Daniel Gade says he doesn’t see his Senate bid in Virginia this year as all that different from his military service, which included losing his right leg after he survived an explosion in Iraq in 2004.
“When I was blown up, I was at a fork in the road. I was given an opportunity to either continue to serve or to get out and feel sorry for myself, and I continued to serve,” the Republican candidate said. “I don’t view this as a jump or as anything different than I’ve always done. It’s the same thing I’ve always done, which is to serve America, serve the American people, serve the Constitution.”
Though the percentage of former service members represented in Congress has declined in recent years, Mr. Gade is one of a number of military veterans seeking federal office in high-profile races this year.
Mr. Gade, a retired Army lieutenant colonel who has competed in Ironman races after having his right leg amputated, is trying to help Republicans break a drought in statewide races in Virginia that stretches back more than a decade.
He is taking on Sen. Mark R. Warner, a Democrat who is running for a third term after barely surviving a 2014 reelection bid in what was a banner year for Republicans.
Mr. Gade said if Virginia voters are interested in reelecting a “career politician,” then Mr. Warner is the candidate for them.
“He campaigned on being a centrist and being a problem-solver and being for Virginia and all of this stuff, and it was a big, huge lie,” said Mr. Gade, who teaches public policy at American University. “What he is is for his party. So when they need him to, he votes 100% party line on their issues.”
Mr. Warner, a self-styled “radical centrist,” has risen to prominence in recent years as the top Democrat on the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence.
The senator’s campaign countered that Mr. Gade is the true “partisan crusader” for touting President Trump’s handling of the coronavirus crisis as great leadership.
Mr. Gade said Mr. Trump, in general, is doing the best he can in the face of unheard-of obstacles.
“There are certainly areas where anybody, I think, can disagree with any administration,” he said. “But he has gone to Washington and he has tried his best to keep his promises in the face of what I would describe as unprecedented opposition from not just from the Democrats but the mainstream media as well. I mean, they are clearly out to get him.”
Mr. Trump nominated Mr. Gade, an advocate for people with disabilities, to serve on the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. Mr. Gade withdrew his name in December 2018 after the nomination languished in the Senate.
He said he was disappointed that his nomination “got caught up in a partisan food fight that had nothing to do with me.”
“It’s clear that career politicians have perverted the system, and they’re doing it to promote their own parties,” he said. “And let’s be honest: That happens on the Republican Party side as well.”
If elected, he said, he would like to serve on the Veterans’ Affairs and Armed Services committees.
“I have a real soft spot for, for example, people with disabilities or people with drug addiction for opioid abuse, or people who are suffering in some way because I know what suffering is like,” he said.
Mr. Gade is facing an uphill climb against Mr. Warner in a state that has morphed from a Republican stronghold to reliably Democratic over the past few decades.
Mr. Warner held a 21-point lead, 55% to 34%, over Mr. Gade, according to a Roanoke College poll taken Aug. 9-22.
Still, two-thirds of respondents said they didn’t know enough about Mr. Gade to form an opinion.
He said the under-the-radar nature of his candidacy could serve as an advantage and that he is not looking for national Republicans or forces outside the state for a bailout.
“And then all those same people who were like ‘Oh, Virginia’s not competitive,’ they’re going to come to me and want things from me, and I’m going to say, ‘Well, get away from me. I never knew you,’” he said.
Mr. Warner isn’t taking anything for granted after defeating Republican Ed Gillespie by less than 1 percentage point in 2014.
He amassed a war chest of more than $9 million at the start of July compared with about $225,000 for Mr. Gade.
The senator’s campaign said he has a proven track record of delivering for members of the military and veterans. He pointed to his efforts in securing adequate housing for the military and their families and fixing a flaw in the 2017 Republican tax cut law to allow injured veterans to recoup money from the IRS.
“The truth is Mark Warner has introduced over 100 bills with Republican co-sponsors. He’s willing to work with just about anybody to deliver results for Virginians,” campaign spokeswoman Kate Waters said.
Mr. Gade is trying to slow what has been a steady decline of members of Congress with military experience. Veterans make up about 18% of the current Congress. The number topped 70% in the 1970s.
In Michigan, Republican John James, a helicopter pilot in Iraq, is challenging Sen. Gary C. Peters, a Democrat who was in the Navy Reserve, in one of the Republican Party’s best pickup opportunities in the battle for control of the Senate.
On the Democratic side, Navy combat veteran Mark Kelly is challenging Republican Sen. Martha McSally, a former Air Force fighter pilot, in Arizona.
Democratic Senate challengers Cal Cunningham in North Carolina, M.J. Hegar in Texas and Amy McGrath in Kentucky also have military experience.
More than 100 House Republican candidates this year have military experience, according to House Republicans’ campaign arm.
A Military Times survey released last week found that 41% of active-duty troops said they would vote for Democratic presidential nominee Joseph R. Biden, compared with 37% who said they would support Mr. Trump.
A similar poll released right before the 2016 election found that 41% said they planned to vote for Mr. Trump, compared with 27% for Libertarian candidate Gary Johnson and 21% for Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton.
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