In the first national election of the Trump era, more than a half-dozen Obama administration national security officials are running for Congress, which could result in the largest influx of foreign-policy-minded Democrats to Capitol Hill in years. But all of them face the challenge of moving from the world of policy to politics and translating their Washington résumés into arguments that appeal to locally focused voters.
Officials from President Barack Obama’s National Security Council, State Department and Defense Department have returned home to run for Congress in 2018. Each has a different story, constituency and task at hand. But they all have come to the conclusion that, after long careers in government bureaucracies, their best chance to serve meaningfully is to enter the political fray.
But can they convince voters that their foreign policy experience qualifies them to fight on behalf of local issues? That careers in Washington give them the credibility and skills to reform a broken system? And can they raise enough money to win?
Some of these Democratic aspirants are entering politics in reaction to what they see as a national crisis caused by the Trump presidency. They argue that only by returning the House to Democratic hands can the country be set on the right track.
Tom Malinowski, who served as assistant secretary of state for democracy, human rights and labor under Obama, told me he is running in New Jersey because he sees the United States’ role and identity as a force for good in the world being squandered by President Trump.
“The values that I’ve been fighting for around the world are the values that are being called into question here in the United States,” Malinowski said. “It can’t be fixed by writing policy papers. It can only be fixed through the political process.”
Other candidates are not running against Trump at all. Elissa Slotkin is campaigning in Michigan on her record of serving both Democratic and Republican administrations. Before joining the Pentagon under Obama, she was a career CIA analyst and served three tours in Iraq.
National security officials often work on bipartisan issues and can credibly claim to put country over party, she argued. “What I’m most proud of is helping administrations in both parties,” she said.
These candidates know national security may not feature prominently in their races, with one good exception. Andy Kim, who served as White House National Security Council director for Iraq under Obama, is running in New Jersey’s 3rd District, where the largest local employer is Joint Base McGuire-Dix-Lakehurst.
Other candidates will have to translate their experience for local constituencies. They include Daniel Baer, Obama’s ambassador to the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, who is running in Colorado, and Ed Meier, who worked in Hillary Clinton’s State Department, who is running in Texas.
The recent track record of Democratic national security policy officials running for Congress is mixed. Jon Ossoff, a former national security staffer on Capitol Hill, this year lost a special election in Georgia that got national attention and cost millions of dollars. His story illustrates the risk of nationalizing these races.
Rep. Josh Gottheimer (D-N.J.), a former speechwriter for President Bill Clinton, successfully made the jump from policy wonk to politician. He said that national-security-minded Democrats could be the key to taking over purple districts because they tend to be strong on terrorism and fiscally conservative, but progressive on social issues.
“In order to expand the party and our caucus, it’s key that we grow the middle,” he said. “This is the way to a majority.”
Another success story is Rep. Stephanie Murphy, a former Pentagon policy official who unseated a Republican incumbent in Florida in 2016.
Many of the candidates lamented that the Democratic foreign policy community is not well organized to support them. Several groups fund political action around progressive national security issues, but there’s no real infrastructure to support national security candidates.
The candidates must prove their viability through fundraising, and many will be calling upon the same networks, potentially competing with each other. But their biggest challenge will be to show constituents that despite being absent from their districts for years, they are locally focused.
“You better have some local cred,” said Joel Rubin, a former State Department official who ran unsuccessfully for Congress last year in Maryland. “You have to demonstrate why you matter to the locals, and that’s a hard thing for people who haven’t been locally active.”
He is now a town council member in Chevy Chase, Md.
All of these Democratic candidates are determined to prove that it takes someone who knows how Washington works to fix Washington. Trump ran on the opposite idea. Next November, voters across the country will take a look at Trump’s results and decide whom they agree with more.