WASHINGTON – Veterans from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan are planning to challenge congressional incumbents on both sides of the political aisle in 2006, but which party will benefit remains to be seen.
While dispelling speculation that Democrats are actively recruiting war veterans to feed into the public's growing concern over President Bush's strategy in Iraq, party operatives say they are sure that such candidates could pose a formidable challenge to Republicans next year.
"[Veterans] do have more leeway to criticize Bush," said Tom King, a Democratic strategist. "It gives Republicans something to think about."
Ohio Democrat Paul Hackett (search) raised some eyebrows in early August when he came within a few points of beating Republican Jean Schmidt (search) in a special election for the GOP-dominated Cincinnati-area district seat vacated by Rob Portman (search), who is now the U.S. trade representative.
Although analysts attribute Hackett's run to other factors, including state Republican scandals and election fatigue, Hackett, an Iraqi combat veteran, drew national attention and support for his willingness to criticize the president openly about his policy in Iraq.
He called Bush a "chickenhawk" and at one point told USA Today that "I don’t like the son of a b---- that lives in the White House, but I'd put my life on the line for him."
King said Hackett's campaigned appealed to voters fed up with Washington spin.
"He showed the persona of a straight shooter," he said.
But even Hackett says that while the national media seized on his veteran status, it was not the main theme of his campaign. He doesn't think either party should bank too much on veterans' appeal in future elections.
"I don’t think that veterans have a distinct advantage," Hackett told FOXNews.com. "At most, it causes somebody to take another look at them."
That aside, Hackett did not refute the idea that a Democratic veteran of Iraq is in a unique position to criticize Republican war policies.
"A Democrat who is a veteran of the Iraq war can be more intelligently critical about the issues surrounding it and how it impacts the country more freely than any other politician or any other Democratic politician for that matter," he said. "But I don’t think that makes you a winner."
Officials from the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee said the DCCC is not pursuing veterans to run for seats in 2006.
"We are actively recruiting the best candidates we can," said Sarah Feinberg, DCCC spokeswoman.
So far, at least three veterans have announced their intentions to run next year against Republican incumbents: Patrick Murphy, who is challenging Pennsylvania Rep. Michael Fitzpatrick; Tim Walz, who is challenging Minnesota Rep. Gil Gutknecht; and David Ashe, who wants a rematch against Virginia Rep. Thelma Drake.
All three question the current policy in Iraq.
"When I was in Iraq, quite frankly I became disheartened with our government. I think our government wasn't doing enough to support our troops," said Murphy, who won a Bronze Star as an 82nd Airborne Division captain. He has also taught at the U.S. Military Academy at West Point.
Like the others, Walz insists the military experience "is not the linchpin" of his candidacy, "but one piece of my character." But he says that fatigue over the war in Iraq is evident in the faces and questions of the people he is meeting on the campaign trail.
"The first lesson from Vietnam was always support the troops – the American public is there" as far as Iraq is concerned, he said. "The second lesson of Vietnam is always question the mission, and we're not doing that. The American people are smart and they deserve to know what the plan is."
According to the Congressional Research Service, 141 members of the 109th Congress have served in the military, a number that has been on a steady decline since the end of the Vietnam War. Carl Forti, spokesman for the National Republican Congressional Committee, said many different factors determine whether a candidate wins a congressional seat, and being in the military is just one of them.
"To us, it's much more important to recruit someone who can win," Forti said.
Forti called any Democratic ambition to use Hackett as a "national mold" for success "unrealistic."
Democratic veterans aren’t the only ones stepping up to challenge incumbent lawmakers, particularly on the issue of war policy.
Republican veteran Hiram Lewis is running against Democratic Sen. Robert Byrd of West Virginia. Also running are Van Taylor and Bentley Nettles, both Republicans seeking to oust Rep. Chet Edwards, D-Texas.
Lewis said Byrd's position on the war spurred his candidacy.
"I started thinking about it overseas, when I saw Byrd talking about the war being unconstitutional on the Senate floor," said Lewis, who served until January 2004 as a magistrate in Baghdad as part of the West Virginia National Guard. He then ran and narrowly lost a race against West Virginia Attorney General Darrell McGraw.
Lewis said he blames Byrd for hurting troops' morale in the theater. "I thought he should have refrained from the anti-war rhetoric," he said.
Political analysts say the success of these veterans will depend in part on their positions and in part on the kind of districts they hope to represent.
"If Democrats are going to try to win a conservative or moderate district, but come across as a member of the anti-war movement, I'm not sure that's a good idea," said John Fortier, political expert for the American Enterprise Institute. "On the other hand, if they have some criticism of the war, but are still willing to put on the uniform, I think that's fine."
Democratic candidate Ashe, whose Virginia district is smack in the middle of several military installations and the Newport News Shipbuilding and Drydock, said veterans offer a unique perspective on domestic veterans' issues, like funding for health care.
"[Drake] has demonstrated over and over that she is not really curious about how the military works. She's just part of the echo chamber," said Ashe, who served in an infantry battalion in Iraq and said he "watched the mismanagement" by the Coalition Provisional Authority "from the ground."
Tom Gordy, Drake's chief of staff, said Ashe used the same lines in the 2004 election, but to no avail. Gordy added that he can't decide how new veteran challengers will play nationally.
"It's hard to pinpoint," he said. "Is it going to play in the 2nd District? It didn’t last time."