WASHINGTON—The last time Democrats won a House majority it was in part because the Iraq War was so unpopular. The next time may be with candidates who fought in America’s post-9/11 conflicts.
The party is running military veterans in competitive congressional districts across the country: Fifteen veterans have already launched 2018 House campaigns, and 10 more may enter races by this summer, Democratic officials say.
In addition to framing their campaigns as a continuation of their national service, the veterans allow the Democratic Party to appeal to segments of the electorate that have fled the party in recent elections. It recalls their strategy in 2006, when they took control of the House by fielding candidates who could appeal to voters in more conservative districts.
“It is time that Democrats genuinely show that we can have a bigger tent and not just be entirely defined by the old liberal left,” said Massachusetts Rep. Seth Moulton, a Marine combat veteran of the Iraq War who is leading the party’s recruiting effort among veterans.
Democrats must win at least 24 seats in 2018 to take a majority in the House. With GOP President Donald Trump less popular at this point in his term than any president in modern history, Democratic officials now believe between 75 and 100 House districts will be in play in 2018, dozens more than previous estimates.
The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee has spoken with 300 potential 2018 candidates, an official said, though dozens will compete against each other in primary contests.
For all the energy on the political left, Republicans won a House special election in Kansas and remain favored to win coming contests in Montana on Thursday and in Georgia and South Carolina in June.
Told Democrats believe 75 to 100 districts will be in play, Matt Gorman, the National Republican Congressional Committee communications director, laughed. “They are undefeated in moral victories,” Mr. Gorman said.
For the first time this year, the DCCC is working with VoteVets, a liberal political-action committee with which the party’s House campaign arm has often been at odds. VoteVets, which in the past has backed Democratic veterans in primary challenges, is now targeting competitive general election races.
“Veterans have a chance to carry districts that other Democrats won’t be competitive in,” said Jon Soltz, the VoteVets founder and chairman. “They’re less political and they’re not career politicians and they’re not Washington.”
Last month, Illinois Sen. Tammy Duckworth convened a meeting with Mr. Moulton, VoteVets and the DCCC to coordinate recruiting and financial efforts.
“Ever since I first ran, people were saying, ‘We didn’t know there were Democrats in the military,’ ” said Ms. Duckworth, who lost both of her legs in Iraq and who was first elected to the House in 2012. “They acted like I was some sort of unicorn, and I knew that I wasn’t.”
Of the 80 military veterans serving in the House, just 19 are Democrats, according to Seth Lynn, executive director of Veterans Campaign, a nonpartisan group that trains veterans to run for office.
“There’s a real fiction in our national narrative that the Republican Party has the corner on the market on patriotism,” said Chrissy Houlahan, a former Air Force captain who is challenging GOP Rep. Ryan Costello in a suburban Philadelphia district that Hillary Clinton carried in November.
While the DCCC has remained neutral in primaries that don’t involve incumbents, VoteVets is set this week to endorse Ms. Houlahan, along with Jason Crow against GOP Rep. Mike Coffman in Colorado and Doug Applegate and Josh Butner against GOP Reps. Darrell Issa and Duncan Hunter in Southern California.
In upstate New York, former Army intelligence officer Pat Ryan is preparing to challenge GOP Rep. John Faso. Mr. Ryan, 35 years old, said his military background would be an asset in a district that voted for Barack Obama in 2012 and Mr. Trump last year.
“It’s a slightly Republican district, so people are going to have to feel that the candidate is doing this for something beyond just party for a greater purpose,” Mr. Ryan said.
It is by no means guaranteed that the veterans would emerge from Democratic primary contests that are expected to be crowded, which could force candidates to the left. Ms. Houlahan, like each of the four VoteVets-backed candidates, already has Democratic primary opposition.
“There’s a renewed emphasis on ideological purity in an age when everybody gets a primary,” said Ian Russell, a former DCCC political director. “With veterans, there’s a decent chance they wind up being nonideological.”
Veterans face an array of challenges politically. Their military service takes them far from home. They don’t come with the political base like previously elected officials. Very few can tap a network of wealthy friends.
“If they’ve been on active duty, they may not have lived in their hometowns for 15 to 20 years,” Ms. Duckworth said.
Dan Feehan, a 34-year-old Army veteran who served as a Defense Department official in the Obama administration, is preparing to run in the Minnesota district where he grew up—even though he hasn’t lived there since he was 14. Mr. Feehan, his wife and two children still live in Washington and are house-hunting in Mankato, Minn.
Though the sprawling 21-county district is held by a Democrat, Rep. Tim Walz, Mr. Trump won it by 15 percentage points in November. Mr. Walz is vacating the seat to run for governor.
“I’m on a very steep learning curve,” Mr. Feehan said, “to learn everything that goes into this and to maintain every aspect of authenticity that I have.”
This article appeared in the May 22, 2017, print edition of the Wall Street Journal as 'Democrats Tap Vets for 2018.'