By Maria Recio

When Joseph Kopser introduces himself to voters in the 21st Congressional District as a combat veteran, a successful entrepreneur and a Democrat, he gets double-takes.

“Young man, are you sure you’re not a Republican?” Kopser, who lives in Southwest Austin, said he is asked almost daily. He is running to replace retiring U.S. Rep. Lamar Smith, R-San Antonio, in a district that stretches from Central Austin to the north side of San Antonio and encompasses six Hill Country counties.

Kopser, 47, is one of three military veterans and political newcomers running as Democrats in closely watched congressional races in Central and South Texas. MJ Hegar, 42, a decorated Air National Guard pilot, is running in the 31st Congressional District against U.S. Rep. John Carter, R-Round Rock; and Gina Ortiz Jones, 37, a retired Air Force intelligence officer is in a tight race against U.S. Rep. Will Hurd, R-Helotes, in the 23rd District.

They are among a new breed of Democrat running in Texas and elsewhere who are upending political party stereotypes and appealing to voters who traditionally vote Republican.

“This was our effort early-on,” said Rep. Ben Lujan, R-N.M., the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee chairman, explaining that recruiting military veterans was “part of our strategy” after the 2016 election.

U.S. Rep. Seth Moulton, D-Mass., a Marine elected in 2014, has been leading the effort to recruit veteran candidates and supports them through his Serve America PAC. “These veterans represent a new generation of leadership for our party and for our country,” he said.

Hegar, in particular, has captured the limelight with her compelling biography: She was awarded the Purple Heart and the Distinguished Flying Cross with Valor for saving the lives of her crew after being shot down during a helicopter rescue mission in Afghanistan in 2009. In a campaign ad, she touts her tattoos, which cover her shrapnel wounds.

“A lot of people think I’m a Republican at first because I’m a veteran,” Hegar told the American-Statesman.

But she tells voters in her district, which encompasses all of Williamson County and most of Bell County, including parts of Fort Hood: “I used to vote for John Carter, too. We’ve both been fooled.”

Disenchanted when Carter wouldn’t meet with her during her effort to force the Pentagon to allow women into combat, Hegar decided to take him on.

She has outraised Carter in the historically Republican district, putting her on the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee’s Red to Blue program, which gives money and support to challengers.

Ortiz Jones, an Iraq war veteran, often brings up the challenges of being a lesbian and having to work under the so-called don’t ask, don’t tell policy that closeted gays in the military.

“It’s one of the very formative experiences of my life,” she said of her military service. “I was honored to wear our nation’s cloth.”

Why are veterans good candidates? “We need people to get things done,” she said. “We have a public service mindset. We took the oath to keep our country safe — that’s certainly shaped my desire to run for office.”

The race for the 23rd District, which stretches from the outskirts of San Antonio along the border to El Paso, is getting some high-level attention. Former Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton, who won the district in 2016, held a fundraiser Wednesday for Ortiz Jones and four other female congressional candidates in New York. The same day, former President George W. Bush, in one of his first forays into the 2018 elections, headlined a fundraiser for Hurd in Fort Worth.

Veterans and first-time Democratic congressional candidates from Texas to Kentucky are stressing a bipartisan approach.

“My military experience gives me a professionalism to put policy over partisanship and country over party,” Kopser said. “Voters being surprised that Democrats are veterans comes from stereotyping by far-right Republicans who have tried to wrap themselves in the flag.”

Kopser’s opponent is veteran GOP aide Chip Roy, who worked for Gov. Greg Abbott and U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas. The district is predominantly Republican.

Two Republican veterans from Texas are also making their first run at Congress: former Navy SEAL Dan Crenshaw in the 2nd District, in the Houston area, and state Sen. Van Taylor, R-Plano, in the 3rd District, north of Dallas.

The six veterans from Texas currently serving in Congress are all Republicans: U.S. Reps Brian Babin of Woodville, Mike Conaway of Midland, Louie Gohmert of Tyler, Sam Johnson of Plano, Pete Olson of Sugar Land and Ted Poe of Humble. Johnson and Poe are retiring.

Crenshaw, who faces Democrat Todd Litton, said he identifies himself as a SEAL. “It’s introducing yourself to connect with somebody,” he said. “People don’t trust who they don’t know.”

Crenshaw was severely wounded in Afghanistan and lost his right eye — he usually wears an eye patch.

Taylor, who faces Democrat Lorie Burch, also stresses a bipartisan approach. The military, he says, “teaches you to work with whoever’s there.”

With Honor, a Super PAC supporting 33 congressional candidates nationwide from both parties and requiring a pledge that they will show integrity, civility and courage above politics, has endorsed Hegar, Ortiz Jones, Crenshaw and Taylor but not Kopser.

Democrats, though, believe their message of country over party will resonate in an increasingly polarized Washington run by Republicans.

“Veterans can win where Democrats haven’t traditionally won,” said Jon Soltz, an Iraq war veteran who co-chairs VoteVets.org, a liberal political action committee that is supporting the three Texas Democratic veterans running for Congress. “Who can win over independents? A veteran. Not a career politician.”

Original Article.