Anguished by America’s Decline, More Foreign-Policy Wonks Run for Office
More national security experts are running for Congress in 2020 than in most past elections.
Sri Kulkarni was a foreign service officer for 14 years before the advent of the Trump era upended his career plans. As a diplomat watching Washington’s tectonic shifts from abroad, Kulkarni became dejected with what he saw as a presidency that was accelerating America’s internal political divisions and tarnishing its global stature.
For him, the breaking points came in 2017 with the violent white supremacist rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, and President Donald Trump endorsing Republican Roy Moore in his failed bid for a Senate seat in Alabama despite allegations of sexual misconduct with underage girls. Kulkarni was readying for his next assignment as spokesperson at the U.S. Embassy in India—an important posting that would put him on a glide path for promotions into the senior ranks of America’s diplomatic corps. Instead, he quit and turned back to his home state of Texas to get involved in domestic politics.
“I’ve worked in conflict zones before, and I could see the sort of tension rising in my own country along that same continuum, where people treat each other like enemies,” he told Foreign Policy. “I felt like everything that I had fought for overseas, everything that I stood up for the State Department was being threatened there at home.”
He contacted the Texas Democratic Party to see how he could contribute to campaigns that would blunt the rise of Trumpism sweeping across the country. Instead, Kulkarni, who grew up in the Houston area, was asked if he wanted to run himself.
He narrowly lost his first bid for Congress in the 2018 midterms for Texas’s 22nd district to incumbent Republican Pete Olson, but he is running again in 2020. Olson is retiring this year, and national political analysts see the onetime conservative stronghold—an increasingly diverse constituency in the suburbs of Houston—as a toss-up race ripe for a Democratic win.
Kulkarni’s story is not unique, and it’s one that veteran Democratic campaign strategists see as a key to keeping their majority in the House in 2020. During the 2018 midterms, an unprecedented number of foreign-policy experts ran for Congress. Most of these candidates made their campaigns about local issues—not the president himself—though for many Trump’s ascent to the White House was a driving factor in their decision to run.
Across the board, there were mixed results, with nearly as many losses as wins for the foreign-policy wonks who ran. But among those who did win, a pattern emerged that has excited Democratic political analysts and spurred on high-profile support—including massive influxes of campaign cash—for candidates with national security-centric resumes.
Democrats seem poised to consolidate their holds on key suburban swing districts with high levels of income and education, some that have been red for decades. Before 2018, the Republican Party held 13 of the top 25 House districts ranked for education levels and 13 for median income. After the midterms, they held just five and four respectively. In the 2018 race, foreign-policy wonks showed a track record of doing well in such districts.
Andrew Albertson, the head of the advocacy group Foreign Policy for America, said candidates with a foreign-policy background are at the “center of the story” for shifting important battleground districts toward the Democrats.
“Having some real credibility and expertise on national security issues—it’s not necessarily a question that’s going to get asked in a lot of town halls, but voters seem to gravitate toward candidates who can check that box and make them feel safe and make them feel like there’s a serious professional who knows what they’re talking about on the big issues,” he said.
The list of such candidates who won in 2018 includes Elissa Slotkin, a former CIA and Pentagon official in Michigan’s 8th district, and Andy Kim, a former Obama National Security Council staffer in New Jersey’s 3rd district. Tom Malinowski, a former senior human rights envoy at the State Department under President Barack Obama, was the first Democratic candidate to win New Jersey’s 7th district since 1981. Abigail Spanberger, a former CIA operations officer, turned Virginia’s 7th district blue for the first time since 1968.
Alongside Kulkarni, newcomers vying for congressional seats in 2020 whose races campaign strategists are tracking closely include: Gina Ortiz Jones, an Iraq war veteran and former Air Force intelligence officer running for Texas’s 23rd district after narrowly losing the race in 2018; Evelyn Farkas, a former Pentagon official who oversaw Russia and Ukraine policy, running in New York’s 17th district; and Kate Schroder, a global health care and aid expert running in Ohio’s 1st district.
Foreign Policy for America established a political action committee to donate to candidates based on their platforms or voting record on foreign policy issues. By June, the organization had raised over half a million dollars ahead of the 2020 elections, according to Albertson.
“Some of my colleagues say that you have to stay in to steer the ship, and make sure that once we get past this period, we actually can rebuild these institutions,” Kulkarni said. “Others like myself, obviously, they make the personal choice that you can’t steer a ship that’s gone completely off the rails like this.”
