Seth Moulton is a former Marine Corps officer, and he’s taken the lead in recruiting veterans to run for Congress as Democrats, formally endorsing a dozen so far of the estimated thirty such candidates party officials expect to be on ballots in November in Republican-held districts.
“Fundamentally this is about getting service-drawn people into Congress, people who will put country first,” Moulton told The Daily Beast. “When you meet these candidates, you will be blown away by the qualities of leadership.”
“Rahm looked at what are some of the traditional weaknesses where Democrats lose swing districts—the perception they’re too liberal or soft on defense—and recruited a decent number of moderates. That was his recipe and it worked extremely well,” says Charlie Cook, founder of the venerable Cook Political Report. “You want somebody who reflects the values of swing voters in that district.”
There were other factors then, too. President Bush’s job rating was 38 percent, and the GOP was reeling from allegations of incompetence and corruption, with headline-grabbing charges against several members of Congress including then Majority Leader Tom DeLay. “It was the worst of all worlds ethically on top of the Iraq War and Katrina,” says Dave Wasserman with the Cook Report.
Looking ahead to next year’s election, Wasserman told The Daily Beast that Democrats are in a stronger position at this point than they were in 2006 “because the Republican vulnerability is apparent earlier. It wasn’t until mid 2006 that Democrats realized they had a good chance to win back the House.”
The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, or DCCC, has drawn up an ambitious battlefield of 80 races, the largest in a decade, in an effort to win the 24 seats needed to claim the majority in the House.
“The Republicans made a mess of their unified control of Washington,” says DCCC national press secretary Tyler Law, expanding opportunities for Democrats, including those trying to unseat Republican representatives in 23 districts that Hillary Clinton won last year.
Some of the 80 targets are on the DCCC’s list for reasons other than pure math. Josh Butner, a retired Navy Seal, was at a fundraiser in Georgetown earlier this month talking about his campaign to unseat Republican Duncan Hunter in a staunchly Republican, heavily military district in San Diego. Hunter is under criminal investigation by the Justice Department for allegedly using campaign contributions to cover personal expenses such as school tuition and orthodontic bills for his children, plus expensive vacations that included airfare for his daughter’s pet rabbit.
Trump carried the district by 15 points, and if it were not for these serious ethics breeches, the district would not be considered competitive. Hunter’s father held the seat for 14 consecutive terms before his son succeeded him in ’08, becoming the first combat veteran from Iraq to serve in the House. “Butner better hope that the Feds don’t get Hunter before he can,” says Wasserman. “The evidence of misuse of campaign funds appears to be rampant.”
Butner is the kind of candidate Democrats need to make inroads in GOP strongholds. After serving 23 years in the Navy in the elite Seal force, he was driving to work one day and heard an NPR story about how there were not enough candidates to fill local school boards. He thought that was outrageous, and that somebody should do something about it.
Then the radio report named his local school district, “and I felt it had to be me,” Butner told The Daily Beast. His three children were grown, and he thought it would be a cakewalk to run for an open seat. It turned out to be competitive, with three candidates vying for two seats, and he had to run a campaign. He sought help from local Democrats, came in second, won the seat and continues to serve on the Jamul-Dulzura Union School District.
Butner was pleasantly surprised at his school board colleagues’ dedication to the kids, and his desire for public service was then heightened by the unexpected death of his mother this January. He realized at age 48 that he might not have as much time as he thought. Local Democrats encouraged him to set his sights higher, and he’d read reports about the Democrats seeking veterans. But he wants to be clear that the first move was his. “They didn’t recruit me—I raised my hand to do this.”
Speaking to a living room full of mainly young professionals in Georgetown, he said that his family had worn the uniform going back to the Civil War, and that he sees elective office as another way to continue serving his country. His grandmother on his mother’s side was a national leader of the Gray Panthers, and his grandmother on his father’s side was an Army nurse. He has a son currently in the military.
When he first stepped up to run, there were forms to fill out, and local Democrats wanted to know among other things whether he felt “safer” with an assault weapons ban. “Not really,” he wrote.
“That’s where I differ somewhat from Democrats,” Butner explained. “I have weapons in my home, and I was in the military—and I’m like many in my community. There are six retired Seals in the area,” he said.
“They’re Republicans,” he said, and he’s telling them: “We want to put country over party so in the end it didn’t really matter which party. So far he’s managed to get a contribution and grudging support for his campaign from one of them, who’d served alongside him in the same Seal platoon.
More than a year out from the 2018 election, that’s good progress. But it’s also a sign of what the uphill fight Butner has ahead of him. “Let’s say Hunter were to make it to the general election without being indicted, I would still say he’s the favorite to win reelection,” says Wasserman. “And that speaks to the intense partisanship and tribalism in American politics today. Even with a strong candidate like Josh Butner, who can raise millions of dollars, it’s still a likely Republican hold.”
It’s a really close call, says Cook, who has been monitoring congressional races since the eighties, whether the Democrats reclaim the House or fall just short. We’ve never had maps drawn to the Republicans benefit this much, and Democratic voters weren’t as concentrated in urban areas. The more faith you put in historic trends, the better the Democrats look.
But when you go district by district, you can’t write off even an ethically compromised Republican like Hunter. The only prediction Cook makes is that whichever party comes out on top, it will be by single digits.