Can Obama’s National Security Braintrust Get Elected in the Age of Trump?
Foreign-policy alumni are trying to shake off the “D.C. insider” reputation and sail into Congress.
When the Democratic Party opened its first small campaign office in congressional candidate Andy Kim’s suburban New Jersey district, he and his team expected a modest turnout.
“I thought maybe 50 or 60 people would show up,” Kim says.
Instead, more than 200 people arrived to inaugurate the party’s campaign headquarters in an unassuming office park in Willingboro, just west of the New Jersey Turnpike.
Kim, a former foreign affairs officer at the U.S. State Department who served on the National Security Council and as a political advisor in Afghanistan, is one of a new group of relatively unusual congressional candidates in the 2018 midterm elections. Along with a cohort of other national security professionals from the Obama administration, Kim is testing out whether the cliche insult of being a “D.C. insider” is really that bad.
He isn’t alone. Stung by the fallout from the election of President Donald Trump, this group of candidates, running in districts ranging from Michigan to California, have flocked home to reconnect with the proverbial “real America.”
Veteran campaign watchers are taking notice.
Saying there is an uptick in foreign-policy veterans running for Congress “would be an understatement,” says David Wasserman, who tracks House races for the Cook Political Report, a nonpartisan group that follows U.S. elections and campaigns. “You’re seeing an explosion.”
“I feel like everybody I know is running for Congress,” jokes Daniel Baer, former ambassador to the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe under President Barack Obama.
Baer, now based in Colorado, ran a brief campaign for Congress before dropping out after the incumbent, Democratic Rep. Ed Perlmutter, decided to seek re-election.
But even without Baer, the list of foreign-policy veterans from the Pentagon, State Department, and intelligence community running for Congress as Democrats is conspicuously long, including Elissa Slotkin in Michigan, Tom Malinowski in New Jersey, Lauren Baer and Nancy Soderberg in Florida, Rufus Gifford in Massachusetts, Abigail Spanberger and Dan Ward in Virginia, Sarah Jacobs in California, Gina Ortiz Jones in Texas, and Ed Meier in Texas, who failed in the primaries. In California’s 4th District alone, two State Department veterans, Jessica Morse and Regina Bateson, are facing off in the Democratic primary in June.
Most say they were driven by the dismal state of national politics Trump has ushered in and new waves of hyperpartisanship seeping into foreign policy, historically a safe haven from Washington’s sharpest political dogfights.
“Running for office was not something I ever imagined myself doing,” says Lauren Baer, a former member of the State Department’s policy planning staff and advisor to United Nations Ambassador Samantha Power and Secretaries of State Hillary Clinton and John Kerry. She’s running for a seat in Florida’s 18th District against Republican incumbent Brian Mast. “I was always someone who was happy in the world of policy, but not politics.”
Elissa Slotkin, a CIA veteran who served in senior roles in both the Bush and Obama administrations, says the “overall tenor and tone” of Washington in the run-up to the elections first prompted her to consider running in her home state of Michigan.
“I just felt what was going on was something different. Not just Donald Trump, but the overall vitriol going on felt wholly different and dysfunctional,” she tells Foreign Policy.
“It wasn’t a club I ever wanted to be a part of,” she says of running for office, “but I truly felt that we had hit the low point of the American political conversation.”
While foreign policy isn’t the decisive issue in Michigan’s 8th, or New Jersey’s 3rd District, whether or not these candidates succeed could be a litmus test for how foreign-policy veterans translate their work to Americans at home.
It might be a tough sell. Political analysts say it’s harder for congressional candidates who are former diplomats or Pentagon policymakers to make their case to voters than the long-venerated military veterans who are also flocking to congressional races in droves.
If they are successful, though, these foreign-policy candidates could help form a small but growing group of congressional leaders deeply engaged in foreign-policy issues.
“There’s a critical mass forming,” says Jake Sullivan, a former top advisor to Hillary Clinton during her failed presidential bid. “Getting a new crop of people who really understand these issues, that’s a big opportunity.”
While they may not cause a tectonic shift in American politics, their presence in Congress could add to a rising tide of congressional support for a more aggressive check on the Trump administration’s foreign policy.
“The Constitution made Congress a co-equal branch of government for a reason,” Sen. Bob Menendez (D-N.J.), ranking member of the Senate foreign relations committee, said during an event in Washington on April 18. “Though no one enjoys answering to a check on their power, we must assert it now more than ever.”
Most candidates, despite their executive branch bona fides, recognize that foreign-policy topics aren’t foremost in most voters’ minds.
“These issues are not the dominant issues in a congressional campaign,” says Tom Malinowski, the former assistant secretary of state for democracy, human rights, and labor in the Obama administration, now running for a seat in New Jersey’s 7th District. “In my district, the main issues are taxes, infrastructure, health care, the environment — as you would expect.”
