Democrats Make Play for Veteran and Military Support as Trump Homes in on GOP Nomination

by Braxton Taylor

CHARLOTTE, N.C. — Highway signs welcome drivers entering North Carolina to “the nation’s most military friendly state,” and veterans here know they’re being courted. But in a state where camouflage-colored appeals have become commonplace, recent efforts by progressive groups to cut into what has long been a reliably red constituency face an early test on Super Tuesday.

Among the 16 states and one territory casting ballots in Tuesday’s 2024 presidential primaries and caucuses are some with the nation’s highest rates of active-duty service members and largest populations of veterans: Texas, California, Virginia and North Carolina. But Tar Heel State veterans interviewed in the runup to the primary season’s biggest voting day varied in their politics, even if they agreed that their military service informed their opinions.

Ryan Rogers, who fought in Afghanistan and Iraq, says the Biden administration mishandled the August 2021 attacks on Kabul’s airport that killed at least 60 Afghans and 13 U.S. troops. The right-leaning independent voter from eastern North Carolina fears the blasts signaled a weakness that could endanger U.S. troops overseas.

“I don’t care what side you’re on,” he said. “You better be strong.”

But Ric Vandett, a 78-year-old Vietnam veteran from Hickory, won’t vote for President Joe Biden’s predecessor, Donald Trump. The left-leaning independent voter said he cannot forget Trump’s refusal to acknowledge defeat in the 2020 election, which he blames for the Jan. 6 attacks on the U.S. Capitol.

“We came extremely close to a major constitutional crisis on Jan. 6,” he said. “I’m afraid to see that happen again.”

Recent statements by Trump have fueled Democrats’ sense that there’s an opening among voters with strong military ties, even if that gap hasn’t surfaced during his march toward the GOP nomination.

Ahead of South Carolina’s Republican primary, Trump said he “would encourage” Russia “to do whatever the hell they want ” to NATO countries that don’t meet defense spending targets. He also questioned why the husband of rival Nikki Haley wasn’t joining her on the campaign trail, though Michael Haley was then deployed with the South Carolina Army National Guard.

Haley responded that Trump knows “nothing about” serving the country. Trump handily defeated Haley in South Carolina, just like every state primary and caucus to date. Her only win came on Sunday in Washington, D.C.

Trump benefited from the bloc’s support in the 2020 general election. AP VoteCast found that about 6 in 10 military veterans said they voted for Trump then, as did just over half of those with a veteran in the household.

Among voters in this year’s South Carolina Republican primary, AP VoteCast found that close to two-thirds of military veterans and people in veteran households voted for Trump over Haley.

Still, progressive groups are citing Trump’s unorthodox foreign policy and past comments to argue that he’s no friend to Americans in uniform. Any significant departure from the more conservative constituency of veterans and military families could spell trouble for Trump in a November rematch with Biden.

The Democrats will have to work for that support, according to Cal Cunningham, North Carolina Democrats’ 2020 nominee for U.S. Senate and an Army reservist who served in Iraq and Afghanistan. Winning over this community is always challenging, Cunningham said, because people with military experience tend to value a culture more aligned with the “hierarchical” GOP than the “egalitarian” Democrats.

Their ability to do so could help determine which candidate receives North Carolina’s 15 electoral votes this fall.

“It’s going to be part of where the presidency is won and lost,” Cunningham said.

Trump’s weekend rally in Greensboro was protested by Common Defense, a progressive organization founded in 2016 to engage veterans as more than just “political props.” The group said Trump’s “alarming disregard for the core tenets of democracy” goes against their oaths.

The Biden campaign has also ratcheted up attacks over Trump’s history of disparaging remarks about the armed forces.

“I call them patriots and heroes. The only loser I see is Donald Trump,” said Biden, angrily wagging his finger during the South Carolina Democratic Party’s fundraising dinner, in reference to reports that his predecessor described the American war dead at a French cemetery as “losers” and “suckers.”

VoteVets, a liberal political action committee, is planning a $10 million to $15 million push targeting veterans and military families in key battleground states, according to co-founder Jon Soltz. A 60-second ad invoking former President Ronald Reagan to attack Republicans over blocking Ukraine aid will hit airwaves soon, Soltz said.

Soltz, a U.S. Army officer in the Iraq War, said the GOP lost its status as “the party of the military” during the Trump era. Anyone who claims to support service members “just can’t vote” for someone with a “ridiculous amount of deferments” who “trashes” the likes of the late U.S. Sen. John McCain, he said.

Some veterans who oppose Biden say Trump has better defended the country’s priorities despite past comments. Rogers, the Afghanistan and Iraq veteran, didn’t like Trump’s description of McCain as “not a war hero,” but said he’s voting “on a strong America” and not “what comes out of the man’s mouth.”

“I’ve been the guy on the ground,” he said. “I’ve lost Marines because of decisions.”

The modern GOP has grown skeptical of foreign entanglements. So have many former military members, according to John Byrnes, a senior adviser for a conservative advocacy group called Concerned Veterans for America.

Ken Deery, a Charlotte resident whose Army career took him from Missouri to Germany in the 1980s, said he sought to defend the “American way” against the Soviet Union. That dream — affordable home ownership and education, for example — isn’t possible nowadays, he said.

“We’ve got global wars starting up all over the place. Any one of these could blossom into a world war,” said Deery, who described himself as libertarian. “And that’s all on Biden’s watch.”

Biden supporters say they trust his administration more to navigate the wars in Russia and Gaza than Trump — who as president bucked tradition by currying favor with Russian President Vladimir Putin.

Liberal veterans also point to 2022 legislation that extended health care services to millions who served at military bases exposed to toxic “burn pits,” but who had often seen their disability claims denied. Considered the largest expansion of benefits in three decades, the law added hypertension to the list of ailments presumably caused by exposure to chemicals used during the Vietnam War.

For Sandra Williams, who spent most of her five years with the Army in Georgia, it “means a lot” that Biden pushed that to the forefront. She said the law opened up medical services for several relatives.

Williams plans to back Biden and disagrees that Trump has the country’s best interests at heart. She said the United States “almost turned into a laughingstock” and “lost our credibility” under Trump.

What’s certain is that veterans do tend to vote. According to the Census Bureau, they cast ballots at rates 8 percentage points higher than non-veterans in the last presidential election.

Those votes should not be taken for granted, cautioned Allison Jaslow, CEO of Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America. In a survey of over 2,500 members, the non-partisan organization found that nearly three-fourths of respondents were dissatisfied with democracy.

Jaslow said veterans are so politically engaged because they want their sacrifices “to be worth it.” She said some politicians claim they’re “for the troops” but lack “the guts” to fully debate the cost of going to war.

“I think it’s fair for the average veteran to feel like our service was taken for granted,” she said.

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Pollard is a corps member for the Associated Press/Report for America Statehouse News Initiative. Report for America is a nonprofit national service program that places journalists in local newsrooms to report on undercovered issues.

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