At first blush, the decline of veterans in public office appears to be the natural consequence of the diminishing number of veterans in the overall population. With cuts in force levels following the end of the Cold War, the draft gone, and the All-Volunteer Force in place for four decades, veterans now comprise just 9 percent of the total population. Yet, when veterans made up over 70 percent of Congress in the 1970s, they were a little less than 14 percent of the total population. The decline of veterans in public office has been sharper than the decline of veterans within the general population. Why?
Perhaps the most significant reason is the current cost of running for Congress. The price tag for a Senate campaign stands near $10.5 million, the House near $1.6 million. Both political parties are likely to recruit candidates who have existing fundraising networks and abilities, with personal wealth often to boot. The high cost of political campaigns and highly restrictive campaign finance laws, which bind political parties, favor the incumbent and disadvantage the military veteran, whose earnings and savings is typically quite modest, as is his immediate circle of friends and associates.
Schmitt and Burgess point to the high cost of campaigning as one reason. Another may be the increasing number of women, who are less likely than men to have served in the military. But
they note that legislatures are a congressional farm club, with about half of current members consisting of former state lawmakers.
From this perspective, the good news is that no fewer than 1,039 out of 7,383 state legislators have military experience—14 percent. While the clear majority, as in the US Congress, lean Republican, female veterans in the House, Senate, and state offices tend to break more evenly along partisan lines. And, as one might expect given the respective size of each of the services, Army veterans, from the active component, the Guard, and the Reserves, account for a majority of state and federal office holders. But each of the services, along with the Coast Guard, has veterans currently serving in the state legislatures.
As one might expect with the aging of the Vietnam-era cohort, Post-Cold War veterans make up an increasing share of all veteran state legislators. Post-9/11 veterans alone now total 20 percent of all congressional and state-level veteran legislators. And, strikingly, 41 percent of veterans running for Congress this year served after 9/11 (128 of 316).
The annual Military Family Lifestyle Survey released by Blue Star families in 2015 revealed that, when asked about their motivation for having joined the military, 95 percent of service members answered, “to serve my country.” Similarly, in a 2015 poll taken by Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America, the veteran population proved highly engaged and civic-minded: 93 percent were registered to vote, 80 percent reported voting in the 2014 election, and nearly 40 percent indicated they have considered running for public office.