Military veterans performed well enough in Tuesday’s midterms, but women veterans were the real winners.
On Wednesday, at least 76 veterans won elections. This is out of the approximately 200 that sought congressional seats in the midterms, including active write-ins and third-party candidates. While several more races are still too close to call, it will be impossible for them to exceed the 102 that began congressional terms in 2017.
However, despite mixed results for veterans in general, experts say this was a banner year for female veteran candidates.
Former Navy helicopter pilot Mikie Sherrill, former Navy commander Elaine Luria and Air Force Reserve alum Chrissy Houlahan were all declared winners of their respective races. Republican Rep. Martha McSally — the first female fighter pilot to fly in combat in the nation’s history — also maintains a narrow lead against Kyrsten Sinema for Arizona’s open Senate seat, though the race has not yet been called.
The winners will join Sen. Tammy Duckworth, Sen. Joni Ernst and Rep. Tulsi Gabbard on the Hill, substantially increasing the representation of women veterans.
“Before 2012, there had been three women veterans in Congress in history. Now there are more than double that in just a few years,” Seth Lynn, executive director of Veterans Campaign and a former commander in the Marine Corps, told TIME. “That’s fairly significant.”
The wins weren’t necessarily easy ones, either.
Luria edged out Republican incumbent, Scott Taylor, another Navy veteran, in a Virginia district that’s been held by Republicans since 2011. Democrat Mikie Sherrill was competing against a Republican in a New Jersey district that’s been under the command of the GOP for more than three decades.
Sherrill told TIME her military experience made her uniquely positioned to succeed work alongside lawmakers with differing political ideologies.
“When I was a helicopter aircraft commander, we never flew on a Democratic mission or a Republican mission,” she said. “We always were able to work with one another, despite coming from all over the country and all different backgrounds. We were always able to work together and get the job done.”
With Honor, a “cross-partisan” Super Pac dedicated to electing a new cohort of veterans, said at least 17 of the 39 House candidates it endorsed pulled off victories. Its co-founder, Rye Barcott, echoed Sherrill’s claims regarding the ability of veterans to work across party lines when he spoke to TIME ahead of the election.
“When you serve, you interact with Americans from all walks of life,” he said. “It doesn’t matter who your parents were, it doesn’t matter where you came from. It’s about as close to a meritocracy as we have in the United States.”
He indicated he was pleased after the results trickled in.
“I am proud that With Honor has helped stem the historic decline of veterans in Congress,” he said, also noting that many of the veteran candidates who lost still over-performed in their respective districts in large part because of platforms that “emphasized the message of service and country over party.”
Lynn said veterans’ relative success was for a good reason.
“If you look at Gallup polls year after year, you’ll see Congress is the least trusted institution, and the military is the most trusted institution,” he said.
He believed it’s sensible to elevate the former category with individuals who come from the latter one.
But there’s another reason why some veterans won out, or came close to doing so, in tough districts.
“With the way Democrats see the President,” Lynn said, “having a narrative of integrity is a way to contrast their candidates from what’s going on with the other side.”
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