April 8, 2008 – Seventeen Iraq combat veterans are running for House seats as Republicans, pledging to continue the war once in Congress and linking themselves to Sen. John McCain’s candidacy for president.
As Gen. David Petraeus, the top U.S. commander in Iraq, prepares to go to Capitol Hill Tuesday to discuss his record there, some of the vets also came to Washington to link themselves to the general whose 2007 troop surge they believe has improved America’s prospects for victory.
In 2006, the Democrats had some success with a slate of veterans who used their military credentials to argue against the war. The Republican veterans argue that such antiwar vets are the exception and, even though the public is still against the war, they will be able to make the case that the country is succeeding and should commit the resources to achieve victory.
“Iraq’s going to be a tough issue for everybody, but we’re going to be uniquely positioned to deal with it,” says former Marine Cpl. Keiran Lalor, a Republican running in the Hudson Valley of New York. “The Democrats went around and found the exception to the rule: They found the Iraq vets against the war.”
The Republican vets have linked themselves to Sen. McCain’s presidential bid and hope to ride to victory on his coattails. They hope that if independents decide to support Sen. McCain and his commitment to finish the job in Iraq, they will vote that way down-ballot as well.
While most of the group, calling themselves Iraq Veterans for Congress, are running against incumbent Democrats, four are in primary contests for seats currently held by Republicans. In two of these races, the veterans are challenging incumbents the national party would prefer to run again. An additional vet has already won the primary for an open Republican seat.
Several members of Iraq Veterans for Congress, founded by Mr. Lalor, are running in districts considered safe for Democratic incumbents, making their candidacies largely symbolic. Mr. Lalor faces Democratic freshman Rep. John Hall, a former rock singer with the 1970s group Orleans.
Mr. Lalor says he is running to represent Gen. Petraeus, who was born in Cornwall, N.Y., a town in the 19th district, and whose alma mater, the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, is also in the district.
Even symbolic candidacies could influence the debate in swing states. Former Army Lt. Col. William Russell is running against Pennsylvania Rep. John Murtha, one of the top Democrats in the House. Mr. Russell says Rep. Murtha has “emboldened the enemy” with remarks about the Marines accused of killing civilians in Haditha, Iraq. At an event with other members of the group Monday, he called Gen. Petraeus “a consummate warrior” and said he would stake his own life on the general’s integrity.
In two districts in Ohio and New Jersey, Iraq veterans are running for seats being vacated by Republicans. Democrats almost won both two years ago, and this time both Democratic challengers, boasting more name recognition and money, are gunning for a rematch.
The Iraq vets’ efforts have gained the most headway in Ohio’s 15th district, where the first of the 17 members of the organization to win a primary race is State Sen. Steve Stivers. While he says he admires both Sen. McCain and Gen. Petraeus, he isn’t making Iraq policy the centerpiece of his campaign. “I’ll talk about Iraq with anyone who asks me, but now it’s not the first issue on people’s minds,” the 43-year-old Ohio native says. “Jobs and the economy are where my focus is.”
After several prominent Republicans declined to run this year, Mr. Stivers threw his hat into the ring to succeed retiring Rep. Deborah Pryce. He won the March 4 primary with 66% of the vote, but his prospects in November are dicey. Sen. Barack Obama, who has trumpeted his antiwar record, carried the counties that compose most of Mr. Stivers’s district, including the Columbus suburbs, where Sen. Obama beat Sen. Hillary Clinton by 14 points. The district is also home to the main campus of Ohio State University, where a Republican candidate’s call to “complete the mission” in Iraq is more likely to drive turnout for the Democrats
Other primary races could cause problems for the national Republican party. Two veterans are challenging sitting congressmen — Bill Sali in Idaho’s First District, and Doug Lamborn in Colorado’s Fifth. Mr. Sali angered party loyalists by winning what many called a nasty campaign in 2006, and his malapropisms, once he was in office, became frequent fodder for Boise newspaper columnists.
Doug Lamborn engendered such rancor in his 2006 Colorado primary that Joel Hefley, the outgoing Republican congressman, refused to endorse him. Mr. Lamborn’s district includes Fort Carson, an Army post that has suffered hundreds of casualties in Iraq. He is being challenged in his party’s primary by retired Air Force Gen. Bentley Rayburn, who served in two Iraq wars.
In a normal year, both Messrs. Sali and Lamborn could feel safe, even though both are House freshmen who embittered local Republicans on the way to winning their seats. But challenges by Iraq veterans may swing hard-core Republicans against both men in this year’s primaries. That would leave the national party with a dilemma: no incumbent to support in the November election.
In New Jersey, Tom Roughneen is running in the primary in the Seventh District, which retiring Rep. Mike Ferguson barely held in 2006 against Democrat Linda Stender. Mr. Roughneen, a civil-affairs captain in Iraq and Essex County assistant prosecutor, knows he is a dark horse in a field that includes Kate Whitman, the daughter of former New Jersey governor and Bush cabinet member Christie Todd Whitman. But as the only Iraq veteran in the race, he says he is best equipped to fend off Democrats’ charges that the Iraq war has been a mistake.
“The way for the party to hold this district is for a veteran to represent the party,” says the 38-year-old New Jersey native. “Against a veteran, Linda Stender will look foolish trying to convince voters the success we’ve had in Iraq has been a waste of lives.”