Election 2024

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Could veterans swing Nevada's 2024 Senate race?

Rosen has been active in the Senate on behalf of Nevada veterans. Now, she’ll likely run against one.
Gabby Birenbaum
Gabby Birenbaum
Election 2024Elections

Of the states that will decide the 2024 election, Nevada has the highest percentage of its population who are veterans — a civically minded voting bloc of an estimated 200,000 with the power to swing a swing state. 

Traditionally thought of as a Republican constituency, Democrats have made recent inroads to bolster veteran outreach, run more candidates who served in the military or have a national security background. In 2016, national exit polling showed former president Donald Trump with a 27 percentage point advantage with veterans over Hillary Clinton; by 2020, that lead had narrowed to 10 points.

In Nevada, veterans have proved more persistently conservative compared to the national averages. In 2020, Trump won 70 percent of voters who had served in the military to now-President Joe Biden’s 29 percent. Exit polling for the 2022 Senate race did not include questions on military service, but small shifts in the veteran vote could be the difference in a state known for its tight margins.

In the U.S. Senate race, the veteran voter calculus will be affected by Republican front-runner Sam Brown — a retired U.S. Army captain who suffered severe injuries from a 2008 roadside bomb explosion in Afghanistan that left him scarred with third-degree burns. Brown is a Purple Heart recipient who speaks often about how his near-death experience and extended road to recovery inspired him to run for office. 

Brown or whoever emerges out of the state’s June 11 primary will face Sen. Jacky Rosen (D-NV). While not a veteran herself, Rosen, who sits on the Senate Armed Services Committee, has been a key player on veterans’ issues in Nevada — advocating for a new VA hospital in Reno, voting for and hosting numerous events to promote the veterans health care-focused PACT Act and championing legislation that cuts bureaucratic obstacles for veterans or promotes their transitions into the civilian workforce.

“Whether it’s securing the first-ever dedicated Veterans Business Outreach Center in Nevada or expanding health care for veterans exposed to toxic burn pits, Senator Rosen has built a long record of getting results for the heroic Nevada men and women who have served our nation,”a Rosen spokesperson said in a statement.

In an interview with The Nevada Independent, Brown said that while veterans have issues unique to them, such as VA health care, he believes they should support him on the same basis that other voters choose Republicans — concerns about the border, inflation and energy policy. 

“My ask to the veterans is — who do you want leading on behalf of not just our particular, unique veterans issues, but on all issues that impact our life?” Brown said.

‘Pragmatic’ voters

Veterans’ advocates on both sides agreed that veterans tend to be solutions-oriented voters who prefer candidates that reflect that mentality.

“We're very pragmatic,” said Mike Kelly, a Nevada veteran who works with the progressive veterans group VoteVets. “We are very much willing to listen to all sides. However, what's more important to us is delivery. If you're not delivering something to us, if you're not serving, if you're not solving problems — what's the use?”

For Kelly, that attitude makes Rosen — the daughter of a World War II veteran — the most attractive candidate. He said while Brown is a hero who served his country with honor, Rosen has consistently delivered on veterans’ issues while being approachable, with a staff quick to connect veterans to the services they need.

“It's not that I'm in any way, shape or form degrading his service,” Kelly said of Brown. “However, I need a senator that’s ready to do the work right now. And she stands on the issues that are important to most of us right now.” 

That includes her support of the PACT Act, the largest expansion of veterans’ health care in a generation. Rosen has crisscrossed the state during congressional recesses urging veterans to claim their new benefits, and frequently hosts roundtable discussions on issues that matter to student veterans and veteran business owners. She secured funding for a veterans’ cemetery in Elko and a commitment from the Small Business Administration to open a Veterans Business Outreach Center in Las Vegas in 2023, the state’s first such outpost, and a second one in Northern Nevada. 

Ross Bryant, an Army veteran and director of UNLV’s Military and Veterans Service Center, voted for Trump in the last two presidential elections, but plans to vote for Rosen this year. He voted for Sen. Catherine Cortez Masto (D-NV) in 2022 as well.

“No one has anything but respect for [Brown’s] service, his injuries, his intentions,” Bryant said. “But he’s not from Nevada. And you don’t need to be a veteran to make a difference for veterans, because Ms. Rosen has been amazing.”

Kelly added that Rosen pays attention to issues that affect veterans of color and women veterans, including access to abortion.

Rosen’s campaign noted that she has been engaged on veterans’ issues since she was a member of the House — the first bill she ever introduced was aimed at hiring student veterans, and that she leads an annual Senate effort to increase affordable housing voucher funding for homeless veterans. Her office maintains a 70-page veterans’ resource guide for Nevadans navigating federal programs.

On the Republican side, Leo Garcia, an Air Force veteran who works as a senior advisor for conservative, Koch-backed Concerned Veterans for America Action (CVAA), said Brown’s military service is electorally powerful.

