The number of veterans in Congress has been steadily dropping in recent election cycles, but the legislative branch's meager military credentials could take a major hit this year.

According to an analysis from the nonpartisan Veterans Campaign, only 183 of the 865 major-party candidates up for election to Congress this year boast military experience. It's the first time in recent memory that fewer than 200 veterans were on the campaign trail in the congressional races.

Based on recent polling data, those sparse figures could drop the total number of veterans in the House and Senate to under 100 for the first time since the 1950s, when World War II veterans began seeking office for the first time.

The current Congress has only 106 lawmakers with military experience, and Veterans Campaign Executive Director Seth Lynn said he expects that number to drop by up to 10 percent next year.

"We're used to seeing this steady decrease every two years, but this could be an even steeper drop than we normally expect," he said. "This is going to be the election that puts us below earlier levels."

Veterans of recent wars

That drop could come despite a rise in the number of candidates from the recent wars seeking national office. Of the 183 veterans running for Congress, 46 — about 25 percent of the field — served in Iraq or Afghanistan.

Already, 17 recent war veterans are serving in the House and Senate. Most of them are favored in their re-election bids.

Rep. Tom Cotton, R-Ark., is leaving the House in an attempt to become the Senate's second Iraq War veteran. The first, Sen. John Walsh, D-Mont., opted not to seek re-election after he was found to have plagiarized his master's thesis at the Army War College.

Lynn said that among both younger and older veteran candidates, military experience is largely a résumé afterthought, not the linchpin of their campaigns.

That reflects public interest in nonmilitary issues leading up to November's vote. An Associated Press-GfK poll released earlier this month found the economy to be the top issue on voters' minds this cycle, with health care issues coming in second.

But the advance of Islamic State militants in the Middle East and concerns about domestic terrorism were in the top five, and Lynn said candidates with a military background could see some undecided voters give extra weight to their service on election day.

"All other things being equal, being a veteran is going to help," he said. "It's not the first thing voters will think about, but if they're worried about military action overseas, then a veteran is likely to pick up some extra votes because of his or her knowledge."

One issue that hasn't caught voters' attention is the recent wait times scandals at the Veterans Affairs Department. Lynn said because it's difficult to pin problems with that bureaucracy on any individual lawmaker, few voters will be swayed by candidates' promises to fix the department.

But veterans groups have said that having lawmakers with first-hand knowledge of the VA system is critical in educating Congress about the need for continued reforms. If the number of veterans elected to office continues to drop, that work becomes more difficult.

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.

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