“I think if we’re willing to risk our lives for our country overseas in places like Iraq, we should be willing to risk our careers to stand up for our country at home,” he said.
Whatever their motivations, the end result could be an unprecedented number of former national security pros filling the ranks of a new Congress in 2021, many of whom would be poised to make their mark on American foreign policy from the perch of powerful oversight committees like the House Armed Services Committee or Foreign Affairs Committee.
Those who came to Capitol Hill in 2018 led the charge on flexing congressional war powers resolutions to curb the president’s ability to use the military abroad without prior legislative approval. They also played an influential role in drafting bills that would reform the long-troubled U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, and spurring the president to use the 1950s-era Defense Production Act to boost the production of medical supplies during the coronavirus pandemic.
The new wave of candidates vying for congressional seats comes as what looked to be a key set of issues at the beginning of the election year—impeachment, the economy, and domestic health care policy—were eclipsed by a global coronavirus pandemic and civic unrest that have put foreign-policy threats and America’s standing in the world at the forefront of both Trump’s and Democratic challenger Joe Biden’s campaigns.
“I do think foreign policy is going to be more important this year than it has been in the past, probably since the immediate post-9/11 elections,” said Jennifer Holdsworth, a veteran Democratic campaign strategist. “From a Democratic strategist’s perspective, there’s obviously a huge focus on domestic policy right now, but there’s still a significant portion of American voters who are very concerned about receding American leadership abroad.”
Still, some of their opponents are casting their work in Washington as a liability. These candidates have faced attacks from their political opponents over their background and record. Kathaleen Wall, one of Kulkarni’s Republican opponents, went after him in a series of attacks focused on China’s role in the spread of the coronavirus pandemic, calling him one of the “spineless, silent Democrats who refuse to stand up to the thuggish Chinese government.”
“The days of so-called ‘diplomats’ like Sri Preston Kulkarni being allowed to remain silent against Communist China are over,” she said, as the Fort Bend Herald reported in May.
Nonetheless, former senior diplomats and national security heavyweights are backing these candidates with endorsements, hoping Congress can step up its voice on foreign affairs in part to course-correct Trump’s iconoclast vision of American foreign policy.
“Evelyn can be a powerful voice at a time when America’s values are under assault,” former Secretary of State John Kerry said in a statement endorsing Farkas. “She’s both practical and principled, and the district would be well-served to have her expertise at work in our dangerous world.”
One major question for these races will be how much concern over America’s role in the world translates into an issue constituents hinge their votes on. Foreign policy always takes a backseat to district issues, and it’s unclear whether national security would become a deciding factor for voters in 2020.
The race for Texas’s 23rd district, where Jones is running, could be a key test of this question. The sprawling district, bigger than some U.S. states, covers some 800 miles of the U.S.-Mexico border and has found itself at the center of the pitched battle in Washington over Trump’s border wall and immigration policy. It is also home to multiple U.S. military installations, including Laughlin Air Force Base and Joint Base San Antonio.
Republican Will Hurd, a former CIA case officer himself and the only black Republican House member, beat out Jones by a razor-thin majority of less than 1,000 votes for the district in 2018. In a blow to the Republicans, he announced last year he would not be seeking reelection, increasing the chance that Jones can secure the district for Democrats this time around.
“This is a community that absolutely understands the importance of national security because it’s our friends, our neighbors, if something were to happen, it would be exactly our community members that would have to go serve where asked to,” Jones told Foreign Policy.
Jones, an openly gay first-generation American whose mother is from the Philippines, worked as a civil servant in the Office of the U.S. Trade Representative following her military service. Six months into the Trump administration, fed up by the president’s policies, she quit her trade job and decided to run for Congress.
For candidates that represent border districts, understanding the inner workings of U.S. foreign policy with Latin America is important, Jones said. “Some of the challenges that are described at our border, anyone that’s worked in national security knows that key to addressing that is making sure that we’ve got good relationships with our partners and allies in Central and South America.”
She added that in the current political climate, she understands why many people from the foreign policy world like her are running for political office at home. “I’m not super surprised that people that have a background in national security and public service are stepping up again,” she said. “I think it’s that type of leadership, that values-based leadership, that is so needed at this moment in time.”