From Cockpit to Campaign, Two Marine Airmen Gun for the House

HAVELOCK, N.C. — They met here at the Cherry Point Marine airfield two decades ago, the start of a friendship that would be forged over hundreds of hours in the cockpit of an EA-6B Prowler warplane over the Middle East, jamming enemy radar systems. One was in the pilot’s seat and the other navigated beside him.

They are now vying for two seats next to each other once more — this time in Congress. And so on a rain-lashed afternoon, standing in a church room minutes away from the base, Scott Cooper, a lanky retired lieutenant colonel, reprised his role as wingman for his old cockpit mate and pilot, Richard Bew, two Democrats testing their military credentials in Republican swaths of North Carolina.

[Sign up for the weekly At War newsletter to receive stories about duty, conflict and consequence.]

Though he had his own campaign a district over to worry about, Mr. Cooper threw an arm around his friend and compared choosing a candidate to sizing up someone who wants to marry your child: “You’re not asking them to agree with you on all the issues,” Mr. Cooper said. “You’re asking them if they’ve got the heart and the soul to take care of your child, if they’re someone you want to follow. He’s the kind of person I want to follow.”

Mr. Bew, a wiry retired colonel with eight combat deployments, is running in a special election this summer to fill the third congressional district seat held for 13 terms by Walter Jones, a Republican who recently died. Mr. Cooper is running next year in the second district just to the west, against Representative George Holding, considered a top 2020 target by the House Democrats’ campaign arm.

Their friendship was cemented during a mission in Kosovo in 1999, when they led a squadron of jets into what turned into a hard-fought, multiday campaign that culminated with the Serbian army shooting down an American stealth aircraft with a surface-to-air missile. As the senior officers in the squadron, they had to lead.

“None of them had ever been shot at before, so they were kind of looking at us to see if they would be O.K.,” Mr. Bew said over lunch at Captain Ratty’s, a seafood restaurant and old haunt of the two friends.

In recent years, conflict has marred the American political scene, but both men saw reason to believe the nation might be emerging from a dark moment.

“This is America developing the antibodies to the most negative things we’ve seen,” Mr. Bew said.

They are hoping they can both be part of the healing. After twenty years of friendship, they speak in coded shorthand, while wordlessly pulling fries off each other’s plates. When Mr. Cooper drove his daughter to college, he borrowed Mr. Bew’s truck; when a photographer started snapping pictures, Mr. Cooper leaned over and fixed Mr. Bew’s askew collar.

Mr. Bew faces his first test at the end of April when Democratic primary voters choose their candidate from a crowded field. So, on a recent weekend, Mr. Cooper took the day off from his campaign to join his friend as he crisscrossed the sprawling second district on the North Carolina coast, where the Marine Corps looms large. It is home to the east coast’s two largest Marine bases, Camp Lejeune and Cherry Point. Lining the narrow two-lane highways, billboards feature stone-faced war fighters, emblazoned with the message: MARINES FIGHT TO WIN.

If twin Democratic triumphs in this part of North Carolina seem improbable, both men have a blueprint for political success. Freshman Democrats like Conor Lamb, Max Rose, Mikie Sherrill and Elaine Luria beat Republicans last year in conservative districts by leaning hard on their military backgrounds and focusing on kitchen-table issues like health care. Mr. Bew and Mr. Cooper are in frequent contact with Representative Seth Moulton, Democrat of Massachusetts, a former Marine captain who recruits and supports veterans running for Congress.

The theory, Mr. Cooper said, is “that, as someone that is service-oriented in their career, you have the common good first and foremost in your mind.”

“You saw the way Conor Lamb ran,” he added. “It resonates.”

Last November’s sweeping Democratic victories in the House were a start, Mr. Bew told voters here, but the Democratic takeover was only “covering the sucking chest wound.”

“We still have to heal this patient, and it’s going to take time,” he said.

Such talk might not resonate for Mr. Bew in a district that skews Republican by 12 points and voted for President Trump by 23 percentage points in 2016.

“The unaffiliateds have to be able to be comfortable with someone who is not far left and not far right,” he told voters. “They’re looking for somebody who can be a lot of the things they want, all at once — who can understand and advance national security issues on a national level, but will also be able to do so without sacrificing Democratic values.”

They also have an unabashedly insider pitch. Mr. Bew uses personal stories to emphasize his understanding of Congress from his time as chief legislative aide to the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. He recalled John McCain, then chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, berating Defense Department officials once for not being prepared to answer his question, contorting his features into an uncanny impersonation of the famously peevish late senator.

Mr. Cooper, for his part, served as the national security director for Human Rights First, a nonprofit with offices in Washington.

North Carolina Democrats hope that the two will be able to successfully leverage their backgrounds. Charles Dudley, a vice chairman of a local county Democratic Party and a retired Marine himself, credited a wave of veterans with infusing new hope into the party.

“This past year in this county, there is fire in the belly of the Democratic Party,” Mr. Dudley said. “Now we have this new group, these retired military veterans, and we’re asking voters questions, ‘Why did you turn away from the party? What can we do to get you back?’ ”

Wendy Boss, a local Democratic official from Atlantic Beach, added, “The challenge is communicating to the Republicans who only see Trump.”