WASHINGTON – Amy McGrath’s latest campaign ad features a retired Marine Corps captain describing how the congressional candidate from Kentucky dropped a bomb on an enemy compound and “turned the tide for us” in the battle for the Iraqi city of Nasiriyah in 2003.
Mikie Sherrill, a House candidate from New Jersey, talks in her first campaign video about flying missions in Europe and the Middle East as a Sea King helicopter pilot in the Navy.
New Hampshire candidate Lynne Blankenbeker — a nurse, lawyer and Navy Reserve captain — touted her military service at her campaign launch in January, asking supporters if a million people in the military can put their differences aside and take care of this country, "why can't 435 people in Congress do that?"
The three are among at least 28 female veterans seeking House seats and four vying for the Senate in a record year for female candidates.
Fixing Washington is their new mission.
“Marines know we’re all on the same team,” McGrath, who flew 89 combat missions as a Marine pilot, says in her ad. “Congress is broken. We need a new generation to fix it.”
Within their ranks are eight Republicans, but most — 24 — are Democrats, according to a list compiled by the Center for American Women and Politics at Rutgers University.
Six Democratic candidates said in interviews that they were motivated at least in part by the results of the 2016 presidential election or by partisanship in Washington.
“So many veterans like myself are standing up because we’re concerned that our values are under attack, and that resonates with voters,” said Sherrill, a Democrat.
McGrath, also a Democrat, said the 2016 election left her a “changed person.”
“I just felt like, we need better political leaders on both sides of the aisle,” she said. “The fake news, the divisiveness, the labeling of every side. It’s wrong, and it’s not America.”
The candidates campaign on national security, health care and immigration, among other issues. House candidate Elaine Luria, a retired Navy commander, said she hears a lot from voters in Virginia about rising sea levels as a national security issue.
“It’s something we need to focus on immediately,” said Luria, a Democrat.
Blankenbeker, a Republican, is “fed up” with a Congress that has a “bad habit” of resorting to stopgap spending bills or government shutdowns.
“It negatively impacts our national defense,” said Blankenbeker, who balances her campaign with her command of a Navy Reserve medical unit in San Diego. “We need to get people in Congress who will pass a budget.”
From New Hampshire to California, the female veterans run in districts won mostly by the opposite party in the 2016 presidential election.
Their military service, they said, helped them connect with voters.
“It’s a stamp on the fact that you’re not only tough, but you’re an extremely hard worker and that you are reliable and mission-driven,” said Rachel Reddick, a former Navy judge advocate general who is running for Congress in Pennsylvania as a Democrat.
Four female veterans serve in Congress — Sens. Tammy Duckworth, D-Ill., and Joni Ernst, R-Iowa, and Reps. Tulsi Gabbard, D-Hawaii, and Martha McSally, R-Ariz., who is running for Senate.
They are often considered a “voice of authority” on issues of military engagement, which is an “important breakthrough,” considering defense issues and international affairs have generally been seen as a weakness for female candidates, said Debbie Walsh, director of Rutgers' Center for American Women and Politics.
Military service counteracts questions from some voters about whether women are "tough enough" to make the hard decisions on issues of war and peace, she said.
“Politics may be tough, but I think serving in Afghanistan is probably tougher,” Walsh said. “It really takes that argument off the table for a woman candidate, which I think is a terrific asset.”
Female veterans are among more than 300 women who filed to run for the House of Representatives, which is a record, according to the Associated Press.
Some said they’re still trying to make inroads in a male-dominated profession. Pennsylvania has no women in its 20-seat congressional delegation in Washington.
“You’re constantly fighting against the perceived notion that men are officeholders,” Reddick said.
These women said they have experience as the only woman in a room — or ship — full of men.
Sherrill recalled occasions when, as a 20-something midshipman, she was the only woman sent aboard an aircraft carrier. Nothing inappropriate happened, she said, “but in hindsight, why the heck would anyone have thought that was a good idea?”
“Too many times in the service, we don’t protect our women service members, which is something that I think just shows how important it is to have women at the table in Congress,” she said.
No woman graduate of the Naval Academy has served in Congress. This year, there are three chances it could happen: Sherill, McGrath and Luria.
If Gina Ortiz Jones wins a House seat in Texas, she would be the first openly gay woman of color from the state elected to Congress and the first woman to represent her district, according to a Teen Vogue profile.
Jones served as an Air Force intelligence officer in Iraq and served under the U.S. military’s “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy. She said the experience helped her understand the “needless anxiety” of “DREAMers,” undocumented immigrants brought to the USA as children whose legal status has been uncertain under the Trump administration.
“I know exactly what it’s like to have worked hard for something and to live in fear that it could be ripped away from you through no fault of your own,” she said.
The veterans said running for political office is a continuation of their service, and what sets them apart is that they’re mission-driven.
McGrath said she never asked the political party of the Marine who spoke in her most recent ad, and he never asked her.
“Veterans get it,” she said. “We have all served this country, where we have gone to combat together, and we didn’t look at each other and say, ‘Are you a Republican or a Democrat?’ We said, ‘Hey, What’s the mission?’ ”