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GOP military veterans are running for Congress, hoping to flip blue seats red

SACHA PFEIFFER, HOST:

In the 1970s, 3 of every 4 members of Congress had served in the U.S. military. Now that number is down to about 1 in 6. So Republicans hope a diverse group of veterans running in House districts can change those numbers and change control of Congress. It's a strategy that has worked for Democrats in the past. NPR congressional correspondent Deirdre Walsh talked to some GOP military vets aiming to flip blue seats red.

DEIRDRE WALSH, BYLINE: Jennifer-Ruth Green watched a polarized House chamber during the 2020 State of the Union address and thought her military background could help her make a difference. But she admitted...

JENNIFER-RUTH GREEN: I honestly had zero idea about what running for Congress would look like.

WALSH: Green, a Republican, was told she had no chance to win in an Indiana district that elected Democrats for more than 90 years. But she wants to prove a Black Air Force veteran has a place in her party.

GREEN: Being an example is something that is a, maybe, secondary, tertiary effect that would cause other people to be interested and say, yes, I can be a conservative and an African American and serve in politics.

WALSH: Green won the GOP primary to face Democrat Frank Mrvan this fall and now has money and endorsements from top leaders. She says voters are paying attention to the war in Ukraine, but says the top issues are clear.

GREEN: Between the border and inflation and gas prices, people are pretty concerned about those three pretty evenly.

WALSH: Jen Kiggans, a Republican state senator in Virginia, is 1 of 4 GOP candidates with military backgrounds competing in a district with service installations around Norfolk and Virginia Beach. She decided to run after seeing female Democratic veterans win House seats in 2018, including Elaine Luria, a former Navy commander who she's challenging.

JEN KIGGANS: I thought, well, where are the Republican women? Because we differ in our opinions on many issues. And as a conservative, I felt like, well, where are the Republican veteran women?

WALSH: Like Green, Kiggans says the economy is her top issue, but it's not the only one.

KIGGANS: I feel like it's my responsibility as a veteran running and as a person who would represent a district with the highest veteran population in the commonwealth that we don't stop talking about the crisis in Afghanistan and that withdrawal.

WALSH: Jeremy Hunt is a West Point graduate who served in Army intelligence. After five years in the military, including a deployment to Ukraine, he said the political environment made it a good time for a Republican to turn to politics.

JEREMY HUNT: We felt - specifically for this seat, we knew that it's either now or never. If we're going to make a difference, we feel like we have to take back our country. We're going to do it. We're - it's a year like 2022, when a lot of people are just suffering under Biden's economy with inflation, gas prices, you name it.

WALSH: He's a Black Republican challenging a Black Democrat, Georgia congressman Sanford Bishop. Hunt says he uses the same approach he did in the military, asking voters what they need from their representative.

HUNT: I'm not showing up saying, here's what, you know, Washington can do for you and here is my, you know, 10-point plan about - what I'm doing is I'm showing up, and I'm listening and saying, look, you've been doing this much longer than I have. Tell me, what can we do to support you?

WALSH: He cites rising energy prices and concerns about illegal immigration and drugs coming across the border. When it comes to former President Trump, who's still relitigating the 2020 election in Georgia, Hunt is clear in separating himself from that message.

HUNT: We are trying to build a serious coalition to flip a key Democratic seat. We don't spend much time talking about, you know, national-level stuff.

WALSH: Indiana's Green praised Trump's policies, but contrasted her own style.

GREEN: I want to make sure that I lead with accountability and with integrity. And my style of leadership is vastly different from his. And I want to lead in a different way.

WALSH: Kiggans pivoted from questions about the former president, noting he's not on the ballot this year.

KIGGANS: I'm so focused on this midterm cycle. Nothing will matter if we don't flip the U.S. House, in my opinion.

WALSH: Trump isn't getting involved in any of these swing district races so far. Hunt is looking beyond him.

HUNT: I think the future is going to be in districts like mine, building a multiracial, working-class coalition of voters.

WALSH: Republican and Democratic veterans in the House created a bipartisan For Country Caucus that often works on national security issues. Members say they often split on a lot of policies, but the shared bond of wearing the uniform brings them together. If more veterans do win in November, that may be one of the rare places to find common ground.

Deirdre Walsh, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.