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Veterans' Care Emerges As A Key, Bipartisan Issue In Campaign Ads

Campaign ad still from Arkansas congressional candidate Jackie McPherson. (YouTube)

There aren't really any unifying issues in this year's midterm elections, except for one: the treatment of the nation's veterans.

In 2010, it was Obamacare that dominated the airwaves. This year veterans, and the Veterans Affairs scandal, have risen to prominence in both parties' ads.

"It has been the one big breaking news story of 2014 that's actually reverberating in campaign ads in a widespread way," says Elizabeth Wilner, vice president of Kantar Media Ad Intelligence, which tracks political advertising.

"We don't see foreign policy events, the crisis in the Middle East, even border security here at home appearing in campaign ads to nearly the same degree," she says. Wilner says as of last month, some 34,000 veteran-themed ads had run in races nationwide.

Candidates are using the VA problems in their ads in different ways. For Republican Rick Allen, who is running for a congressional seat in Georgia, it's another in a string of Obama administration woes:

But most campaigns seem to be using the VA scandal as a standalone problem. Jackie McPherson is a Democrat running for Congress in Arkansas, and his ad features a Vietnam-era veteran dealing with post-traumatic stress disorder:

It may seem like candidates for Congress are spending a lot of money to win over veterans, a relatively small segment of the electorate. But what they're really after are votes of undecided and independent voters, says Jon Soltz, chairman of VoteVets.org. He says it's because veterans affairs are a "mom and apple pie issue."

Vote Vets is a Democratic group that's spending $5 million to unseat Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell in Kentucky. Soltz blames McConnell for blocking a $21 billion measure aimed at increasing VA funding. The group is running this ad featuring a Vietnam veteran, shown slowly walking with a cane:

Republicans have their own groups, among them Concerned Veterans for America, which is backed by the Koch brothers. Here's an ad they're airing in Iowa, attacking Democratic Rep. Bruce Braley, who's running for the Senate:

Dan Caldwell, issues and legislative campaign manager for Concerned Veterans, says this spot and one the group is running in North Carolina targeting Democratic Sen. Kay Hagen are aimed at holding Democrats accountable.

"Congressman Braley and Sen. Kay Hagen have something in common. They both campaigned on being veterans advocates, they were going to help fix the VA. But once they got into office, the situation at the VA got worse and they didn't really devote enough attention to it," he says.

It remains to be seen whether voters will blame members of Congress for the failings of the VA. But it is clear that lots of candidates believe standing with veterans is one way to win undecided voters this November.

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Transcript

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

We're moving into the heart of election season. Control of Congress is at stake. Key races in different states may turn on different issues, but one national issue has emerged. It's the care of veterans. You'll recall that the scandal at the Department of Veterans Affairs revealed that veterans had to wait weeks or even months for care and that records on wait times were falsified. The secretary of veterans affairs lost his job. It's now a major topic as lawmakers try to keep theirs. Here's NPR's Brian Naylor.

BRIAN NAYLOR, BYLINE: In 2010, it was Obamacare that dominated the airwaves. In this year's midterms, there's nothing quite so dominant. But an issue that has risen to prominence is veterans. Candidates of both parties are featuring the VA scandal in their ads. Elizabeth Wilner is vice president of Kantar Media Ad Intelligence, which tracks political advertising.

ELIZABETH WILNER: It has been the one big, breaking news story of 2014 that's actually reverberating in campaign ads in a widespread way. We don't see foreign policy events, the crisis in the Middle East, even border security here at home appearing in campaign ads to nearly the same degree.

NAYLOR: Wilner says as of last month, some 34,000 veterans-themed ads have run in races nationwide. Candidates are using the VA problems in their ads in different ways. For Republican Rick Allen, who's running for a congressional seat in Georgia, it's another in a string of Obama administration woes.

(SOUNDBITE OF CAMPAIGN AD)

RICK ALLEN: Look at the mess Obama's made. Veterans dying, ignored by the VA, the crisis on our border...

NAYLOR: But most campaigns seem to be using the VA scandal as a standalone problem. Jackie McPherson is a Democrat running for Congress in Arkansas. His ad features a Vietnam-era veteran dealing with PTSD.

(SOUNDBITE OF CAMPAIGN AD)

UNIDENTIFIED VETERAN #1: We've done our duty with respect and honor, and the United States need to stand behind us.

JACKIE MCPHERSON: I'm Jackie McPherson, and I approve this message because I'll always stand with our veterans.

NAYLOR: It may seem like candidates for Congress are spending a lot of money to win over veterans, a relatively small segment of the electorate. But what they're really after are votes of undecided and independent voters says Jon Soltz, chairman of votevets.org.

JON SOLTZ: People aren't talking about veterans' issues in this election to sway veterans. They're talking about veterans' issues to talk to undecided independent voters. The reason is because it is a, you know, mom and apple pie issue.

NAYLOR: VoteVets is a Democratic group that's spending $5 million to unseat Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky. Soltz blames McConnell for blocking a $21 billion measure aimed at increasing VA funding. The group is running this ad featuring a Vietnam veteran shown slowly walking with a cane.

(SOUNDBITE OF CAMPAIGN AD)

UNIDENTIFIED VETERAN #2: Senator McConnell, I did my duty. But after 30 years in Washington, you failed to do yours - time for you to go.

NAYLOR: Republicans have their own groups, among them Concerned Veterans for America, which is backed by the Koch brothers. Here's an ad they're running in Iowa attacking Democratic Congressman Bruce Braley, who's running for the Senate.

(SOUNDBITE OF CAMPAIGN AD)

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: The VA is failing our veterans - secret lists, long waits, preventable deaths. Congress was warned, but Bruce Braley ignored it.

NAYLOR: Dan Caldwell is issues and legislative campaign manager for Concerned Veterans. He says this spot and one the group is running in North Carolina targeting Democratic Senator Kay Hagan are aimed at holding Democrats accountable.

DAN CALDWELL: Both Congressman Braley and Senator Kay Hagan have something in common. They both campaigned on being veterans advocates, that they were going to help fix the VA. But once they got into office, the situation at the VA got worse, and they didn't really devote enough attention to it.

NAYLOR: It remains to be seen if voters will blame members of Congress for the failings of the VA. But it's clear that lots of candidates believe standing with veterans is one way to win undecided voters this November. Brian Naylor, NPR News, Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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