North Dakota Senate hopefuls chase the veterans' voteAugust 9, 2018 3:37pm

BISMARCK, N.D. (AP) — At the American Veterans club in Bismarck where former military men and others are drawn by camaraderie, card games and affordable gravy-laden lunch specials, there's no clear favorite in North Dakota's sharply contested U.S. Senate race. But when it comes to the barrage of television ads begging for these veterans' votes, they couldn't agree more.

Make them stop.

"I'm glad I have a mute button on my TV," said Les Linssen, an 82-year-old Army veteran and retired hairdresser. "They're beating each other up and neither one of them has impressed me yet. Tell us what you're going to do for veterans, not what the other guy isn't."

In a state where veterans represent almost 9 percent of the population, and more on active duty or in the Guard, Democratic Sen. Heidi Heitkamp and Republican U.S. Rep. Kevin Cramer are filling the airwaves in hopes of gaining an advantage.

One ad supporting Heitkamp says Cramer "turned his back on our veterans and service members" and hits him for votes related to pay increases and funding for Veterans Affairs.

Cramer has struck back, including one spot featuring a retired Air Force Reserve officer who says she likes the popular Heitkamp but doesn't "like the way she votes in Washington."

Republicans see the North Dakota race as one of their top pickup chances nationally as they try to hang on to a small Senate majority. With Heitkamp winning six years ago by fewer than 3,000 votes in the deeply conservative state, earning veterans' support may be pivotal in November, said Mark Jendrysik, chairman of the University of North Dakota's political science department.

"Is there any real difference in policy between them? Probably not," Jendrysik said. "But I think you can presume that veterans are motivated voters — these are people who have performed public service. So why not throw some money that way?"

Neil Reamann and Jerry Johnson, both of Bismarck, are military veterans, longtime friends and pinochle partners but they couldn't disagree more on who should hold the Senate seat. Their preferences have nothing to do with veterans issues.

Reamann, an 81-year-old Army veteran, believes Heitkamp is too "liberal" for North Dakota. Johnson, an 83-year-old Navy veteran, said Cramer will just be a "yes man" for President Donald Trump.

Veterans number about 50,000 in the state, giving North Dakota a percentage slightly higher than the national average, U.S. Census data shows. The state also is home to some 7,000 active duty airmen at Air Force bases in Minot and Grand Forks. Another 4,000 North Dakotans serve in the National Guard and Air Guard.

Lonnie Wangen, the state's veterans affairs commissioner, said the attack ads have been disappointing and unfair. He said both Cramer and Heitkamp have been strong advocates for veterans and the military.

"Veterans issues are nonpartisan and they should always be," he said. "If an ad says either one of them are against veterans in any way, the ad is grossly wrong."

Wangen and other veterans say the days of poor health services for veterans is largely over in North Dakota, a turnaround that has happened just in the past few years. He said the candidates, along with GOP Sen. John Hoeven, can take credit for that.

Wangen said the congressional delegation also successfully pushed for a $1 million program that provides transportation to medical facilities for veterans in rural areas.

"It's the best-funded and biggest program in the nation," he said.

Heitkamp in a statement said that she's "fighting every day to honor the commitment to our veterans and make sure they get the health care, benefits, and services they earned and deserve." She said one of her "proudest moments" as a senator came when she pushed successfully for a Purple Heart for an American Indian veteran of the Korean War, some 60 years after he was wounded.

In a statement, Cramer said that "maintaining the most powerful military force on earth has long been a key priority of mine." He also said he would help ensure veterans "are getting world-class care and assistance."

Ray Geffre, 70, is chaplain of North Dakota's volunteer honor guard, which each year attends more than 100 funerals for veterans. He was exposed to Agent Orange in Vietnam and suffers from a myriad of problems because of it.

Geffre said he'd like to hear more from candidates about what can be done for fellow vets like himself and his son, who served in the Army in Afghanistan. He said VA facilities across the country need to be fully funded and expanded to handle the overwhelming amount of wartime injuries, including treatment for post-traumatic stress disorder.

"They deserve it and both parties need to support this," Geffre said. "If they don't, we'll hold their feet to the fire."

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