Veterans in the US Senate and the 2020 Election: What You Need to Know

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Joni Ernst, Daniel Allyn, William Moran, Glenn Walters
Sen. Joni Ernst, R-Iowa, center, greets senior military leaders, from left, Army Vice Chief of Staff Gen. Daniel Allyn, Vice Chief of Naval Operations Adm. William Moran, and Marine Corps Assistant Commandant Gen. Glenn Walters, on Capitol Hill in Washington, Wednesday, Feb. 8, 2017, at a Senate Armed Services Subcommittee on Readiness and Management Support hearing on the current readiness of U.S. forces. (AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite)

While most attention in the 2020 election cycle has been on the presidential race, Nov. 3 also has the potential to change the population of military veterans in the U.S. Senate -- and several of the most hotly contested races involve a veteran.

Of the 100 U.S. Senate seats, 18 are now held by a military veteran. (One member of the 116th Congress, Georgia Republican and Air Force veteran Johnny Isakson, retired from the Senate in 2019.) If all veteran challengers win their races and incumbents keep theirs, the Senate veteran contingent could grow by seven members, although two of those races overwhelmingly favor a non-veteran incumbent.

Of the 35 Senate seats up for election this year, nine are held by veterans. Here’s what you need to know about the races.

The Showdowns

A few of the races featuring veterans are among the closest and highest-profile of this election cycle. One of those features two well-known and outspoken vets. In Arizona, Sen. Martha McSally, a Republican and retired Air Force colonel best known for her support of the A-10 Thunderbolt II close-air support aircraft, will face off against Democratic Challenger Mark Kelly, a retired U.S. Navy captain even better known for his work as a NASA astronaut.

McSally lost her 2018 Senate election bid but was appointed to the seat following the resignation of Sen. Jon Kyl. Polls show the seat leaning Democratic, but the margin is narrow: prediction website 538 calls for a tight Kelly win, but with only 77% confidence.

Another veteran is featured in perhaps the tightest race of the cycle: Sen. Joni Ernst, a Republican and retired Iowa National Guard lieutenant colonel, is fighting to hang onto her seat against non-veteran challenger Theresa Greenfield, a Democrat. Ernst, who served in Iraq and is the first female combat veteran in the Senate, is another relative newcomer who took office in 2015. While 538 slightly favors Greenfield, other polls and predictors call the race a true toss-up.

In North Carolina, a veteran challenger, Democrat Cal Cunningham, is set to take on the incumbent, Republican Thom Tillis. Cunningham is the lieutenant colonel in the U.S. Army Reserve. A member of the Judge Advocate General’s Corps, he served in Iraq and Afghanistan and earned the Bronze Star. Cunningham is slightly favored to beat Tillis, who has been in the seat since 2015, but the race appears very close.

In Kansas, the race will be challenger vs. challenger. Sen. Pat Roberts, a Republican and Marine Corps veteran, is vacating his seat. Hoping to replace him is Roger Marshall, a Republican former captain in the U.S. Army Reserve, who currently serves in Congress. He’s slightly favored to beat Democrat Barbara Bollier, a member of the Kansas State Senate.

Sen. Lindsey Graham, a South Carolina Republican and former presidential contender who retired from the Air Force Reserve as a colonel in 2015, is also on shaky ground heading into the election. He’s being challenged by Democrat Jaime Harrison, former chair of the South Carolina Democratic Party. Graham, who has served in the Senate since 2003, is generally favored to hang onto his seat, but some prediction sites show a less-than-comfortable confidence margin.

Finally, Alaska Sen. Dan Sullivan, a Republican and a colonel in the U.S. Marine Corps Reserve who served in Afghanistan, will take on Al Gross, an Independent. Sullivan, who took office in 2015, is unlikely to be unseated, but Vox calls the race “one to watch,” noting that some polls indicate it could be competitive.

The Challengers

Even if the races are unlikely to go their way, several Senate challengers with a history of military service have generated buzz.

Democrat Amy McGrath, the first woman to fly a Marine Corps F/A-18 in combat and a retired lieutenant colonel, first grabbed national attention in 2017 with a viral video highlighting her military service. She lost her 2018 congressional race but now has her sights set on the Kentucky Senate seat held by another veteran, Republican Mitch McConnell, who served in the U.S. Army for 37 days in 1967 before being medically separated. McConnell, the Senate majority leader, has held his seat since 1985 and is unlikely to lose it, but some are still calling the race one to watch.

Another challenger with an impressive military backstory is MJ Hegar, a Texas Democrat and former major in the U.S. Air Force who was shot down and wounded during her third Afghanistan deployment in 2009. Hegar, who in 2012 joined a lawsuit against the Air Force to strike down the policy excluding women from combat, also grabbed national attention with a moving ad during an unsuccessful congressional bid in 2018. She’s now hoping to unseat John Cornyn, a Republican who has served in the Senate since 2013 and is favored to keep it, although the race could be close.

In Georgia, Republican Doug Collins, a U.S. Representative who served two years in the Navy and now serves in the Air Force Reserve as a chaplain, wants to unseat fellow Republican Kelly Loeffler in the state’s special election, following Isakson’s resignation. The nonpartisan site 270toWin calls the race a true toss-up. Loeffler or Collins will have to take on Democrat Raphael Warnock to win the seat; the site 538 narrowly favors a Democrat to win.

In Michigan, West Point graduate and former Army captain John James, a Republican is hoping to beat another veteran, retired Navy lieutenant commander Gary Peters, a Democrat. James, an AH-64 Apache pilot and Iraq veteran, is unlikely to prevail against Peters, who got to the Senate in 2015.

Finally, in New Hampshire, Democrat Jeanne Shaheen faces a challenge from Bryant “Corky” Messner, a West Point graduate who calls himself an Army Ranger on his personal website. That claim got him in some hot water earlier this year, though: the Army says he was Ranger-qualified, but never served in the 75th Ranger Regiment. Shaheen, who took office in 2015, is broadly favored to keep her seat.

Veterans in the US Senate: The Safe Seats

The following veterans are expected to keep their seats without a serious challenge, according to 270toWin:

  • Sen. Tom Cotton, an Arkansas Republican and Army veteran of Iraq and Afghanistan, challenged by Libertarian Ricky Harrington Jr.

  • Sen. Jim Inhofe, an Oklahoma Republican and chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee who served in the Army. He’s being challenged by Democrat Abby Broyles

  • Sen. Jack Reed, a Rhode Island Democrat and ranking member of the Senate Armed Services Committee who was an Army officer. His challenger is Republican Allen Waters.

The Outside Shots

Two veteran challengers are up against incumbents considered safe in their seats.

  • Adrian Perkins, a Louisiana Democrat and former Army captain, is up against Republican Bill Cassidy, who has held the seat since 2009 and is expected to win reelection handily.

  • Daniel Gade, a Virginia Republican and retired Army lieutenant colonel who lost his leg in combat in 2005 in Iraq, is the underdog in his race against Democrat Mark Warner, who came to the Senate in 2009.

-- Hope Hodge Seck can be reached at hope.seck@military.com. Follow her on Twitter at @HopeSeck.

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