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Republicans turn to military veterans to help flip control of House in midterms

Republicans are looking to a diverse group of candidates with military backgrounds to win back control of the House of Representatives. (L-R) Jen Kiggans is competing in Virginia, Jeremy Hunt is running in Georgia, and Jennifer-Ruth Green just won the GOP primary in a swing district in Indiana.
Jen Kiggans for Congress; Jeremy Hunt for Congress; Jennifer-Ruth Green for Congress
Republicans are looking to a diverse group of candidates with military backgrounds to win back control of the House of Representatives. (L-R) Jen Kiggans is competing in Virginia, Jeremy Hunt is running in Georgia, and Jennifer-Ruth Green just won the GOP primary in a swing district in Indiana.

In the 1970s three of every four lawmakers in Congress had served in the U.S. military. That number is now down to about one in six. Republicans are looking to a diverse group of veterans who are candidates this cycle to change those numbers, as well as control of the House of Representatives and — potentially — the face of the party.

Jennifer-Ruth Green watched a polarized House chamber during the 2020 State of the Union address and thought her military background could help her make a difference.

But she admitted in an interview with NPR: "I honestly had zero idea about what running for Congress would look like."

She was told by fellow Republicans she had no chance to win in an Indiana district that elected Democrats for more than 90 years. But she said she wants to use her platform as a Black Air Force veteran to inspire other conservatives and told NPR she views herself as a "two-way messenger."

"And so, being an example is something that is a maybe secondary, tertiary effect that would cause other people to be interested and say, 'Yes, I can be a conservative and an African American and serve in politics,' " she said.

Green won the GOP primary to face freshman Democratic Rep. Frank Mrvan in November and now has money and endorsements from House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy's super PAC, the Congressional Leadership Fund.

She says voters are paying attention to the war in Ukraine and the U.S. role there, but there are three top issues — the border, inflation and gas prices.

Her party should focus on "providing messaging that resonates with Hispanics and African Americans, because if we do not we will lose for generations to come because we will lose people who are interested in hearing what we have to say," Green told NPR.

Seeing Democrats succeed with veteran candidates

Jen Kiggans, a state senator in Virginia, is one of four Republican candidates with military backgrounds competing in a district that contains military installations around Norfolk and Virginia Beach.

Kiggans decided to run after seeing female Democratic veterans win House seats in 2018, including a former member of her squadron, Rep. Mikie Sherrill of New Jersey, and Rep. Elaine Luria, a former Navy commander, whom she is challenging.

"I thought, well, where are the Republican women? Because we differ in our opinions on many issues," she said. "And as a conservative I felt like, where are the Republican veteran women?"

Kiggans decided to run for state Senate in 2020.

Her party fielded roughly 260 veterans for the House that year, following the success of Democratic candidates with national security backgrounds flipping red seats in 2018. Luria told NPR that the group in that midterm cycle "organically" approached running for office and it was less of an organized strategy.

According to Michael McAdams, spokesman for the House GOP's campaign committee, for the 2022 cycle 251 Republican veterans filed to run in House districts.

Virginia State Sen. Jen Kiggans, R-Virginia Beach, left, talks with Sen. Mark Obenshain, R-Rockingham, during the Senate session at the Science Museum in Richmond, Va. in Feb. 2021
Steve Helber / AP
Virginia state Sen. Jen Kiggans, left, talks with Sen. Mark Obenshain during a Senate session at the Science Museum in Richmond, Va., in February 2021.

Division and gridlock motivated Kiggans to stop yelling at the national news from her couch and run for a House seat, Kiggans told NPR. Basically, she didn't feel like she was represented. Altogether, she feels her party could do a better job and recruiting and supporting female veterans.

"It's hard to run," she said. "It's hard to run especially as a female when you're a mom and working mom, and so we do need that support."

Kiggans says the economy is her top issue but in her district, with the highest veteran population in the state, she's also talking about the U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan and what went wrong.

An advantageous time to run as a Republican

Jeremy Hunt is a West Point graduate who served in army intelligence. After five years in the military, including a deployment to Ukraine, he said the political environment made it a good time for a Republican to launch a political career.

"We felt specifically, for this seat, we knew that it's either now or never," he said. "If we're going to make a difference ... it's a year like 2022 where a lot of people are just suffering under Biden's economy with inflation, gas prices, you name it."

He said his approach to learning on the job from experts with military experience is how he approaches understanding voters, mostly farmers, in his district.

"I'm not showing up saying, 'Here's what Washington can do for you, and here's my 10-point plan,' " he said. "What I'm doing is I'm showing up and I'm listening and saying, 'Look, you've been doing this much longer than I have, tell me what what can we do to support you.' "

Hunt cites rising energy prices, concerns about illegal immigration and drugs coming across the border as what he hears about the most.

Looking beyond Trump to win swing districts

When it comes to former President Donald Trump, who is still relitigating the 2020 election in Georgia, Hunt is clear in separating himself from that message.

"We are trying to build a serious coalition to flip a key Democrat seat, we don't spend much time talking about national level stuff," he said.

Green praised Trump's policies, which she argued boosted the economy during his term, but contrasted her style.

"I want to make sure that I lead with accountability and with integrity, and my style of leadership is vastly different from his," she said. "And I want to lead in a different way."

Kiggans pivoted from questions about the former president, noting he's not on the ballot this year and saying "nothing will matter if we don't flip the U.S. House, in my opinion."

So far Trump isn't weighing in these swing district races. Hunt, who is an African American, is running against a Black Democrat who also served briefly in the Army, Sanford Bishop.

Hunt says his party needs to reach out beyond its base.

"I think the future is going to be in districts like mine, building a multiracial working class coalition of voters and, specifically in a lot of our rural communities, standing up for our farmers," he said. "The future of the conservative movement that is going to be building a broader coalition of folks."

Electing more veterans from both parties could change Congress

After the 2018 midterms saw an influx of veterans elected to the House a bipartisan group created the For Country Caucus to work across the aisle on issues related to veterans and national security. Florida Republican Michael Waltz, a former Army Green Beret, pointed to the dynamic in the group.

"We disagree on all kinds of issues, but it's that ethos that's missing — that we were willing to die for the flag at a very early age — I think we can roll up our sleeves, take tough votes, take tough compromises to move the country forward," he said.

Luria pointed out that she has broken with her party on the size of the defense budget and cited her work on military family and veterans issues in the bipartisan group.

"The fact that we have that common background as veterans — we really value working together on those types of issues," she said.

Republican and Democratic candidates this cycle agree that polarization on Capitol Hill is only getting worse. The results of the 2002 midterms could test whether boosting the number of veterans in the House will actually change the tenor in the institution, even just for a narrow set of issues.

Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Deirdre Walsh is the congress editor for NPR's Washington Desk.