WASHINGTON — Representative Seth Moulton is working to build a network of nearly 20 fellow military veterans to run for House seats in 2018, seeking to bring fresh voices to Congress while pumping up his own standing among representatives.
The Salem lawmaker and Marine Corps veteran, who has been an outspoken critic of House minority leader Nancy Pelosi, is offering political advice and raising money for newcomer candidates with military connections in states including Colorado, Texas, Kentucky, and Virginia. Over the past six months, Moulton has also raised more than $1.2 million for two political action committee funds that support candidates with service backgrounds, including $600,000 during a single event in Boston attended by a number of the city’s wealthy families.
But Moulton also has raised eyebrows for the way he is characterizing his efforts. In a CNN interview late in 2017, Moulton said he was “literally recruiting a new generation of leaders for the party,” which caused some Democrats involved with the party’s recruitment efforts to grumble privately that Moulton was exaggerating his role.
Moulton is actually solely responsible for recruiting a small fraction of the 19 candidates he has identified as part of his budding network, according to a Globe review.
The majority were recruited by some combination of the Democratic party establishment, outside liberal organizations, or said they joined the political sphere of their own volition. Some knew Moulton personally or consulted him before announcing, but a far greater number formed ties with him after being in touch with the party’s House campaign apparatus, the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, according to Democratic operatives who did not want to be identified speaking about internal workings of the party.
Still, party leaders give Moulton credit for bringing a high level of energy and commitment to encouraging veterans to mount legitimate campaigns.
“I could count on two hands the number of people who have been as actively engaged in finding good people to run,” said Representative Denny Heck, of Washington, who leads the Democrats’ recruitment efforts for the 2018 midterm elections. “Seth’s efforts have been exceptional.”
“Seth Moulton and I agree that recruiting veterans and people with deep records of service is critical to creating the largest House battlefield in a decade,” said Representative Ben Ray Lujan of New Mexico, chairman of the DCCC.
Without a doubt, Moulton’s leadership is earning him an outsized amount of attention for a second-term congressman, causing his star to rise in Democratic circles. He has been mentioned as potential presidential material and has made recent trips to the early presidential caucus and primary states of Iowa and New Hampshire.
“It’s obviously positioning, but why not?” said Hank Sheinkopf, a Democratic political consultant. “That’s what you do in politics. When things are in flux, like they are in the Democratic Party right now, you take credit for as much as you can.”
Moulton, the decorated Marine veteran, said in an interview that he has always prioritized “country over party,” which has upset establishment Democrats since the beginning of his political career.
He reiterated his feelings that Democrats have failed in efforts to recruit candidates from nontraditional backgrounds and said that he has merely stepped in to help fill that gap.
“The Democratic Party has had a real problem with recruitment because the party too often looks at just who’s next in line in the party to run, rather than in finding inspiring new leaders,” Moulton said. “We need to stand up to Donald Trump and the Republicans, but we also need to stand up against our own party establishment when it’s on the wrong side of an issue.”
The list of candidates that Moulton says he is mentoring includes a former Marine fighter pilot running in Kentucky, a former Air Force intelligence officer in Texas, a Marine veteran and environmentalist in North Carolina, and a candidate in Virginia who is an alumnus of the Marines and Harvard Business School.
Each received a slice of the $600,000 pot Moulton raised through his Serve America Victory Fund, which was backed in part by donations from wealthy individuals including Berkshire Partners’ Carl Ferenbach, Bain Capital’s Joshua Bekenstein, and Amos and Barbara Hostetter of the Barr Foundation.
Moulton served four tours in the post-9/11 Middle East conflicts and has three degrees from Harvard. Moulton, an outsider in a 2014 Democratic primary against incumbent John Tierney, upset the nine-term Democrat in a race that catapulted him into the spotlight.
Moulton said he uses his own origin story to motivate the 2018 candidates he mentors. He holds regular conference calls with candidates and has hosted events to offer media training and mentorship, several candidates confirmed.
“Veterans are especially appealing candidates in key swing districts,” Moulton said. “Veterans have credibility, not just with Democrats, but with independents and Republicans, as well. They’re the kind of people respected for their leadership, not just their politics.”
Roger Dean Huffstetler, the Harvard graduate who’s running for Congress against Republican Tom Garrett Jr. in Virginia’s 5th District., said Moulton has been integral in teaching him to do “leadership things” like hire a political team.
“Seth is pursuing this with a lot of energy and a lot of great candidates so that’s probably why he’s getting the most attention,” Huffstetler said.
Like Moulton, many of the candidates he endorsed view themselves as anti-establishment outsiders who would gladly buck the party line if they felt it was necessary.
Conor Lamb, one of Moulton’s endorsed candidates who is running in a special election in a deep red district in Pennsylvania, has vowed to voters that he would not vote for Pelosi if elected to Congress. Other Moulton-backed candidates have not specifically denounced Pelosi, but have spoken in broad strokes about Democrats needing new blood in leadership positions.
Amy McGrath, an outsider candidate and former Marine pilot running in Kentucky, even repeated Moulton’s patented catch phrase.
“I really believe that the Democratic Party needs a new generation of leaders,” McGrath said. “And I’m not just talking age, I’m talking new ideas. The old brand, at least to people around here, they’re not inspired by that.”
Gina Ortiz Jones, a former Air Force officer running in a district in West Texas, said she was proud to have her name attached to the Moulton brand — no matter who it rankled.
“The Seth Moulton brand I know is helping veterans with a record of public service and a record of putting country over party,” Ortiz Jones said.
“If that’s his brand, then sign me up,” Jones said. “Because that’s something I’m about.”
Astead W. Herndon can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @AsteadWesley.