Still, as some other former national security officials noted, high-level government experience has given many of these candidates a chance to burnish their credentials, while highlighting their work in serious and consequential public roles.
Kim and Slotkin, for instance, are both actively playing up their national security credentials — especially in conflict zones. Slotkin, who served three tours in Iraq as a CIA analyst, says she doesn’t try to hide it: “I was serving my country. I’m proud of my service, and I lean into it.” The same goes for Kim, who served several tours in Afghanistan as an advisor to Gen. David Petraeus.
Earlier this month, former Vice President Joe Biden endorsed Slotkin. She also tells FP she’s received financial backing from prominent Republican foreign-policy figures, including former President George W. Bush’s national security advisor Stephen Hadley and his deputy secretary of state John Negroponte.
Negroponte, who worked closely with Slotkin when he was ambassador to Iraq and director of national intelligence, tells FP he was one of Slotkin’s earliest financial backers, and says she is an “excellent” candidate for Congress.
Though she’s not through the primary yet, her Republican opponent, incumbent Rep. Mike Bishop, has already started using her resume against her, painting her as a Washington interloper.
“She has little ties to the district,” says Stu Sandler, a campaign consultant for Bishop. “Nancy Pelosi and other Democrats have decided that D.C. insiders should be placed into districts across the country, and they’ve done that with Slotkin.”
Lauren Baer may have the same issue, says Cook Political Report’s Wasserman. “She wants to prove herself as a serious candidate with a serious resume, but that resume will be Republicans’ biggest weapon against her.”
In New Jersey, Kim is betting that his experience serving in war zones such as Afghanistan along with time spent working under both Republican and Democratic presidents will be a winning combination. Kim also has the benefit of running in the state’s 3rd District, an area with significant investment in the U.S. role overseas. “We have a joint military base here. It’s the largest employer in the district,” he tells FP. “As a result, national security issues are very much local issues.”
Despite their optimism, however, most of these candidates face uphill battles in their attempts to unseat Republican opponents. The Cook Political Report still rates the districts where Slotkin, Baer, and Kim are running as “leaning Republican.” Only New Jersey’s 7th District, where Tom Malinowski is running, is considered a toss-up, though the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee rates all four districts as key battleground races.
Chris Russell, a strategist for Kim’s Republican opponent Rep. Tom MacArthur, was similarly confident that his candidate had a steady advantage in the race. “We’re not taking anything for granted,” he tells FP, “but at root, this is a numbers game that Andy will have a hard time winning.”
Russell also argues that traditional Republican dominance will be difficult for Democratic contenders to overcome.
“It’s an issue that ultimately benefits Republicans in the sense that this is a pro-military district and a strong defense district,” Russell says. “Generally speaking, the voters here tend to be more hawkish in their views.”
The wonks concede they have a lot to learn from voters after Clinton’s stinging defeat in 2016. Even those who aren’t running for office are doing their own soul-searching.
The 2016 election, says Sullivan, was a “wake-up call.”
Sullivan, who was expected to be Clinton’s national security advisor had she won, helped found a new group called National Security Action to furnish Democratic politicos with national security expertise in the run-up to the 2018 and 2020 elections.
“Foreign-policy experts, myself included, have tended to leave questions like income inequality, the plight of the middle class, to others,” he tells FP. He says he’s working to change that, as U.S. prestige and power abroad hinges on domestic issues like a strong middle class.
Daniel Baer says one lesson he learned during his brief stint on the campaign trail was that voters do care about foreign policy, contrary to what scores of political consultants and analysts say.
“At almost every campaign event, I was asked about North Korea, or the Paris climate agreement, or trade,” he says. “The consulting class and political class doesn’t give the voting class enough credit to their interest in foreign-policy issues that affects their everyday lives.”
Julie Smith, a former senior Obama administration official who advised Clinton’s campaign, launched a program last year to bring national security experts and foreign ambassadors to cities around the country to engage the public on foreign policy. She says they’ve spoken with packed audiences in public libraries and high schools in Salt Lake City, Pittsburgh, Tampa Bay, and other cities to try to bridge the gap between Washington and the rest of the country.
“There is a hunger to engage,” says Smith, who runs the program in her role at the Washington-based think tank Center for a New American Security.
“National security experts in Washington haven’t necessarily made much of an effort to engage the public outside of our own city,” she says. “Doing a little more listening would go a long way.”
Update, April 25, 2018: This article was updated to include additional names of national security experts running for Congress in 2018.
Robbie Gramer is a diplomacy and national security reporter at Foreign Policy. @robbiegramer