MANCHESTER, N.H. — In a state with a disproportionate influence over the presidential process, New Hampshire’s veterans stand at the top of the food chain.
As dozens of Republicans and a handful of Democrats vie for their respective party’s nominations, the state’s vets will be a deciding factor.
New Hampshire’s retired military service members, then, could rightly be called the tastemakers of the state.
“Whoever makes it here on primary day and gets the lion’s share of the veterans will be a winner,” said Paul Chevalier, a member of the VFW’s national legislative committee and a former New Hampshire chairman of Veterans for McCain and Bush. “The candidates listen to us because we can load the halls with veterans, and they know that.”
Seventy percent of veterans voted in the 2012 presidential election, compared to 61.8 percent of all U.S. adults.
While the VFW does not endorse candidates, it does host hopefuls of both parties to come to local VFW halls to speak about their issues, which especially helps candidates without much money to spend in the early days of the campaign. But for that courtesy, candidates are grilled—and, the vets like to think, in a tougher way than in any other state.
“We put ’em on the hot seat, believe me. We believe in one-to-one here in New Hampshire,” said Gary Gordon, a Navy vet who served in the Vietnam War and lives in Bow, N.H. “We’re tired of lip service. Everybody says they want to take care of veterans…. This, that and the other: which is a crock.”
Vets issues in New Hampshire are focused and deeply technical: Will the United States shorten schedules to allow service members more time with their families? How about troop pay in the defense authorization bill? And what about the choice card for veterans’ health care?
“They get in the weeds here,” Chevalier told The Daily Beast. “[Vets] all have mothers and fathers and sisters and brothers and wives and kids. So if they’re busy getting out the vote, you can imagine that it would be a controlling factor in any election.”
Presidential candidate Marco Rubio ran the gauntlet last week, appearing at an Exeter town hall held by Concerned Veterans for America that saw him answering questions on Tri-Care military health insurance, the vets’ disability claims process, and the overall defense budget.
And New Jersey Governor Chris Christie, Carly Fiorina, Senator Lindsey Graham, and Donald Trump have already been through the state at VFW venues in the Granite State this cycle.
“This is a huge state when it comes to veterans issues… because you know you can get attention on the issues, and you know vets and military families in New Hampshire care about it,” said Concerned Veterans for America CEO Pete Hegseth.
“VFW members from across the nation are amazed that not only do we get our U.S. senators and congressmen to talk to us… you want to meet the next president of the United States? Come to New Hampshire, and we’ll walk right up and shake their hand,” said past New Hampshire commander of the VFW Mark McCabe.
McCabe, and his wife, Rita McCabe, run a small ice cream shop in Nashua called Sub Zero, and have leveraged their political connections in an attempt to get presidential candidates to make it a regular stop on the New Hampshire campaign trail. Gov. Rick Perry and his wife have already come through this year.
Rita McCabe, who heads up a local VFW ladies auxillary, said she was deeply concerned about the lack of presidential candidates with military experience in the 2016 race. Republican candidates Graham and Perry have served in the military, as has Democratic candidate Jim Webb.
Presidential candidates without military experience “don’t get it,” she told The Daily Beast from the conference room of her ice cream shop in Nashua. “How do you make a decision as to whether you’re going to deploy troops, or what you’re trying to accomplish overseas, when you doing understand the basics of being a veteran? You’ve never been in it.”
Her husband Mark did try to shed light on why businessman Donald Trump was getting some support in the state—despite lacking prior military service. A poll last week by Suffolk University in Boston showed that Trump placed second among Republicans in the state, behind only Jeb Bush.
“He’s done a lot in New York City for the veterans community down there. He put up his own money to [construct] monuments, and monuments aren’t a couple hundred dollars, they’re a lot of money,” he said.