His support of Brown, whom CVAA has endorsed, owes to his embrace of fiscal responsibility and desire to keep the U.S. out of foreign conflicts. While Garcia is a veteran of the Gulf War, Brown is relatable to younger veterans who served in Afghanistan and Iraq. He said he’s been in rooms with Brown where young veterans are drawn to his dynamism and the ways he speaks about his service — including those who would otherwise vote for Democrats.

“Some of them will jump ship because of Sam,” Garcia said. “They will vote for Sam because of his military background. He lives the life of a veteran. He understands the struggles that we all go through.”

Brown is not the only veteran in the race. While lesser-known and with lower fundraising totals and polling numbers, Tony Grady, a retired lieutenant colonel in the Air Force, and Bill Conrad, a retired lieutenant colonel from the U.S. Army, are also hoping their military experience can help elevate them in the Senate primary.

Grady, who said he has hosted veterans roundtables around the state, agreed that veterans are looking for candidates with a track record of accomplishment rather than rhetoric. He said many of the issues he hears about from veterans relate to bringing down instances of veteran suicide and fixing bureaucratic issues with the VA, particularly on loans and health care. 

His appeal is based on his 20-year military experience, which he said is more robust than either Rosen or Brown, who had to medically retire due to his injuries. And he argued that Republicans have long served veterans better, in politics and in outside organizations.

“What we see on the Democrat side is a lot of headlines and a lot of error,” Grady said. “They want to see action.”

Several veterans’ advocates mentioned that they look for congressional candidates who understand the gravity of sending American troops into conflict. It’s a prescient issue this election cycle, with the U.S. arming Ukraine and Israel in their respective wars and aiding Taiwan as tensions increase with China.

And it’s one area where the candidates notably differ. 

While Rosen voted for foreign aid packages providing security assistance and supports Biden’s Ukraine policy, Brown has been critical of spending on Ukraine aid. Trump, whom Brown has endorsed, has gone further, urging Republicans to block Ukraine funding, suggesting Ukraine should cede territory to Russia and threatening to “encourage” Russia to attack U.S. allies in the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) who don’t pay their share.

Bryant said that approach to foreign policy is uninformed and contributes to his decision to vote for Biden and Rosen this cycle. 

“I don’t give a shit if we buy a javelin rocket for every grandma,” he said. “I’d rather have us provide weapons to keep the world at balance and prevent further war.”

Bryant said he can no longer support the GOP nominee after the attempted insurrection on January 6. He said Trump’s behavior since that day — including comments about wanting to rule as a dictator and rhetoric about Ukraine — fly in the face of the Constitution he defended in the military. 

While he believes younger veterans are rightfully concerned about the economy and may stick with Trump and GOP Senate candidates, many will find it hard to vote Republican. 

“The case, in my mind, against Mr. Brown is, he’s a big, huge Trump election denier,” Bryant said. “If you’re pro-Trump, I would say a large portion of veterans [can’t support you] — because of the Constitution.”

Brown acknowledged in 2021 that Biden won the election, while also criticizing former attorney general and primary opponent Adam Laxalt in 2022 for not doing enough to help Trump's legal challenges to the 2020 presidential election results in Nevada.

On the trail

Rosen is no stranger to campaigning on veterans’ issues — in 2018, she released a television ad criticizing her opponent, then-Sen. Dean Heller (R-NV), for a “D” grade from a group representing veterans of recent wars. And veterans played a factor in the 2022 Senate race as well, when Laxalt, who served in the Navy Judge Advocate General’s Corps, attempted to hammer Sen. Catherine Cortez Masto (D-NV) about her lack of service. 

But while Cortez Masto reiterated many of the same accomplishments as Rosen has, Brown, who visibly wears the scars of his service, is a different opponent. While Rosen does significant work on veterans issues in her official capacity, making the case that she is the best candidate for veterans on the campaign trail will require tactful messaging if Brown is her opponent.

“It's very challenging,” Kelly said. “He's a brother veteran who was severely wounded, so he has a lot of respect.”

Still, the PACT Act was mentioned in Rosen’s first ad of the cycle, a 30-second missive focused on establishing her bipartisan bona fides that notes she “worked with both parties on things like helping veterans exposed to burn pits.”

The Brown campaign is leaning into his military experience, making it the centerpiece of how he positively defines himself in ads. In both spots he has up on the air, his veteran status is the first thing viewers learn about him.

“As a combat veteran, I know what it means to fight,” he says in his first ad, over pictures of him from his time in the military. 

Ultimately, Brown said he hopes veteran voters judge Rosen based on concerns about the border, crime and inflation rather than something more specific to their needs as veterans.

“I appreciate the things that Senator Rosen has done or attempted to do to support veterans,” Brown said. “But for veterans, there's multiple issues about their well-being. How are they doing with their own personal financial situation? How are they doing with regard to crime in their communities?

“We're not only defined as veterans.”

This story was updated at 9:45 a.m. on 5/27/2024 to add context about Sam Brown's stance on the validity of the 2020 election.

This story was updated at 8:30 a.m. on 5/28/2024 to reflect that Concerned Veterans for America Action endorsed Brown, rather than the organization's 501(c)(4) arm.


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