WASHINGTON — Eager to topple Republicans from power, Democratic strategists recruited military veterans fresh from combat in Iraq to run for Congress. Their gambit: to validate Democratic opposition to the war -- without risking GOP charges of disloyalty -- by putting forward the brave men and women who were fighting it.
Almost a dozen veterans and military officials signed up to carry the fight to the home front. Several lost in primary races, among them Andrew Horne, a Marine Corps reservist in Kentucky's 3rd District, and David Ashe, a Marine lawyer, in Virginia's 2nd. One vet, former Marine Tim Dunn, quit the race for North Carolina's 8th District, citing financial pressures.
"Democrats took a page out of the GOP playbook and decided to recruit veterans who could hit Republicans where they were strongest: on national security," said Christopher Barron, a Washington political consultant. "It looks like it worked."
The war was not the only factor that led to vets' victories. In Pennsylvania's 7th District, Democrat Joe Sestak, a retired Navy vice admiral who served in the Pentagon during the war, defeated incumbent GOP Rep. Curt Weldon. Weldon was carrying baggage, as the FBI was investigating charges that he steered contracts toward his daughter's lobbying firm.
In the 10th District in Pennsylvania, Chris Carney, a Navy Reserve intelligence officer, beat incumbent Republican Don Sherwood, who had to run ads acknowledging marital infidelity and asking voters to forgive him.
The Democratic electoral mood lifted some candidates who might otherwise have experienced rougher sailing. In Pennsylvania's 8th District, former Army officer and Bronze Star recipient Patrick Murphy, a novice candidate, had a narrow lead over Republican Rep. Michael G. Fitzpatrick. And in Minnesota's 1st District, teacher Tim Walz, who served 24 years in the Army National Guard, defeated GOP Rep. Gil Gutknecht.No one exemplified the antiwar vet more than Tammy Duckworth, in Illinois' 6th District. A former major in the Illinois Army National Guard, she lost both legs and suffered injuries to one arm when a grenade hit her helicopter over Baghdad. She campaigned on issues including Social Security, healthcare and veterans' benefits -- but was a living symbol of the war's costs.
"I didn't cut and run, Mr. President," she said in the Sept. 30 Democratic response to President Bush's weekly radio address. "My helicopter was shot down long after you proclaimed 'Mission accomplished.' "
But even in a year when anger over the Iraq war spurred voters to the polls, she lost to Republican Peter Roskam.