Where did the Democratic veterans who helped flip the House come from?

Mikie Sherrill campaigning for the Congressional seat she won on Nov. 6.
Mikie Sherrill campaigning for the Congressional seat she won on Nov. 6.
Image: AP Photo/Mary Altaffer
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Emily Cherniack spent a heart-breaking election night volunteering for Dan Feehan, an Army veteran and former teacher who ran for Congress in Minnesota’s first district. When the results came in after 3 am, Feehan lost by less than 1,300 votes.

Yet across the country, better results arrived for candidates endorsed by her organization, New Politics: Jason Crow, another Army veteran, flipped a suburban House seat in Colorado from Republican to Democrat. Mikie Sherrill, a former Naval aviator, did the same in New Jersey, while Max Rose, an Afghanistan combat veteran, turned a chunk of Staten Island blue. In Pennsylvania, a former US Air Force reservist named Chrissy Houlahan wrested a House seat from a Republican challenger.

New Politics is dedicated to recruiting people from the service community—often veterans but also participants in organizations like Teach for America or Americorps—into politics, then giving them the tools they need to succeed and plugging them into a sympathetic fundraising network. “We help them incubate their campaigns,” Cherniack said in a Nov. 7 interview. “It takes a village to elect a candidate.”

Of the nine House candidates they supported, at least four flipped House districts.

“Candidates matter, and we’ve proven the theory of the case with this election,” she said. “I think we saw in this election that voters are hungry for new leadership in both parties. A lot of our veterans won because their authentic leadership promised to break with our political status quo.”

Cherniack began her career working in national service organizations. She joined her first political campaign in 2009, and observed a “broken ecosystem” for recruiting candidates, with party officials pulling potential nominees from the small pool of people in the local party system.

Cherniack decided to turn to the service communities to recruit outsider candidates. Although New Politics is non-partisan, it has turned up a surprising number of progressive veterans to run as Democrats.  “My sense is they’re always been there, they just weren’t reached out to,” she says. Only one of the federal candidates endorsed by New Politics, Wisconsin representative Mike Gallagher, ran as a Republican.

Most of the people she solicits to run say “no” at first, worried about the financial consequences of campaigning for a year or more, and the potential for their families to be dragged into ugly public confrontations.

“You have to really talk through a lot of those tough questions and scenarios and fears and sort of unpack that for them,” she says. “They’re real and they are things that happen to candidates…You bring it back to the mission, you say this is bigger than you.”

Many of the veterans she recruits are uncomfortable with the spotlight required in a political campaign, where their name will be emblazoned in huge letters on signs, t-shirts and televisions. Like most new candidates, they are thrown off by constantly asking people for money. Cherniack says she asks potential candidates, “If a veteran asks you to help them, would you say yes? Why is it different when you’re asking someone to help you?”

Ahead of the 2020 cycle, New Politics will work to scale up and enlarge its candidate pipeline, as well as convincing some of the losing candidates to make another stab. The organization is also working to develop a training program for campaign staff so that New Politics’ candidates can draw on talented supporters, saying that this cycle her campaigns faced with a “huge vacuum…with a B team staff, your campaign is not going to run well.”

Still, what surprised her during the cycle is what likely surprised many Americans. ”We had Dan Feehan and Dan McCready running against white nationalist candidates—being Republican was not the issue—but pretty extreme, and people still supported them…I was just surprised at the energy around people who are pretty racist.”

Comparing her candidates—both combat veterans—to Captain America, she was disappointed at close races against those opponents, one described by a conservative newspaper as “the worst Republican candidate in America.”

“Not that I didn’t think people weren’t like that in this country, but it was just surprising, the energy,” she said.