Government & Politics

U.S. Senate race in Missouri highlights changing attitude about candidates’ military service

Senate hopeful Jason Kander of Missouri served during the war in Afghanistan, in contrast to Sen. Roy Blunt, but it appears military service matters less to Americans now than other issues.
Senate hopeful Jason Kander of Missouri served during the war in Afghanistan, in contrast to Sen. Roy Blunt, but it appears military service matters less to Americans now than other issues. File photo

Jason Kander of Missouri announced his 2016 U.S. Senate candidacy in a video that starts at the airport.

“I hugged my wife and my parents and said goodbye,” Kander tells the viewer, recalling his departure from Kansas City International Airport for overseas military service.

“They needed more soldiers in Afghanistan.”

Using military service for political persuasion has been common for generations. The first U.S. president was a veteran. Kander, currently Missouri’s secretary of state, is expected to use the tool against Sen. Roy Blunt, who never served in the armed forces, particularly if the race centers on foreign policy.

Yet operatives in both parties say military service is not enough, by itself, to elect Kander or any other candidate in 2016. Voters are less interested in military service, or the lack of it, than in other issues closer to home — in part because an all-volunteer military has reduced the direct exposure of most American families to overseas conflicts.

“No doubt being a veteran will help Kander,” said George Connor, a Missouri State University political science professor. “But is that enough to make him less of a Democrat? Is that enough to defeat Sen. Blunt? I think the answer is no.”

In 2014, overseas military veterans from Sen. Tom Cotton in Arkansas to Sen. Joni Ernst in Iowa won races at least partly on the strength of their personal military records, which were widely advertised. Other veterans have had success in other campaigns.

In a video released Friday, presidential candidate Rick Perry touts his service in the Air Force, pointing out other presidential hopefuls did not serve.

“And that matters,” Perry says in the video.

But national election outcomes for veterans have been mixed. There were 184 veterans nominated by the two major parties for House and Senate seats in 2014, according to a group called Veterans Campaign. In January, the Congressional Research Service said 101 vets serve in the new Congress, about 19 percent of its members.

In 1971, 73 percent of members were veterans.

The declining ratio reflects an important fact: Far fewer Americans are exposed to military service today than decades ago. That may have diminished the sense of shared sacrifice common in some earlier conflicts, making military service less crucial for budding politicians.

That’s true for young politicians, but it also applies to older candidates like Blunt, who grew up in the Vietnam War era.

At one time in American politics, Vietnam service was a white-hot issue: Bill Clinton, George W. Bush, John Kerry and others faced intense questions about their draft status and war service.

But military citations weren’t enough for Kerry or for Sen. John McCain, who also lost a presidential campaign. With each election cycle, the passions of Vietnam veterans and civilians appear to cool and make service records less relevant for voters.

“We’re the old guys now,” said Randy Barnett, president of the Kansas City chapter of the Vietnam Veterans of America.

U.S. Rep. Emanuel Cleaver, a Democrat, was old enough for the draft in the 1960s. He was not drafted, his office said, because of a knee injury.

Republicans tried to raise the issue during Cleaver’s first congressional campaign, claiming an age mistake on his driver’s license was draft-related. Cleaver, 70, denied the accusation and won. It hasn’t come up since.

The military draft ended in the early 1970s. Selective service registration was reinstated in the 1980s and remains in place, but the armed services remain all-voluntary.

Blunt, 65, was eligible for the Vietnam-era draft and was classified 1-A. He was part of the first Vietnam War Selective Service lottery, but his number was so high (325) that he was not called. He did not enlist.

Republicans say that lack of service will not be an issue next year.

“Voters evaluate all aspects of a candidate’s record,” Missouri GOP spokesman Jonathan Prouty said in an emailed statement. “Missouri voters know that Senator Blunt is a vocal and aggressive champion for our nation’s servicemen and women.”

And Missouri Democrats say they won’t make an issue of Blunt’s civilian status.

“Voters will have plenty of other reasons not to support him, irrespective of whether or not he served in the military,” said Roy Temple, state Democratic Party chairman.

At the same time, Kander’s campaign will not back away from highlighting the candidate’s service as an intelligence officer in Afghanistan. During his first statewide campaign, Kander used his combat boots in a TV commercial that some say led to his surprise victory.

The Blunt-Kander military comparison may become important if foreign affairs becomes a central part of the 2016 campaign, as expected. In recent weeks, Blunt has sharply criticized the White House for its approach to the rise of the Islamic State group in Syria and Iraq, claiming the strategy isn’t clear.

Yet Blunt has not yet called for an on-the-ground U.S. military force to oppose the Islamic State, sometimes referred to as ISIS. Neither has Kander.

“We shouldn’t take any options off the table when it comes to our mission of eradicating ISIS,” Kander said in an email, “but I hope it doesn’t come to putting troops on the ground.”

Linking military service with real-world, contemporary issues such as the threat posed by the Islamic State will be critical for both Missouri Senate candidates, consultants say.

Kander’s service may help insulate him from charges that he’s weak on military matters and national defense, Democrats argue. At the same time, Blunt may feel the need to be even more aggressive on military affairs — including veterans benefits and domestic military spending — to counter Kander’s expected argument that he knows more about national defense than Blunt.

Both campaigns appear to understand the race won’t turn exclusively on military experience.

Travis Smith worked on U.S. Rep. Martha McSally’s House campaign in Arizona. McSally is a retired colonel in the Air Force who flew combat missions over Iraq.

Yet Smith says McSally won her narrow victory only by expanding her campaign beyond her service record.

“It was helpful for ‘star power/action hero status’ to get her on cable news and help raise money,” Smith recalled in an email.

“But all that alone does not a congressman or -woman make. We had to turn her into a real human being who had a story to tell, was substantive on issues, and connected with voters outside of the military record.”

To reach Dave Helling, call 816-234-4656 or send email to dhelling@kcstar.com.

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