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A public policy blog from AEI
Today’s election in Pennsylvania’s 18th Congressional District is the latest in a string of special elections which have Democrats hopeful and Republicans nervous about the trajectory of the 2018 midterm elections. Recently the district has gone Republican, but the area has a Democratic legacy too. Republican Tim Murphy handily won every reelection contest for the seat since his first in 2002. But Murphy resigned in October under a cloud of scandal, and the district itself is at the heart of a gerrymandering case before the Supreme Court of Pennsylvania.
What will remain the same is that the man elected to Congress on Tuesday will be a military veteran. Tim Murphy served in the US Navy Reserve Medical Service Corps. Rick Saccone, the Republican hoping to replace Murphy, is a state general assembly representative and an Air Force Veteran. He served in counterintelligence for over a decade, then served as a civilian employee of the US Army in Iraq between 2004–05. He completed a PhD in public and international affairs at the University of Pittsburgh, and then became a college professor.
The 18th District skews older — in its current form it has the second oldest electorate in Pennsylvania — but that doesn’t seem to be dampening interest in the 33 year-old Democratic candidate Conor Lamb. Lamb served as a Captain in the US Marine Corps and joined the Marine Corps Reserves after completing active duty service in 2013. After earning his JD from the University of Pennsylvania, Lamb served as an assistant US Attorney, in which capacity he focused on fighting the heroin epidemic.
Lamb doesn’t shy away from his military biography while campaigning, nor does Saccone. Pennsylvania currently ranks eighth highest of all the states in veteran population (345,906), though 37th in terms of percent of its population (4.4%). The greatest amount of Pennsylvania veterans served during the Vietnam War era, and range between 65–74 years old (both Saccone and Lamb are post-9/11 veterans). The poverty status for PA veterans reported in December 2017 was 6.2% versus 11.4% among their civilian peers. While 29.4% of PA veterans had disability status (16.9% among civilians) the unemployment rate was 4.9% (5.7% among civilians) statewide. Defense spending in Pennsylvania is around $12.7 billion, equaling about 1.9% of the state’s GDP.
Increasing amounts of Gulf War era and especially post-9/11 veterans are putting their name on the ballot this election season. The Democratic Party has not been shy about using veterans running as Democrats as a significant rung of their midterm campaign strategy. But running a veteran is no surefire route to success, as they discovered in 2006, the year of the “Fighting Dems.” Despite running over 60 veteran candidates that year, Democratic veterans mostly lost in the general election, Tim Walz (D, MN-01) and former Congressman Joe Sestak (D, PA-07) being exceptions. Scholarship since has shown that while veteran status may help a candidate win in “purple” districts, even there it’s no guarantee.
Nor is veteran status a guarantee of success. For one, despite the attractive rhetoric veterans sometime use on the campaign trail — such as Lamb’s, “My only bias is the one they taught us in the Marines: A bias for action” — Congress remains a deliberative and a political body. To get there, and to succeed, veterans eventually will have to understand and employ some of the political arts.
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