Carney, both of Pennsylvania. Lucky Pennsylvania Democratic vets Joe Sestak and Chris Carney are favored to unseat Republicans Don Sherwood and Curt Weldon because of separate scandals which reshaped their election bids a few weeks ago.

Sestak, a retired Navy vice admiral and Clinton administration NSC staffer, pushed ahead of Weldon after the FBI raided Weldon's daughter's office in connection with an investigation into alleged lobbying abuses. Now he is ahead by several points. The holder of a Ph.D. from Harvard who has strong connections to Democratic Party elites, Sestak wants a withdrawal from Iraq by the end of 2007.

Carney, a professor of political science and Navy reservist who worked at the Pentagon after Sept. 11, 2001, in intelligence and counterterrorism, surged ahead of Republican Don Sherwood after allegations that the latter tried to strangle his mistress started drawing attention a few weeks ago. Sherwood's socially conservative district isn't likely to send an alleged mistress-strangler back to Washington.

The tossups:

Former Reagan Navy Secretary James Webb, polling neck-and-neck with Virginia Sen. George Allen, wouldn't be competitive without macaca-gate and the ensuing controversies over Allen's Jewish ancestry and alleged use of the n-word. Not that he wasn't an attractive candidate already; he certainly is. Look for Democrats to keep Webb in their orbit even if he loses; he seems an obvious choice for Secretary of Defense in a hypothetical Hillary Clinton or Barack Obama administration.

Tammy Duckworth is running neck-and-neck with Republican Peter Roskam in Illinois after heavy investment from the top ranks of the Democratic Party in her bid to fill the seat of the retiring Republican Henry Hyde. This double-amputee Iraq veteran suffered nearly fatal injuries in Iraq when her helicopter was hit by an RPG; DCCC chair Rahm Emanuel and other top Democrats have adroitly adopted her as a cudgel with which to hit President Bush on Iraq. Duckworth and Roskam are running neck-and-neck; turnout will determine this one.

Ken Lucas, about the last name one hears among "Fighting Dems," would be among the most conservative Democrats in the House again if elected (he held this seat from 1998 to 2004). He could clearly pick up this Kentucky seat again, although the handicappers are currently calling it "Leans Republican."

The likely losses:

Patrick Murphy in Pennsylvania, Eric Massa in New York, Tim Walz in Minnesota, and Jack Davis in New York.

Iraq veteran Patrick Murphy is aiming to take one of the GOP's beleaguered suburban Philadelphia districts, but incumbent Mike Fitzgerald isn't tarred by scandal like his neighbors. Fitzpatrick is up 5 to 8 points in the most recent nonpartisan polls and can probably ride incumbency and his district roots to victory. This seat will only go in the event of a "wave" of proportions, which look unlikely at this point.

Eric Massa, one of the most relentlessly pumped "Fighting Dems," needs to overcome an incumbent in a district that voted 56-42 in favor of President Bush in 2004. In a wave election this seat also could go, but in that case just about every prognosticator would have botched this race. Advantage goes to Randy Kuhl, who seems to have weathered ugly allegations of alcoholism and threatening behavior toward his ex-wife, both of which emerged in 2004.

Tim Walz, a teacher and National Guardsman activated for Operation Enduring Freedom, has also gotten plenty of media attention and campaigning from high levels of the party, but is still down in the polls against Republican Gil Gutknecht. The speculation had been that Gutknecht would suffer from Iraq and other incumbent woes in a district which President Bush won by a slim 51-47 margin in 2004, but not much hard evidence has surfaced publicly to confirm that. Advantage Gutknecht, if only slightly.

Speculation that entrepreneur and former Marine Corps reservist Jack Davis in New York could win began mounting last month, but only because his opponent is Tom Reynolds, who some thought would be torpedoed by Foleygate. Reynolds has rebounded and has been shifted by most election-watchers back into the "Leans Republican" field.

FIGURING THAT FAVORITES Sestak and Carney win, that two of the three tossups Webb, Duckworth, and Lucas win and that one of the "Leans Republican" seats falls to Democrats, that would mean six new Democratic military vets in the House. That's not nothing. But there are already 40 Democratic military veterans in the House (as compared to 69 Republicans). In a time of war, a time when military resumes are clearly an asset for Democrats, and after a campaign season of "Democratic vets take on Republican civilians" hype, it's a small increase.

For a sense of what a real recent "veteran's offensive" looks like, consider the Republican class of 1994, when the GOP actively recruited military vets as part of that year's assault on Democratic congressional control. Counting governors, 34 military veterans on the GOP ticket were elected that year, including two Gulf War vets and future party stars like George W. Bush, Tom Ridge, Tom Davis, and Lindsay Graham. Of course, the media didn't tout this "offensive" to anywhere near the extent it did this year's Democrats.

Theoretically, the Democrats could end up with something to mirror that class of veterans today. But only if just about every election observer has called things poorly.

Why were these candidates touted so relentlessly? A few possibilities: It made great sense for Democrats seeking to look better on national security to tout a rising generation of military men in their ranks. It also made sense for the media, which sensed a counterintuitive trend. It made sense that a protracted and unpopular war might provoke some echo of the backlash against Vietnam, even discounting for the mitigating effect of the all-volunteer force. And it probably made sense to disaffected swing voters who are displeased with the war and Republicans but are scared off by people like Al Gore and Howard Dean.

Late tonight or tomorrow we'll know for certain whether the wave of "Fightin' Dems" this year was mostly hype, which, at this point, certainly feels like the case.

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About the Author

Brendan Conway is an editorial writer at the Washington Times and a 2006 journalism fellow at the Phillips Foundation.