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Dems' secret Senate weapon: "American heroes"

Illustration: Aïda Amer/Axios

Democrats are trying to win the Senate in 2020 by running candidates with a background in national security against Republican incumbents in Trump country.

Why it matters: This is the same strategy that helped Democrats take back the House in 2018. Candidates with foreign policy and national security experience flipped crucial GOP-held seats from Pennsylvania to California.

One of those 2018 Democrats, Rep. Tom Malinowski, spent decades in foreign policy, including as National Security Council senior advisor for President Bill Clinton, before winning a House seat last year.

  • "Having that foreign policy, national security background helps candidates pass a seriousness and patriotism test," Malinowski said.
  • Other 2018 House Democrats with records of intelligence and military experience include: Reps. Chrissy Houlahan, Andy Kim, Elaine Luria, Max Rose, Mikie Sherrill, Abigail Spanberger and Elissa Slotkin.
  • Of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee's 89 red-to-blue candidates last cycle, 19 were veterans.

Driving the news: Amy McGrath, the Democrat running against Sen. Mitch McConnell in Kentucky, is the latest example of an "American hero" candidate in the 2020 Senate race. She's a veteran and the first female Marine to fly a F/A-18 in combat.

  • Mark Kelly, who's challenging Sen. Martha McSally in Arizona, is a former Navy captain who flew 39 combat missions during Operation Desert Storm and commanded Space Shuttle Endeavour.
  • Cal Cunningham is an Iraq War veteran who was awarded the Bronze Star Medal and served as a major in the U.S Army Reserve. He's challenging Sen. Thom Tillis in North Carolina.
  • MJ Hegar, who's running against John Cornyn in Texas, is an Afghanistan veteran who served in the Air Force and was awarded the Purple Heart in 2009. 
  • Dan Baer was the U.S. ambassador to the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE), dealing directly with Russia. He's challenging Sen. Cory Gardner in Colorado.

Be smart: Democrats have found that — particularly in areas where folks hadn't pulled the lever for a Democrat in a long time — it was best for these candidates to first talk to voters about their national security experience rather than political party.

  • There's "immediate credibility that comes with this background," said Jeff Prescott, executive of National Security Action, which is co-chaired by former Obama foreign policy aide Ben Rhodes.

Reality check: This background doesn't make any candidate a shoo-in, and Democrats still face an uphill battle to win the Senate. McGrath and Hegar ran for Congress in 2018 and both lost their House races. Cunningham lost his primary for Senate in 2010. Baer briefly ran for Democrat Rep. Ed Perlmutter's seat in '18 before dropping out when Perlmutter decided not to retire.