Thursday, March 30, 2006

Veterans Finding the Going Rough on the Campaign Trail

By Stuart Rothenberg

We’ve only just begun the primary season, but already there are strong signs that the Democrats’ strategy of recruiting veterans who served in Iraq is a bust.

That’s the unavoidable conclusion that I have come to even after reading the recent press release from the Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America Political Action Committee (IAVA PAC), which crowed about Congressional candidate Tammy Duckworth’s March 21 primary victory in Illinois’ 6th district.

Duckworth did win the Democratic primary, but she did so unimpressively. Her victory had to be a relief to the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, but can’t be seen as anything but a mild embarrassment for the committee.

Duckworth defeated 2004 nominee Christine Cegelos (D) by just three points, 44 percent to 41 percent, even though the Iraq veteran was endorsed by both of the state’s United States senators, raised over $200,000 more than her opponent, received more national media attention than any House candidate in the country and was the personal project of DCCC chairman Rahm Emanuel.

Duckworth, who was endorsed by both of Chicago’s big newspapers, EMILY’s List and the state AFL-CIO, even ran a TV ad including an endorsement by superstar Senator Barack Obama (D-Ill.). All of that got her 44 percent of the vote.

But Duckworth’s showing isn’t the only reason to declare the “Iraq veteran” candidate recruitment strategy a failure. There is more compelling evidence.

Two Iraq veterans have already exited their races, apparently shown the door by Democratic insiders.

The Democratic Senate Campaign Committee turned its back on Paul Hackett in the Ohio Senate race (even though party insiders had gone to great lengths to woo Hackett into the Senate contest), while the DCCC seemed relieved when David Ashe dropped out of the race in Virginia’s 2nd district.

In each case, the responsible Democratic campaign committee turned to an experienced, incumbent officeholder – Rep. Sherrod Brown in Ohio and Virginia Beach Commissioner of the Revenue Phil Kellam in Virginia – rather than a never-elected veteran to run for office.

Ashe, who was deployed to Iraq in 2003, the year before he drew 44 percent against Republican Thelma Drake in an open seat House race, never stopped running after his defeat, and Democratic insiders cited him early on as an Iraq veteran who would be a strong contender in ’06.

But early in ’06, newly-elected Governor Tim Kaine (D) offered Ashe a job in his administration, as director of Business Assistance, and Ashe dropped his Congressional bid and grabbed the job.

You have to believe in both the Easter Bunny and the Tooth Fairy to believe that Kaine’s offer was purely coincidental and that DCCC chairman Rahm Emanuel had nothing to do with the series of events that got Ashe out of the race. I don’t.

Then there is the strange case of Tim Dunn, a colonel in the U.S. Marine Corps Reserve and veteran of Iraq.

Dunn became the favorite for the Democratic nomination in North Carolina’s 8th Congressional district almost by default, because Democrats couldn’t find a political heavyweight to take on incumbent Republican Rep. Robin Hayes.

But less than a week after the Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America PAC listed Dunn as one of its first seven endorsements, he dropped out of the race, citing family financial obligations. The Iraq veteran had raised less than $100,000 through December.

Other Iraq War veterans being hyped by IAVA PAC also seem headed for political oblivion in November. David Harris (D) is challenging Rep. Joe Barton in a Texas district that gave two-thirds of its vote to President Bush last year and is safely Republican. Harris will lose.

The same fate faces Andrew Duck (D), who has no chance against veteran conservative Rep. Roscoe Bartlett (R-Md.) in a very Republican district in northwest Maryland. Politically, the challenger is a dead Duck.

Andrew Horne (D), a 27-year veteran of the Marines, is taking on Anne Northup (R), but faces a primary and the only reason he has a chance of facing Northup is that party strategists couldn’t recruit a proven vote getter with established fund raising skills.

In district after district, Democratic insiders preferred to recruit established political figures who already demonstrated that they could run effective campaigns, raise money and appeal to voters. Only when they couldn’t did they turn to Iraq War veterans.

After all of these arguments, maybe you think that I don’t believe that any of these veterans can win. If you think that, you are wrong.

Duckworth could win, and lightening could strike one of the other districts where Iraqi veterans running this year. But if they win, it will be because they are the Democratic nominees in a year when a Democratic wave sweeps across the country, not because of their status as Iraqi veterans. This year, it is far better to be a Democratic nominee in a competitive district than an Iraq War veteran running anywhere.

Finally, the national media once again deserves plenty of criticism on the way it has covered the candidacies of Iraq veterans. Too many journalists (some of them from as far away as France and Japan) jumped on the story – how those reporters and television producers love “telling a story” – without considering whether the Democratic spin was true.

This column first appeared on Town Hall on March 27, 2006.