How veterans and military voters are helping Democrats expand their House majority

Democrats have made significant electoral gains in House districts dominated by US military bases, veterans

Griffin Connolly
Norfolk, Virginia
Tuesday 03 November 2020 17:55 GMT
Biden V Trump: US election opinion polls

When Navy veteran Michael Dunn met Congresswoman Elaine Luria for the first time in her Virginia Beach office at a town hall event in early 2019, he warned the freshman Democrat she shouldn’t take his vote for granted.

“I'm one of the electorate that politicians don't like,” he told her, “because I'm informed. And if I have an issue, I will tell you.”

Mr Dunn is a case study of the kind of military voter that has increasingly distanced himself from the GOP in the age of Donald Trump, helping House Democrats build a firewall around once-purple parts of the country like Virginia’s 2nd Congressional District.

He’s one of thousands of Navy veterans and service members (including both Ms Luria and her 2020 GOP challenger, former Congressman Scott Taylor) who dominate the political landscape in the 2nd District, home to the world’s largest naval base, the Naval Station Norfolk.

It’s not hard to see why veterans like Mr Dunn stick around these parts after they complete their naval service.

Good fishin’, beautiful beach

It’s good vibes only every Saturday down here at the Ocean View Fishing Pier in Norfolk, across from the Motel 6, where Mr Dunn sat for an hour-long conversation with The Independent recently.

Jutting out the length of five soccer fields into the Atlantic Ocean, the pier is a 1,690-foot stilted plank hosting hundreds of co-existing mini-parties.

It’s an extraordinary racial and generational melting pot: A trio of white high school-aged boys in varsity football sweats tinker with their lines and reels about halfway down the dock. From a few feet away, a strong wind carries the stench of fish guts as a middle-aged black woman expertly guts a croaker on one of the dozens of public cutting boards lining the deck’s railing. Old-timers tend their lines in lawn chairs under one of the mid-dock shelters. They suck down Bud Heavy tallboys, crack wise, and yo-yo their heads to Clarence Carter crooning on the boombox about “Strokin’” to the woman that he loves the best.

About 30 miles southeast along the coast, many local businesses in tourist-heavy Virginia Beach appear — on the surface, at least — to be doing just fine despite the pandemic-related restrictions.

The wait for a two-seater at the Mayflower Cafe at noon on a recent Saturday in September was 40 minutes. Around the corner, Pocahantas Pancakes, open until 1pm, was only taking to-go orders due to the completely full dining room.

A block away, the yellow-sand beach is gorgeous as ever.

And there’s a free show: Every 20 minutes or so, a formation of F-35 jets knifes down the shoreline on a screaming practice run, lurching back towards the base in Norfolk and leaving a 20-second, eardrum-bursting roar in its shadow.

This is a US House battleground.

Rematch of 2018

A registered Republican, Mr Dunn in 2016 voted third-party for president and for Mr Taylor, the Republican, to represent Norfolk and the Virginia Beach area in Congress.

In the 2018 midterms, though, he voted for Ms Luria over Mr Taylor, and plans to again in their 2020 rematch.

Mr Dunn commends the congresswoman for spearheading legislation to eliminate a glitch in the GOP’s 2017 tax code overhaul that hiked rates on Gold Star families’ benefits from the Defence Department, as well as for upholding her military “oath” to defend the Constitution by voting to impeach the president.

“I took that same oath. And last time I checked, we’ve never been relieved of that oath,” he said.

“That’s the leadership that we need in Washington, DC.”

He is also voting, begrudgingly, for Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden.

“It is a vote against Donald Trump, OK? I think he's one of the most dangerous presidents we've ever had,” Mr Dunn said.

Once considered a Tossup race, top US elections handicappers now rate Virginia’s 2nd District either Leans or Likely Democratic, symbolic of two wider trends across the House map this cycle.

First, Republicans have struggled to make up ground in the chamber, where they’d need to flip 18 seats while keeping all their own to reclaim a majority. Democrats are actually expected to add anywhere from 12 to 20 new, previously GOP-held seats to their majority on Tuesday.

And second, Mr Trump’s divisive rhetoric and policymaking has jeopardised several other military-dominant districts currently held by Republicans.

Democrats gunning for North Carolina

One such seat is in North Carolina’s 8th District, home to Fort Bragg, the largest US Army base.

Last week, the Congressional Leadership Fund, the super PAC linked to House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy and GOP leadership,  delivered an emergency airdrop of $2m to buttress the flagging campaign of GOP Congressman Richard Hudson down the home stretch.

That money has gone towards a series of TV and digital attack ads against Mr Hudson’s Democratic opponent, former state Supreme Court Justice Pat Timmons-Goodson, whose surge in the late stages of the race has pushed it from a Republican reelection near-certainty to Tilts Republican, according to Inside Elections with Nathan L Gonzales.

The district, which broke for Mr Trump over Hillary Clinton by 15 points in 2016, underwent a court-ordered re-drawing in 2019 that has put it back in play.

The new boundaries still capture the several thousand military personnel and veterans once or currently stationed at Fort Bragg.

One of those veterans is retired Sergeant First Class Ron Harrison, who spent 23 years in the US Army that included seven overseas deployments before a final assignment in Fort Bragg.

A disaffected Reagan Republican, Mr Harrison said he was attracted to Ms Timmons-Goodson’s campaign because of her track record on criminal justice reform and voting rights issues while she was on the North Carolina Supreme Court and later served on the US Commission on Civil Rights.

Growing up in an Army family outside Fort Bragg in nearby Fayetteville, she also “has a unique understanding of military quality of life issues” that have “a direct impact on combat readiness,” he said.

In a recent interview with The Independent, Ms Timmons-Goodson said Republicans — including Mr Hudson — have failed to deliver on veterans benefits.

Military voters constantly bring up concerns about the health care they receive through hospitals run by the Department of Veterans Affairs.

That is “a regular concern,” Ms Timmons-Goodson said.

“And how can it not be when we know that there are over 50,000 personnel vacancies in [VA] hospitals systems? That’s the largest number of vacancies of any department, and it is just unconscionable and so unfair to our veterans that we're allowing their health care system to be so understaffed and under-supplied,” she said.

What the polls say

National polling among active-duty military personnel and veterans underscores the GOP’s reckoning with a voter bloc that for years has stood reliably in the column of conservative political candidates.

In August, a Military Times poll found that active-duty military service members preferred Mr Biden to Mr Trump by 4 percentage points, a sharp reversal from 2016, when the president had nearly double the support as Ms Clinton among that constituency.

And while 52 per cent of veterans in a Military Times poll from October said they support Mr Trump, compared to just 42 per cent for Mr Biden, the generational gap is immense. Veterans 54 years old or younger overwhelmingly go for Mr Biden, but veterans 55 and older back Mr Trump by a 20-point margin, the poll found.

Mr Dunn, the 46-year-old Navy veteran in Virginia’s 2nd District, pegged flagging support for Republicans among his fellow former seamen on a continuous unraveling of explosive and “narcissistic” statements by the president.

He highlighted Mr Trump’s bluster about knowing more than US generals in 2017, along with the Defense Department’s firing in April of Navy Captain Brett Crozier, who had penned scathing a letter to his command asking for help dealing with a Covid-19 outbreak on his ship.

Mr Trump blamed Mr Crozier for debarking in Vietnam “in the middle of a pandemic” and called the captain’s letter, which harangued military leadership for abandoning sick sailors, “terrible.” The president backed the department’s decision to fire Mr Crozier “100 per cent.”

“What they did to that captain on the [USS Theodore] Roosevelt was just an absolute disgrace,” Mr Dunn said.

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