The number of veterans in Congress continues to dwindle each session, but a new report suggests that the power and influence of young war veterans in national office are growing rapidly.
Officials from the nonpartisan Veterans Campaign said the success of Iraq and Afghanistan war veterans in recent election cycles indicates not only a stronger-than-expected pool of national candidates but also an affinity among voters to back those candidates, despite the widening civilian/military divide in society.
"Some of these veterans are moving into Congress very fast," said Seth Lynn, executive director of the campaign and co-author of the group's post-election analysis. Iowa Sen.-elect Joni Ernst went from state Senate to the U.S. Senate with no step in between. [Arkansas Sen.-elect] Tom Cotton went from no office to the Senate in five years.
"Iraq and Afghanistan vets are quickly becoming a pretty huge force on Capitol Hill."
Next year, Congress will boast 25 or 26 Iraq and Afghanistan war veterans, depending on the outcome of Martha McSally's recount in Arizona later this week.
That's the most in congressional history, and it comes even as the total number of veterans in Congress continues to decline. If McSally loses her recount bid, the total number of veterans will drop below 100 for the first time since the 1950s.
Lynn said that's more about demographics than politics. The last two World War II veterans in Congress will leave at year's end, and the overall number of veterans across the country has slowly declined since the height of the Vietnam War. As they age, the number of working-age veterans willing to run for office naturally decreases.
But Lynn sees the 2014 election as a turning point for the younger generation, one where their presence goes from an election oddity to a sustained pipeline of viable candidates.
Post-9/11 veterans make up about 1 percent of the U.S. population but will comprise 5 percent of Congress next year. Many first-time congressional hopefuls still face long odds of winning office, but Lynn said more and more out-of-nowhere candidates with recent military background are seeing success.
"All this tells me we'll be seeing more [Iraq and Afghanistan war] candidates for years to come," he said. "Military service isn't the only factor for these candidates, but it does matter in the larger picture."
The Veterans Campaign report states that military experience appears to give candidates a boost in national security credibility and personal character issues, but too much focus on that also can bring up confusion for voters with little familiarity with the armed forces.
The number of female veterans in Congress will rise dramatically next session, although the sample size is exceedingly small.
Before 2011, only three female veterans had served in Congress. In January, the new session could boast four, if McSally wins her recount.
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.