State Rep. Mark Takai has a status that no other candidate in the Democratic primary for Hawaii’s 1st Congressional District can match.

Takai is a combat veteran.

His campaign has been airing a 30-second TV commercial to remind voters of his military service and his work during 20 years in the Legislature to improve the lives of veterans and active duty military troops.

“It is a strength for us,” says Takai. “It is a big part of our campaign, but I don’t want it to be the only part.”

Takai’s TV spot highlights his endorsements from disabled war veteran U.S. Rep. Tammy Duckworth and VoteVets, a political action committee that supports progressive-thinking veterans.

In the state House, Takai is chairman of the Veterans and Military Affairs Committee.

In 2009, Takai deployed to Kuwait with Hawaii’s 29th Infantry Brigade as part of Operation Iraqi Freedom. He was the base operations officer there for Camp Patriot. Takai is currently a lieutenant colonel in the Hawaii Army National Guard.

“I am very proud of my service to my country and to my state,” Takai explains in an interview. “I hope veterans will support me. There is an affinity veterans have, an understanding, the kinship of like-minded people have who have shared the same experience.”

Seven Democrats, including Takai, are running in the primary for the seat vacated by Rep. Colleen Hanabusa in her bid for the U.S. Senate.

In the crowded field, each Democrat is reaching for something to make him or herself stand out.

Takai during Operation Iraqi Freedom

Political strategist Dylan Nonaka says, “Takai’s status as a veteran in definitely important in a race like this one where every little bit counts. He should get a few percentage points out of it no matter what.”

But Nonaka also warns that veterans don’t vote as a block. And he says some veterans can get ticked off when they think a politician is exploiting his or her war service to try to win an election.

“It should not be overdone or it begins to sound cheesy,” says Nonaka.

Nonaka is a lieutenant in the Army Reserve and was an enlisted man in the first unit of U.S. Marines to come under fire during the invasion of Iraq. He is a former executive director of the Hawaii Republican Party and now runs a political consulting firm based in Hilo.

State Senate President Donna Kim is the best-known candidate in this primary race.

Political analyst Neal Milner says, “It is important for Takai, who lacks the same level of name recognition, to get a narrative out there about himself, something to make people remember him, know who he is. The citizen-soldier idea is not a bad one. Tulsi made it work for her.”

U.S. Rep. Tulsi Gabbard has been a soldier in the Hawaii Army National Guard for 11 years and was deployed twice to Iraq during the war.

Gabbard beat her well-known opponent, former Honolulu Mayor Mufi Hannemann, in the 2012 Democratic primary for Hawaii’s 2nd Congressional District by 20 percentage points.

Part of Gabbard’s winning strategy was to focus on her military service with more than $300,000 in contributions from VoteVets that was used for mailers and television advertising.

Hannemann had not served in the military.

I asked Gabbard, who was recently in Hawaii on her way to Asia with a group of congressional leaders, what difference veterans made in her victory.

She answered diplomatically, saying, “it was an honor to receive the support of my brothers and sisters in arms and to know they would trust me to help with many issues veterans are still facing.”

Gabbard has not endorsed any candidate in the 1st Congressional District primary.

The State Office of Veterans’ Services says there are between 120,000 and 140,000 veterans living in Hawaii, about one out of every 10 residents.

Takai says Hawaii’s connection to the armed forces is even larger when you count civilians who work for the military, businesses that benefit from military spending and military dependents.

Takai is making a point in his latest commercial that Gabbard has made in the past, which is that more veterans are needed in Congress to help stop the bleeding of veterans’ medical and retirement benefits. And that veterans who have served in the military have already shown that they are dedicated public servants with a keen understanding of defense issues.

In his TV commercial, Takai says there are now fewer veterans serving in Congress than at any time since World War II.

Currently only 20 percent of U.S. House and Senate members are veterans. In 1971, 73 percent were veterans.

Political analyst Milner says military service is probably the most compelling part of Takai’s personal story. And as a relative unknown it is important for him to get that story out there early before one of his opponents tries to define him in another way.

Other candidates in the 1st Congressional District’s Democratic primary besides Kim and Takai are Honolulu City council members Stanley Chang and Ikaika Anderson, State Sen. Will Espero, State Rep. Joey Manahan and human rights activist Kathryn Xian.

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