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Election 2022

How Wes Moore is deploying his military service on the campaign trail

Wes Moore, the Democratic nominee for Maryland governor, addresses supporters at a Democratic party rally in Rockville. Photo by Danielle E. Gaines.

It’s hardly news that Wes Moore, the Democratic nominee for governor, is highlighting his military service as part of his campaign.

Since entering the race over a year ago, Moore has spoken frequently about how his military career has shaped his worldview and his political philosophy. He says that serving in the Army, as a captain in Afghanistan, taught him “to leave no one behind” — a sentiment that he has adopted as a political slogan to indicate his desire to lift all Marylanders.

He also recounts that when fellow soldiers were in distress, “nobody asked if they were Democrats or Republicans.” That line is used to buttress his assertion that he’s trying to appeal to all voters during the campaign and won’t just be in office to serve Democrats if elected.

If he wins in November, Moore, who is 43, would be the first military veteran to serve as Maryland’s governor since William Donald Schaefer (D), who held office from 1987 to 1995. Schaefer oversaw Army hospital operations in Europe during World War II and then served in the Army reserves, retiring with the rank of colonel in 1979.

Now, as the general election campaign is heating up, Moore is deploying his military service in a different way. As Del. Dan Cox, Moore’s Republican opponent, and Cox’s running mate, attorney Gordana Schiffanelli, seek to paint the Democrat as a socialist or even a communist, Moore has been pushing back by citing his military service.

“I’m someone who’s defended this country overseas,” Moore told reporters recently. “I’ve worked in finance. I’ve worked on Wall Street. I’ve started my own business. I think it’s a bad stretch to say I’m a socialist or a communist.”

Moore, like other Democrats, has sought to portray Cox, who has questioned the legitimacy of President Biden’s election and organized buses to take supporters of former President Trump to Washington, D.C., for protests on Jan. 6, 2021, as a menace to democracy.

“This is serious,” he said. “It’s not to be taken for granted. This is not an opponent, this is a threat. Fighting in Afghanistan was my definition of defending democracy. His was putting on a baseball cap and helping people storm the Capitol on Jan. 6.”

Cox also claims military service in his biography. According to his legislative profile in the online version of the Maryland Manual, Cox is a captain in the U.S. Air Force Auxiliary – more commonly known as the Civilian Air Corps. His campaign, however, did not respond to a request to provide more information about Cox’s career and experience as a military reservist.

Mileah Kromer, a Goucher College political scientist, said it’s smart for Moore to play up his military record in the course of this campaign, especially to counter Republicans’ claims that he’s promoting a far-left agenda.

“They’re trying to message Wes Moore as a far-left candidate or the socialist candidate with the hope that it appeals to older conservative Democrats,” she said. “I think military service is something that a lot of folks can identify with.”

Kromer also said that while Moore is a first-time candidate, war-time service confers on him a certain level of experience that not all political novices enjoy.

“He might not have direct elected experience, but he has experience serving his country,” she said. “It’s an appealing characteristic and it’s an instant cue for some people.”

Moore advisers say his military service enables him to connect with Marylanders with a wide range of backgrounds – and that serving and loving his country can also be interpreted as a desire to serve people in political office.

Moore isn’t the first Democratic gubernatorial nominee of recent vintage to highlight his military service. In 2014, Anthony Brown, then the lieutenant governor, talked frequently about his military career and his service in Iraq, and highlighted his military background in TV ads. But Brown generally used the narrative to make broad pronouncements about his leadership skills, and didn’t talk about specific combat experiences or seek to tie them to the themes he was emphasizing on the campaign trail.

Brown did, however, use his military service to elevate his political profile in the mid-2000’s, when he returned home from service in Iraq. A “welcome home” block party in his neighborhood attracted many leading state politicians over Labor Day weekend in 2005, and Brown wound up on the successful gubernatorial ticket headed by Martin O’Malley.

On the campaign trail, Moore talks about his troubled youth and how attending military high school and military junior college in Pennsylvania turned his life around and kept him off the streets of the Bronx, where he was growing up. He wears the ring from his military college, rather than from prestigious Johns Hopkins University, where he obtained his degree, he says, “because it’s my foundation.” That also makes him relatable to myriad voters whose families are struggling.

Earlier this campaign season, Moore was questioned about failing to correct television interviewers in 2008 and 2010 who falsely said Moore received a Bronze Star. Moore — who received a slew of military accolades, though not a Bronze star — did not make the claims himself and said in response that he’s never misled anyone about his military record.

During this election cycle, VoteVets, a political action committee that aids military veterans running for office as Democrats, endorsed Moore in the Democratic primary for governor and Brown in the primary for attorney general.

“Leadership, accountability, and community are three words Wes Moore embodies,” said Will Fischer, an Iraq War veteran and senior adviser to VoteVets. And Jon Soltz, an Iraq War veteran and chair of VoteVets, said Brown has “demonstrated a commitment to others above self, which is what we need more of in our public officials.”

VoteVets, which sprang up in 2006 not only to support Democratic candidates during the height of the Iraq War but to attempt to inoculate Democrats from the Republican charge that they were soft on terrorism, spent just shy of $400,000 on independent expenditures to boost Brown in his primary this year; the PAC cut a $6,000 check to Moore’s campaign.

In Maryland, VoteVets has also endorsed state Sen. Will Smith (D-Montgomery), a Navy veteran, and Del. Nick Charles (D-Prince George’s), an Air Force veteran, for re-election. And the PAC is backing Nick Allen, an Army veteran, for a House seat in Baltimore County, and Harford County Councilmember Andre Johnson, an Army veteran and candidate for delegate.

Eric Schmeltzer, a spokesman for VoteVets, said it’s unclear if the PAC will be spending money in Maryland for the general election, though with Moore and Brown favored to win their races, it’s likely the group will want to invest its money elsewhere.

Concerned Veterans for America, a national organization that supports Republican candidates who are military veterans, did not respond to messages seeking comment about the Maryland elections.