And that figure could sink even lower after this fall’s midterms.
“The numbers are down significantly,” said Seth Lynn, executive director of the Veterans Campaign. “I think there was a pretty big push before, when the wars were a bigger issue in elections, to have veterans running, especially among Democrats. … And that may not be as big of a deal anymore.”
As the number of veterans in Congress continues to decline, veterans groups and military advocates worry that lawmakers are increasingly distanced from issues such as combat-related injuries, veterans’ health care and sequestration’s effects.
The decline of former members of the military in Congress largely correlates to broader population trends. Much larger percentages of the population served in World War II and the Vietnam War because a draft was in effect.
In a symbolic end of an era, the 113th Congress will almost certainly be the last with any World War II veterans. There were three at the start of 2013, but Sen. Frank Lautenberg (D-N.J.) died last year, Rep. John Dingell (D-Mich.) is retiring and Rep. Ralph Hall (R-Texas) lost his primary.
Many military and veterans backers on the Hill are not veterans, but advocates for the military say personal experience remains critical.
“Having military experience is by no means a requirement and necessity, but I think it’s a benefit,” said Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.), a lawyer in the Air Force Reserves. “Having been deployed, having served overseas, having understood what military families go through is all helpful.”
Alex Nicholson, a legislative director for Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America, said veterans in Congress often have a firsthand understanding of military health problems like post-traumatic stress disorder and traumatic brain injury, which can prove invaluable in explaining the issues to their colleagues.
Veterans who serve as lawmakers are also lauded for working across the aisle, a much-needed skill in today’s partisan environment. “I think veterans have the ability to bridge the polarized gap,” said Allen Weh, a colonel in the Marine Reserves running as a Republican for the Senate in New Mexico.
Nicholson said it was Democratic veterans in the House, for instance, who helped signal to congressional leadership — and the White House — that the recent Veterans Affairs scandal that ensnared former VA Secretary Eric Shinseki was more than just a partisan attack.
“The big thing is they have credibility among their colleagues,” Nicholson said. “And when they talk to their colleagues and say, ‘This is an issue, this needs to be a priority,’ they get listened to.”
Several veterans running for office have also made it a top priority to end the military cuts under sequestration, while others say their experience makes them consider the prospect of war differently.
“We all know that war is a horrible, horrible thing,” said Steven Hobbs, a Democratic Washington state senator and Army veteran who ran for Congress in 2012. “Once it happens, you put on the uniform — you answer the call — but perhaps if you had more veterans in office, Congress would be less likely to go to war.”
But as the military has withdrawn from Iraq and made plans to do so in Afghanistan, candidates on the trail this year are talking less about war and more about health care, jobs and the broader economy.
Former Rep. Patrick Murphy (D-Pa.) was the first Iraq War veteran to win a seat in Congress, and he made changing course in Iraq a major part of his 2006 campaign.
More of the new veterans running for office today served in Iraq and Afghanistan, but those arrivals aren’t keeping pace with the departures of older veterans. According to Lynn’s research, over the past decade, about 190 to 200 veterans each election cycle have secured Republican and Democratic nominations in congressional races.
This year, about 105 veterans won nominations in the states that held primaries through June — down from 135 in the same states during the 2012 cycle.
Veterans running for office say their service is an important part of their campaigns, but that military service alone isn’t enough.
“If you’re going to run for office, you have to be more than a one-trick pony,” said Rick Hegdahl, national field organizer of Votevets.org, which supports liberal veterans running for office. “If you want to be successful, you have to be able to speak about economic issues, jobs, health care and veterans — just like everybody else.”
Micah Edmond, a retired Marine captain running as a Republican in Virginia’s 8th Congressional District, said the military and veterans still rank as one of his four top issues — but after the economy, education and transportation and infrastructure.
“I certainly talk about my service as a veteran, but with it wrapped up into the issues of the district,” Edmond said.
And while military service can provide some credibility with voters, veterans say their past experience frequently means they face a financial disadvantage.
“When I started to run for Congress, I had $322 in my bank account,” Murphy said. “That’s a major obstacle veterans have to overcome, because you don’t get paid a whole lot when you’re in the military.”
Military service can also become a contentious point in campaigns — particularly when only one candidate is a veteran. Former Rep. Joe Walsh (R-Ill.), who lost in 2012 to Rep. Tammy Duckworth (D-Ill.), was widely criticized when he criticized the war record of Duckworth, a double amputee. Sen. Mark Pryor (D-Ark.) found himself in hot water earlier this year when he suggested his opponent, Republican Rep. Tom Cotton, had a “sense of entitlement” to be elected as a veteran.
Cotton played up the remark, releasing a playful ad featuring his former drill sergeant.
“I met Sgt. Norton at basic training,” Cotton says in the ad. “Drill Sgt. Norton taught me how to be a soldier: accountability, humility and putting the unit before yourself. That training stuck.”
Cotton is one of several Republican veterans trying to pick off Democratic Senate seats — illustrating an uptick in former members of the military seeking a position in the upper chamber. Joni Ernst in Iowa, state Attorney General Dan Sullivan in Alaska and Weh are trying to do the same. Sen. John Walsh (D-Mont.), the first Iraq veteran in the Senate, is trying to defend the seat he was appointed to this year.
Pete Hegseth, who heads the conservative Concerned Veterans for America and ran in the 2012 Minnesota Republican Senate primary, said multiple Iraq and Afghanistan veterans in the Senate could signal the start of a new era for veteran lawmakers as the last of the World War II generation exits Capitol Hill.
“While the numbers may be down, I’m encouraged we could have a U.S. Senate with Sens. Cotton, Ernst and Sullivan,” Hegseth said. “I think you’re going to see more and more of a wave of younger veterans in Iraq and Afghanistan running for higher offices.”