With 182 veterans in congressional races across the country this election cycle, several candidates with military backgrounds will feature prominently in which party ends up controlling each chamber of Congress for the next two years.
Here are five high-profile contests to watch with key veterans contenders on the ballot:
Arizona Senate: Martha McSally vs. Mark Kelly
McSally, a former Republican House member, was appointed to the Senate seat following the death of longtime Sen. John McCain. But after just two years in office, polls have McSally down to Kelly, her Democratic challenger.
Both candidates boast impressive military resumes. Kelly spent 24 years in the Navy and flew combat missions in Operation Desert Storm before traveling to space as a NASA astronaut. McSally spent 22 years in the Air Force, becoming the first U.S. female pilot to fly a combat mission (during Operation Southern Watch) and the first woman to command a fighter squadron.
McSally has been active on military personnel issues as a member of the Senate Armed Services Committee, including publicly discussing her own sexual assault by a fellow airman during her time in service. Kelly has been active in Americans for Responsible Solutions, a gun control advocacy group founded after the shooting of his wife, former Arizona Rep. Gabby Giffords.
The race is seen by outside experts as a must-have for Democrats if they hope to gain a majority in the Senate. News reports have said if McSally loses but President Donald Trump wins re-election, she could be in line for a senior Defense Department appointment.
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Virginia 2nd district: Elaine Luria vs. Scott Taylor
In 2018, Luria, a Democrat, bested Taylor, a Republican, for the House seat by about 2 percent of the vote. Polls for their rematch this year show Luria with a slightly larger lead, but still project a close contest.
Luria, a 1997 graduate of the U.S. Naval Academy, spent 20 years in the military, serving at various points as commander of Assault Craft Unit Two and maintenance coordinator for the entire Atlantic Fleet. In Congress, she serves on both the House Armed Services and Veterans’ Affairs Committees, and has been a vocal advocate on Navy and personnel issues.
Taylor is a former Navy SEAL and served overseas in Iraq and South America as a sniper. He served in Congress from 2016 to 2018 and sponsored a number of veterans and military benefits bills before being unseated by Luria.
The district, one of the most competitive in the country, is home to Naval Station Norfolk, making defense issues a key focus for both campaigns.
Luria’s victory in 2018 was part of a blitz of progressive victories that swung control of the chamber to Democrats. If the party hopes to build on that success this cycle, leaders will need her to win a larger margin than last time.
Kentucky Senate: Mitch McConnell vs. Amy McGrath
McConnell, the controversial Republican Senate majority leader, served in the Army Reserve in 1967 for just five weeks before being medically retired. He rarely mentions his brief time in the military, though the stint has been fodder for political opponents in the past.
McGrath’s military experience was much more extensive and has been a focal point of her election campaign. She served 20 years in the Marine Corps, including 89 combat missions as a pilot in Afghanistan.
McGrath also worked for three years as a political science instructor at the U.S. Naval Academy before a failed bid to unseat Kentucky Republican Rep. Andy Barr in 2018. That campaign elevated her national profile, and laid the foundation for her challenge to McConnell.
Polls have McConnell with a lead of about 10 percent among likely voters. But McConnell has faced several difficult election showdowns over his 36 years in the Senate, and higher turnout among Democratic voters in this year’s volatile presidential election could push this Senate race into a close contest.
Georgia Senate: Doug Collins
Collins has attracted controversy in recent weeks for his use of pictures of him in uniform as part of his campaign ads.
The four-term Republican House member is a lieutenant colonel in the Air Force Reserve, where he serves as a chaplain. His military service dates back more than 30 years, including time in the active-duty Air Force and Navy, and a five-month deployment to Iraq in 2008.
Under Defense Department rules, candidates can use pictures of themselves in uniform as long as they include a disclaimer noting that they are not supported by or speaking for the military. Collins’ campaign says they have done that, but critics say many social media posts and other online messages have omitted that and violated the rules.
But the biggest controversy in the race may be the Collins candidacy itself. The Georgia Senate race is a special election to finish the term of former Sen. Johnny Isakson, and the top-two finishers in the race will face off against each other if no candidate reaches at least 50 percent of the vote.
In recent polls, Collins and incumbent Sen. Kelly Loeffler have been splitting most of the expected Republican vote, while Democratic challenger Raphael Warnock has approached that 50 percent mark. Both Loeffler and Collins will likely be favored in a run-off in Republican-heavy Georgia, but may not get the chance due to their party infighting.
Texas 23rd District: Gina Ortiz Jones vs. Rony Gonzales
Jones, a Democrat who deployed to Iraq with the Air Force, lost by fewer than 1,000 votes to Republican incumbent Rep. Will Hurd in 2018. Recent polls show a similarly tight race with Republican Tony Gonzales, a former sailor who deployed to Iraq and Afghanistan.
Jones has spoken publicly about the difficulties she faced as a lesbian serving in secret under military’s now repealed “don’t ask, don’t tell” rule. After leaving the service, she worked for the Defense Intelligence Agency and Office of the U.S. Trade Representative, leaving the latter post in 2017 due to dissatisfaction with President Donald Trump’s policies.
Gonzales was a career cryptologist who left the military in 2019, prompting questions about whether he engaged in improper political activity in uniform by launching his campaign before his full separation. In addition to multiple overseas deployments, he served as a Defense Department legislative fellow for Florida Republican Sen. Marco Rubio, getting a close-up view of congressional work on military and foreign policy issues.
The race is considered another swing district for both parties, and it could be an indicator of whether Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden has a serious chance of carrying Texas when all of the votes are counted.
About Leo Shane III
Leo covers Congress, Veterans Affairs and the White House for Military Times. He has covered Washington, D.C. since 2004, focusing on military personnel and veterans policies. His work has earned numerous honors, including a 2009 Polk award, a 2010 National Headliner Award, the IAVA Leadership in Journalism award and the VFW News Media award.