<< The Body Politic

Serving After Serving: Veterans in State Public Office

Wednesday, April 13th, 2016

Rebecca Burgess & Amy Daniel

April 13, 2016 | AEIdeas


One year into the Civil War, former diplomat and celebrated author Nathaniel Hawthorne traveled to Washington DC to survey the effects of war-making on the nation and its leaders. Writing “Chiefly about War Matters by a Peaceable Man” later in The Atlantic Monthly, Hawthorne observed that what the war spelled for the politically ambitious was that prior military service would be a necessity for election into public office.

One bullet-headed general will succeed another in the Presidential chair; and veterans will hold the offices at home and abroad, and sit in Congress and the State legislatures, and fill all the avenues of public life. And yet I do not speak of this deprecatingly, since, very likely, it may substitute something more genuine, instead of the many shams on which men have heretofore founded their claims to public regard…

Are veterans in public office a vanishing breed?

Hawthorne was right to anticipate the reverberations into political office of military experience. Six Civil War veterans were elected to the presidency: Ulysses Grant, Rutherford B. Hayes, James A. Garfield, Benjamin Harrison, William McKinley, and Chester Arthur. One-third of the members of Congress during the 49th Congress (1885–87) were veterans from northern and border states. According to the Senate Historical Office, all told, 87 Union veterans would eventually serve in the US Senate, joined by 72 ex-Confederates.

Fast forward to 1971: that year, veterans made up 72% of members in the House of Representatives, and 78% of the Senate.  The 1970s represent the high-water mark of military veterans in Congress—today, their numbers have receded by about 75%. The 114th Congress currently features a Senate with 20%, and a House with 18%, of its members as veterans.


This has invited concerns from more than one quarter: whether military veterans have become less-public service minded, as also the reverse of that question; whether public service post-Vietnam War has become inhospitable to military veterans.

Are veterans in public office a vanishing breed? The composition of the state legislatures doesn’t tell such a story. Actually, it tells an entirely new story, since no one up to this point appears ever to have compiled the data on the military service backgrounds of state-level legislators.

Combing through publicly available sources regarding every member of every state legislature, the AEI Program on American Citizenship has gathered such information for the first time, to form a more comprehensive picture of the veteran composition of public office holders in 2016.


Military veterans represent around 14 % of each state’s combined legislatures.

Military veterans serve in the state legislatures of all 50 states, representing on average around 14 % of each state’s combined legislatures (state senate and house). That means that of the 7,383 state legislators, 1,040 have military experience — 260 state senators compared to 780 state representatives. (There are 1,972 state Senate seats, and 5,411 total state House seats.)

Not all states have similarly sized senates or representative houses, and thus the percentage of veteran state legislators within each state can represent a diverse range of numbers of actual veterans-as-legislators. Nonetheless, the immediate data brings forward several noteworthy items.

  • States with the highest percentages of veterans in their legislatures are not necessarily southern. New Hampshire has the highest percentage of veterans-as-legislators, at 23%. However, as home to the third largest representative body in the world (400 members), it’s perhaps less surprising that New Hampshire take this crown. Whereas 95 of its state representatives also have military experience, only three of its 24 state senators do.
  • Clarksville, Tennessee; Fayetteville, North Carolina; and Jacksonville, NC, are the three cities with the highest percentage of veterans according to the US Census Bureau. But Nevada, Alabama, North Dakota, and Tennessee round out the top five states with the highest percentage of veterans-as-legislators. North Carolina follows close behind, at 20%.
  • California, Texas, and Florida are home to the most veterans, with over 1 million each (California has 2 million). California, however, ranks second to last in percentage of veterans-as-state legislators, at only 6%. One member of the CA state senate and 6 members of the CA state house of representatives have military experience.
  • According to the Census Bureau, Alaska, Maine, and Montana are the states that have the highest veteran population to total population ratio (roughly 1:10). These three states are neatly clustered around the national average of veterans in state-level office, at 17%, 15%, and 14%, respectively.
  • To color this a little with the perspective of age, nearly half of the veterans living in Alaska, for instance, served in the Gulf War era. While young veterans (20-34) have congregated in Alaska, Hawaii, and North Dakota, by contrast nearly half the veterans in New Jersey, Massachusetts, and Connecticut are seniors age 65 and older. Only 7% of Massachusetts state legislators have military experience.

How do these veteran legislators identify party-wise? At the national level, the 114th Congress features a Senate split 70% Republican and 30% Democratic military veteran-wise, and a House similarly split 75% Republican and 25% Democratic.


At the state level, of the 14% of all state legislators with military experience, 10% are affiliated with the Republican Party while only 4% are affiliated with the Democratic Party. This heavily Republican-weighted division does not necessarily hold true across state lines, however, nor within state legislatures does the veterans political party division necessarily reflect the majority-minority party division. A few highlights from this graphic:

  • It’s no surprise that Utah, Wyoming, Idaho, and Kansas lead the 50 states with the highest percentage of Republicans among each’s veteran legislator cohort. With Republican governors and Republican majority legislatures, it would be hard to imagine otherwise. But “blue” Washington State, which is split between the parties legislatively and with a Democratic governor, has a 1% Democratic veteran legislator proportion, compared to a 10% percent Republican one.
  • While 100% of veteran legislators in Utah and Wyoming are Republican, in no Democratic-majority state (or any state) are 100% of veteran legislators Democratic. Not even in Hawaii—where only 1 out of its 25 senators is Republican, and only 7 of 51 representatives. Two of those 7 Republicans are also veterans.
  • Outside of New Hampshire, whose 22 Democratic veteran legislators are the most of any state, Maryland with 13 has the most of such legislators. The 17 Republican veterans in state office means even there the Democrats don’t win out.
  • Kentucky is evenly split. So is Louisiana. Arkansas is close, with Republicans eeking out a 1% lead over Democrats.

Stepping back to the broader picture, these graphics suggest at least two things: The percentage of military veterans in public office today does not equal the numbers of such veterans after previous American wars — but neither does the percentage of the population fighting in our wars post-1973 reflect the percentage doing so prior to the All-Volunteer Force.  Military veterans do, however, continue to serve in the public sphere after their military duties have ended. They are political in this too, in general — reflecting the larger political party leanings of their state and localities.