Can Vets win more votes? Depends on when and where

This week in North Philly Notes, Jeremy Teigen, author of Why Veterans Runpenned an essay on the recent victory by Conor Lamb in Pennsylvania.

Democrats’ victory in Pennsylvania’s special congressional election last week made great waves in the media for a few reasons. Primarily, news cycles focus on special elections as a barometer of national sentiment, though their ability to predict the future should be viewed with care. Yet, the race between Democrat Conor Lamb and Republican Rick Saccone in the southwest corner of Pennsylvania grabbed my attention for another reason. Both candidates served in the armed forces.

Saccone, 60, served in U.S. Air Force counterintelligence units. The much younger Lamb was a JAG in the Marine Corps. While neither are combat veterans, both served as officers. Both campaign websites featured the candidates’ military experience on online bios while media accounts of the candidates frequently referred to their service. A typical example: “While Saccone has a compelling biography—like Lamb, he served in the military—the outside groups have found that introducing him to voters …has proven challenging.” Other headlines focused specifically on the fact that two veterans vied for the seat despite declining numbers of veterans in the electorate.

This 2018 special election in Pennsylvania’s 18th district is not the first time that an off-schedule congressional election attracted national media attention in part because of a candidate’s military service record. In southwestern Ohio near Cincinnati (a city named for a very notable military veteran), a 2005 U.S. House special election featured a Democrat with Iraq War experience who sought to occupy a vacancy. Paul Hackett lost by a whisker, but he outperformed the baseline partisanship of the district substantially. At one point he called President George W. Bush a “chickenhawk” for avoiding Vietnam in the 1960s, which implicitly highlighted his own time as a U.S. Marine in war. Democratic presidential nominee John Kerry had only earned about 35% of the district’s presidential votes the year before, but Hackett put some fear in GOP hearts by almost upsetting expectations with over 48% of the vote. Had he won, he would have been the first OIF veteran congressman.

Lamb also outperformed the baseline partisanship of his district last week. Donald Trump exceeded Hillary Clinton’s support by 20% in 2016 in PA-18 while Barack Obama trailed Mitt Romney in 2012 by similar margins. That makes it clear that Lamb was able to persuade independents and perhaps some Republicans to vote for him, in addition to raising far more funds than Saccone. Despite a last-minute campaign assist from President Trump himself, Saccone underperformed in GOP-friendly territory. Trump specifically commended Saccone’s Air Force service on his visit.

Teigen _approvedrev_042117.inddHaving two veterans run against each other in House contests is not common. In my book, Why Veterans Run: Military Service in American Presidential Elections, 1789-2016, I compiled a decades’ worth of House election data to see if there is a quantifiable advantage that veterans enjoy at the ballot box. Looking only at the 315 contests in 2016 where there was a Republican and a Democrat in the race (omitting California and the other states with “top two” primaries), only 14 featured a general election with two veterans running against each other. But what really matters is where and in which districts parties choose to nominate military veterans.

Democrats won a special election with a veteran in a competitive but GOP-leaning district in the heart of where Trump was able to carve out an Electoral College win in 2016. If Democrats are hoping to retake the House this November, and aiming to do it with veterans, they need to nominate veterans in purple districts rather than in longshot races. While this week’s special election is atypical because it was an open seat, we can look to a normal cycle of House elections and look for military experience patterns among each party’s challengers.

As I wrote last year, Democrats do not have a track record of nominating veterans in places where they can beat incumbent Republicans.  In 2016, Democrats tended to nominate veterans in uphill races. Democratic nonveteran challengers ran in districts where Obama’s votes averaged 42.3%, but in races where Democrats nominated a veteran, Obama’s support was more than three points lower. In contrast, Republicans in 2016 nominated their veteran challengers in friendlier territory.

Signs look good for the Democrats going into the 2018 regularly scheduled midterms. And early signs show that Democratic veterans are emerging in more competitive places compared to two years ago. If challengers such as Mikie Sherrill, a female Naval Academy grad and pilot in the very purple NJ-11 district, represent a new strategy for Democrats, the success they have with veterans will mark a change from the past.

Jeremy M. Teigen, Professor of Political Science at Ramapo College (@ProfTeigen)

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