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These Female Veterans Reached Congress. Now They Want to Recruit Others.

 ·  Jennifer Steinhauer, New York Times   ·   Link to Article

WASHINGTON — Marrying the growing political muscle of women and veterans in American politics, a group of female freshman lawmakers who served in the military and intelligence agencies are helping recruit more like them to run for office.

Their new group, the Service First Women’s Victory Fund, will raise money for new female Democratic candidates with national security backgrounds and create a series of policy forums to help elevate the profiles of those already in office.

“People were struck by our stories during the campaign,” said Representative Abigail Spanberger, Democrat of Virginia, a former Central Intelligence Agency officer who endured a particularly brutal campaign last year. “We want to be part of encouraging other people running.”

Veterans have long influenced policy debates through a variety of service organizations, but those groups generally try to stay out of partisan politics. But, in recent years, new veterans’ groups on the left and right have become more engaged in partisan policy fights and electoral politics. Democrats in the House and Senate have been actively recruiting among veteran ranks for the 2020 races.

Among the 67 new Democrats in Congress, 10 served in the military or intelligence agencies. All of them defeated Republicans in difficult House races last year, many in the 31 districts carried by President Trump in the 2016 presidential election that are now held by Democrats. The group was significantly helped by the Serve America PAC, started by Representative Seth Moulton, Democrat of Massachusetts, a veteran who wanted to see more veteran Democrats on Capitol Hill.

Two other powerful groups — VoteVets on the left and Concerned Veterans for America on the right — have become forces in electoral politics in recent years.

VoteVets, a PAC formed in 2006 with veterans who opposed the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, spent $17 million on political races in 2018. Much of the spending was to help veteran candidates, but it also lifted those who needed validation among veterans on defense and national security issues.

“Veterans have more power now than ever,” said Jon Soltz, a founder of VoteVets. “We’re winning more races. We’re raising more money. And we’re having our voices heard in the halls of Congress like never before.”

They are also waging a political battle with Concerned Veterans for America. That group, which has substantial backing from the billionaire Charles G. Koch, has focused on the future of health care at the Department of Veterans Affairs. Political action committees that support veterans have also been involved in House and Senate races; both VoteVets and Concerned Veterans for America, for instance, spent money in Wisconsin last year where the VoteVets’ preferred candidate, Senator Tammy Baldwin, prevailed.

Concerned Veterans for America, however, has had far more success on the policy front with the Department of Veterans Affairs because it has the ear of the Trump administration, which is in the middle of making a significant shift of veteran health care into the private sector.

Yet the two have also formed a legislative — though never political — bond and are working jointly to persuade Congress to revoke authorizations of military force passed after Sept. 11, which both groups, in spite of many other policy differences, believe have been stretched to justify wars far beyond Congress’s intentions nearly two decades ago.

“We don’t believe in electing veterans simply because they are veterans,” said Nate Anderson, the executive director of Concerned Veterans for America, which spent $6 million in 2018 on races. “We believe in electing leaders who will advance good policy, and it’s great if they happen to be veterans.”

Even as Congress remains unpopular among voters, respect for veterans remains high, and the female veterans found that campaigning as a unified group was useful.

“There was something really powerful about having veterans running,” said Representative Mikie Sherrill, Democrat of New Jersey and a former Navy helicopter pilot. “When you add that we were women,” it was even more so, she said.

Among the new lawmakers, female freshmen formed close relationships during the campaign, and that has carried over into Congress. Part of their bond, besides shared experiences of tough races and their national security backgrounds, was their willingness to work to help one another’s campaigns, which is unusual for insurgent candidates who need to focus on their own races.

“It’s not like half of us were running in really blue districts,” said Representative Elissa Slotkin, Democrat of Michigan, who served at both the C.I.A. and the Pentagon. “We were all doing something that was really difficult. Other party officials, other members of our staff, said, ‘You don’t share your donors’” — advice the group ignored.

The other women forming the Service First Women’s Victory Fund include Representatives Elaine Luria, Democrat of Virginia, a Navy veteran, and Chrissy Houlahan, Democrat of Pennsylvania and a former Air Force officer.

The group has teamed up with New Politics, a bipartisan organization that recruits candidates from the military and intelligence communities, and other national service programs like the Peace Corps and AmeriCorps. In the 2018 election cycle, the group helped raise over $7 million for these types of candidates, including many of the House freshmen.