MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:
At least 16 new members of Congress elected on Tuesday are military veterans. That is out of 150 veterans who ran as candidates. Now, that didn't used to be so notable. Thirty years ago, half of all members of Congress were military veterans. That number has shrunk, and some observers link that decline to a decline in civil discourse and bipartisan compromise. It also means veterans who do run for office these days stand out more, as NPR's Quil Lawrence reports.
QUIL LAWRENCE, BYLINE: Americans rank Congress among the least respected public institutions and hold the military in the highest regard according to polls, which is one reason that hundreds of veterans who ran for Congress this year put it front and center.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)
DAN CRENSHAW: When I was about 12 years, old I read a book by a former SEAL. It was about patriotism and heroism and adventure. And that was everything I wanted to be about.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)
MIKIE SHERRILL: Before the Navy let me fly one of these, I had to pass a lot of tests.
LAWRENCE: Those were ads for Dan Crenshaw, retired SEAL, a Republican from Texas, and Mikie Sherrill, chopper pilot and Democrat from New Jersey. They both won seats in the House of Representatives. Veteran status was hardly a guarantee. Many vets lost close races, including two other female combat pilots, Amy McGrath in Kentucky and MJ Hegar in Texas, both Democrats running in deep-red districts. But with a few races still being tallied, the new Congress may double the number of female veterans serving and will have the largest number of Iraq and Afghanistan veterans to date. Rye Barcott, a former Marine, says he's hoping that will mean Congress does what it's supposed to do.
RYE BARCOTT: What's exciting about these group of vets that have won is that they've committed to serve in a cross-partisan coalition and talk to each other across party lines and get things done.
LAWRENCE: Barcott has that commitment in writing. He leads a super PAC called With Honor which funded dozens of vet candidates, both Republicans and Democrats. All those candidates, including Sherrill and Crenshaw, signed a pledge to meet with the opposite party, co-sponsor legislation and serve with civility.
BARCOTT: Core of the mission is really to be - to have this commitment to serving in a cross-partisan way. And Lord knows we need it.
LAWRENCE: Barcott says it's just the beginning of a long road to fixing gridlock in Washington, which was what many of Mikie Sherrill's constituents in New Jersey told her they wanted.
SHERRILL: Certainly the issues that people are concerned about are tax reform, health care reform, infrastructure spending. But then the narrative beyond all that is, you know, Mikie, can you just promise me that you're going to go try to get Congress to work again, that you're going to put the country first and not spend all your time and effort fighting Republicans?
LAWRENCE: The same goes for Dan Crenshaw, who ran as a conservative in Texas. He and Sherrill disagree on most of the issues, but Crenshaw wants to debate the other side, not demonize them.
CRENSHAW: Personal destruction is a huge part of our politics right now, and we should never be proud of that. I think it's amplified these days both by the media and by social media, but - doesn't make it right. It doesn't make your ideas better just because you insult the other side in a wittier manner.
LAWRENCE: Both candidates say their military service creates a baseline of respect and pragmatism they hope will spread in the next Congress and continue as another generation of veterans begins to enter politics. Quil Lawrence, NPR News.