WASHINGTON — During a candidate forum Wednesday night, Republican Senate hopeful Corey Stewart attacked incumbent Virginia Democratic Sen. Tim Kaine for voting against a military pay raise and a military housing allowance.
One problem: There was never a direct vote on those issues. But in election season, military-themed attacks often are as fierce as the war fighters themselves, and neither party has a monopoly on them.
Stewart’s claim to the crowd at Liberty University in Lynchburg, Virginia — that Kaine “voted against House Resolution 195, which was the president’s budget” — has already been debunked by the nonpartisan fact-checking website Politifact in recent months.
That bill was not actually President Donald Trump’s budget, but instead a stopgap continuing resolution to keep the government funded through Feb. 16. And Kaine said he voted against it in large part because of complaints it didn’t have enough stable money for the Defense Department, though Stewart has sought to link him with Democratic leaders who used the vote as leverage for an immigration deal.
It’s no wonder that candidates are seeking to tag their opponents as weak on military issues — a recent Marist poll shows 87 percent of Americans have overwhelming faith in the military. It’s even more obvious an attack vector in places like Virginia, whose shipyards and ample military bases make military spending a pocketbook issue.
And because of the complex nature of the defense budget, it's an easy target to twist in political attack ads and campaign trail talking points.
While Kaine didn’t back that measure, he did vote for a budget deal a few months later that provided $700 billion for national defense, the biggest year-over-year increase in defense funding in 15 years.
In fact, Kaine references that vote in an ad where he attacks Stewart in much the same way, using audio from a radio interview where Stewart says of the spending bill: “I wish the president had vetoed.”
“The fact remains that Sen. Kaine and his fellow Democrats valued the interests of illegal aliens over the needs of our nation’s military,” Stewart campaign spokesman Nathan Brinkman said.
Kaine campaign spokesman Ian Samms called Stewart’s comments “a bizarre lie — revealing his total lack of character and a complete willingness to mislead and deceive Virginians.”
To be clear, the stopgap bill in January continued Pentagon spending at the 2017 level, which was substantially below what the president requested for 2018, "so voting against the CR does not equate to voting against an increase in defense spending because the CR wasn’t an increase,” said defense budget expert Todd Harrison of the Center for Strategic and International Studies.
The omnibus has also turned up in other races. In Tennessee, Democrats have used Republican Rep. Marsha Blackburn’s “no” vote to say she voted against the troop pay raise contained in the bill. Blackburn’s district includes Fort Campbell, home to the Army’s 101st Airborne Division.
Ninety House Republicans voted against the the 2,200-page, $1.3 trillion omnibus, which provided $117 billion more than Trump requested in nondefense investments. Some conservatives wanted more than the $1.6 billion in barrier funding provided by the bill.
Politifact rated the claim “half true” because Blackburn had supported a larger pay raise. After her “no” vote, Blackburn cited the bill’s negative impact on the deficit.
“Our national debt is growing out of control, and we can’t continue to pass these massive spending bills and expect future generations to deal with our negligence,” she said in a statement after the vote.
The Democratic Party’s North Dakota affiliate rapped Rep. Kevin Cramer, R-N.D., for even expressing mixed feelings as House Republican leaders were pressuring their caucus to unite around a spending deal without all the border wall funding Trump wanted.
“Most of the discussion ... is trying to convince us that defense is so critical that we have to swallow everything else to give our soldiers and airmen and Marines and sailors the pay raise they need and the equipment and training they need,” Cramer told Reuters. “There’s no question it’s a very high priority, but it’s becoming a very difficult pill."
Massachusetts Democratic Sen. Elizabeth Warren was one of 10 votes against the 2019 defense policy bill two months ago, which authorized $717 billion for national defense and the largest troop pay raise in nine years. It also contained language Warren co-authored to treat and raise awareness for traumatic brain injuries among service members.
Businessman John Kingston, who was vying for the Republican nomination until last month, seized the opening to denounce her for putting “petty politics above our men and women in uniform."
It was not so simple. Warren, a Senate Armed Services Committee member, was one of 93 votes last month to pass the 2019 defense spending bill, which was packaged with other nondefense funding but nonetheless boosted the Defense Department’s budget.
There was a complex calculus for Warren. According to a Warren staffer, the senator believes the Pentagon must do more to check its spending but she had planned to vote for the policy bill as she did last year.
Warren changed her mind with the late addition of Republican-favored language authorizing a new low-yield, submarine-launched nuclear missile.
Joe Gould was the senior Pentagon reporter for Defense News, covering the intersection of national security policy, politics and the defense industry. He had previously served as Congress reporter.
Leo covers Congress, Veterans Affairs and the White House for Military Times. He has covered Washington, D.C. since 2004, focusing on military personnel and veterans policies. His work has earned numerous honors, including a 2009 Polk award, a 2010 National Headliner Award, the IAVA Leadership in Journalism award and the VFW News Media award.