MANCHESTER, N.H. — One evening last week, a few dozen people — mostly veterans — relaxed inside the wood-paneled barroom at New Hampshire’s largest American Legion hall, sipping cold drinks, picking over trays of popcorn, and watching the TV news.
The scene may have been mellow, but the members of the Henry J. Sweeney Post 2 are part of a voting bloc being intensely courted by US Senator Jeanne Shaheen and her potential Republican challengers.
Shaheen held a rally with more than 100 veterans earlier this month, and her campaign described her as a “tireless” veterans advocate. Republicans Bob Smith and Jim Rubens both attended a “thank you veterans” barbecue in Holderness last weekend. And Scott Brown spent most of July highlighting how he’d help veterans by hosting special events and rolling out the campaign commercials that played in heavy rotation on the legion hall’s TVs.
The question for campaigns between now and Election Day: How much is all this activity resonating with veterans themselves?
New Hampshire has about 110,000 veterans, according to data collected by the Census Bureau. All but 9,000 are men, and about 75 percent are older than 35. The crowd that gathered at the Sweeney Post last week reflected those demographics. The veterans interviewed had diverse political opinions, but few identified with a political party. Like many New Hampshire voters, they’re just starting to pay attention to the campaigns taking shape around them. And even some who have a favorite candidate suggested they’re still open to persuasion.
Phil Gimas, who served as a Navy yeoman in the Pacific during World War II, has seen the TV commercials and is starting to warm up to Brown, but said he’s worried about the Republican’s chances in the general election.
“I like Brown. I like his wife. I like his kids,” said Gimas, who lives in Manchester and considers himself an independent voter. “But he’s going to have a rough time with Shaheen. She’s entrenched here.”
Anthony Groleau, who served in the Air Force during the early 1980s, has yet to pick a candidate, but he has a simple litmus test that helps explain the candidates’ focus: “I’m for anyone who’s for the veterans.”
The last few years have been difficult for Groleau, making him likely to vote for anyone able to help veterans who are sick, poor, and unemployed. Those are problems Groleau says he understands all too well. He worked for many years in manufacturing and maintenance, but jobs became scarce and he lost his home. He spent several years sleeping on friends’ couches, until a local charity helped him find an apartment. He moved in at the beginning of the summer but still struggles to pay his bills — including the $8 copayment for prescriptions he receives through the Department of Veterans Affairs. He’d like to see fewer fees like this, plus better access to dental and vision care. Also on his list: more job training programs and easy-to-find information about veterans’ benefits.
“Everything I found out, I found out through other veterans,” he said as another Brown commercial flashed on the TV above his head. “They don’t tell you. You have to dig.”
Romeo Theriault puts similar emphasis on the importance of services for veterans, but, unlike most of his peers, he’s already picked a candidate. “I like Shaheen. She’s for the veterans. She’s for the elderly,” he said, leaning against a corner of the bar.
Theriault served in the Army in Vietnam and has received his medical care through the VA for decades. He’s heard about the long wait times and other troubles reported across the system, but says he’s never encountered those problems at the Manchester VA. In fact, he credits Shaheen with helping to expand the services available to veterans in New Hampshire.
“There’s hardly any wait,” he said. “They take good care of me up there.”
Many legion members said health care for veterans is important, but it was far from the only issue on their minds.
Dan Smith, who served as a Navy Seabee during Vietnam, would like to see the United States involved in fewer foreign conflicts. He’s also concerned about immigration. The high number of children crossing the border illegally creates what he described as “humanitarian” problems, but it also raises questions about immigration policy.
“If they solve that, they solve a lot of problems,” he said.
As the evening wore on and the weekly cribbage league set up in the far corner, the assembled veterans ticked off a longer list of problems they want their next senator to solve: a better tax system, lowering the national debt, more clarity on government surveillance.
Chet Martel, who served in the Air Force during Vietnam, is hoping for something else — something he’s unlikely to find before Election Day: bipartisanship.
“You’ve got to get along once in awhile,” he said, flipping cards onto the table while the men sitting around him nodded in agreement.