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Veteran Dems Set Sights On Contentious House Seats

Campaign photos
Gina Ortiz Jones, left, and Joseph Kopser

Early voting is underway for Texas’ March 6 primaries, and the ballot is full of new political hopefuls — including some who tout their military experience.  


Gina Ortiz Jones, a San Antonio native and former Air Force intelligence officer, will challenge Republican Rep. Will Hurd in Texas’ 23rd Congressional District. After three years with the Air Force, she transitioned to a different kind of public service, working for the Pentagon’s Defense Intelligence Agency.

Joseph Kopser, the Austin tech entrepreneur behind the transportation app RideScout,  seeks to replace U.S. Rep. Lamar Smith in TX 21. He’s a former Army cavalryman and West Point instructor.

They’re part of a cohort of around 20 democratic veterans trying to shift control of the House.

For Kopser, he said the decision to run for office was fueled by a sense of duty. The 2016 presidential election raised alarm bells, and sent him running into the political fray.

“When there's a terrible situation and there's shooting or sounds of gunfire, people run away. It's the police and the fire and the EMS that run towards the sounds to see what they can do,” he said. “It's the same thing in the military. In this particular metaphor, Washington D.C. is where all the problems are occurring.”

"I never served in any platoon, never led any company or ever went on any military mission in which part of the preparation required me to look left and right and ask people their party."

Similarly, Gina Ortiz Jones says the political climate in America today reminds her of things she saw while deployed to Iraq.

“That was my first experience serving in a country where women and minorities were targeted, and (seeing) what happens to a country where this is no middle class — in large part because a government is more interested in enriching themselves than serving the people,” Jones said.

Veteran representation has taken a nosedive since the ‘70s, when nearly three-fourths of Congress could claim experience in either World War II or the Korean War.

Now only 20 percent of senators and 19 percent of representatives have ever served in the military, according to the Pew Research Center.

With this kind of dropoff, Jones said, a dangerous void is left when it comes to national security decision-making and an understanding of the stakes of war.

“I think it leaves a lot of people wanting for people that have experience with this, have seen war up close, and are going to have the moral courage to ask the types of questions that will keep our men and women out of harm’s way,” Jones said.

Despite their experiences with deployment and conflict, veterans face challenges when it comes to entering the political realm.

“It’s really ironic that veterans spend years — if not decades — serving their country but are considered novices when running to serve their communities.” said Rick Hegdahl of VoteVets, a left-leaning PAC that’s trying to bring more veterans into public office.

“The toughest obstacle for veterans running for office is that they’ve not spent years cultivating a political base or financial base like people who spend years working towards a run for public office.”

VoteVets is helping veterans get started by offering campaign money and messaging. The group has endorsed both Jones and Kopser, along with 34 other candidates or sitting officeholders in Congress.

Some have called VoteVets’ efforts an attempt to rebrand veterans and appeal to the ‘guns and guts’ vote. Party affiliation isn’t front and center on their website, or those of the candidates they endorse.

Kopser and Jones said they embrace that — and argue their past military experience makes them better at working across the aisle.

"I never served in any platoon, never led any company or ever went on any military mission in which part of the preparation required me to look left and right and ask people their party,” Kopser said. “It just didn't happen.”

Jones agreed, and said bipartisan politics will make for a more inclusive country.

“The diversity and challenges that we face as a country are going require that we don’t leave anybody behind,” Jones said. “We need all hands on deck.”

Carson Frame can be reached at carson@tpr.org or on Twitter @carson_frame

Carson Frame was Texas Public Radio's military and veterans' issues reporter from July 2017 until March 2024.