Graphic features Veterans for Responsible Leadership logo, image of a military member, a man on a cell phone, the U.S. capitol building in the background, with a photo of Dr. Barkhuff on the right.
While the U.S. is six months past the 2020 presidential election and more than three months beyond the inauguration of President Joe Biden, pivotal elections—like the May 1 special election in Texas' 6th Congressional District—continue to take place across the country, many of which attract the attention and support of political action committees (PACs). One of those PACs—Veterans for Responsible Leadership (VRL)—was founded by Larner College of Medicine Assistant Professor of Surgery Daniel Barkhuff, M.D., a U.S. Naval Academy graduate, veteran, and former Navy SEAL.
Barkhuff, whose interest in emergency medicine was piqued during Navy SEAL trainings with EMTs and emergency physicians, has always held fast to the military Code of Conduct, which focuses on honor and duty, and a sworn commitment to protect the U.S. Constitution. After Donald Trump was sworn in as president in January 2017, Barkhuff personally felt the tenets of that document were in jeopardy.
In medicine and in government, says Barkhuff, “Good decisions are made when one adheres to certain moral and ethical standards.” Barkuff is a New England native who graduated from Harvard Medical School after serving eight years as an operator in Iraq, Afghanistan, and other locations.
“I believe in the Constitution and from the get-go, thought that Trump had no responsibility for the Constitution,” he says.
In March 2017, Barkhuff decided to take action, guided by his personal beliefs. Working from his living room table, he launched a closed Facebook group and in May 2017, filed with the Federal Election Commission for PAC status for VRL, which has strength, optimism, integrity, service, and civility as its core principles.
A month later, Barkhuff joined UVM’s Division of Emergency Medicine (EM) after one year serving as an EM attending in New Mexico, following his residency at the University of New Mexico.
On its website, VRL is described as “a fully inclusive, nonpartisan organization whose mission is to uphold the integrity of American democracy from those who seek to undermine and subvert its institutions, the rule of law, and electoral system for personal or political advantage.”
While he admits to having been a “total amateur” at the start, Barkhuff and his VRL colleagues managed to raise enough funds to focus on mid-term elections in the 2018 North Carolina Congressional race, supporting a Marine Corps infantry officer. While the candidate lost, the VRL team found value in the experience.
“We were getting our feet wet—learning about the structure, and how races work,” says Barkhuff.
In 2020, VRL aligned with The Lincoln Project with the objective to flip at least three states. They targeted a handful of states that had supported Trump in 2016 where the margins were thin: Florida, Georgia, Michigan, North Carolina, and Pennsylvania.
VRL’s target audience was veterans using the GI bill to get a college degree—a group of voters that polling indicated were soft on their support of Trump—to help “move the needle,” says Barkhuff. The thought was that being veterans and having served their country “would give us a leg to stand on,” he adds.
As part of their campaign, The Lincoln Project ran advertisements in June and July 2020 (and during the Georgia runoff), including one that featured Barkhuff. While they lost in Florida and North Carolina, the group succeeded in getting their candidates elected in Georgia, Michigan, and Pennsylvania. Barkhuff believes the COVID-19 pandemic and resulting high volume of deaths was at the root of people’s voting decisions.
“Even for folks not in the medical field, it got people fired up—the lack of leadership regarding the pandemic,” he says. “We heard multiple times that this election was about the coronavirus.”
The campaign also positively impacted VRL’s membership, which grew from 300 to about 5000 and consists of people who “hold a broad spectrum of political views.” Barkhuff describes VRL’s average member as a 40-year-old ex-Marine who has served two tours in Afghanistan/Iraq. Roughly 30 percent of VRL’s members are women and 70 percent are men.
A couple dozen members are interested in running in state elections, says Barkhuff, which aligns with the organization’s aim to “organically develop our own candidates.”
This spring, one of the candidates endorsed by VRL—Michael Wood, a Marine veteran and Midland, Texas native—ran as one of 23 candidates in the special election to fill a vacancy in Texas' 6th Congressional District. While Wood wasn’t one of the two candidates advanced to the runoff election, he served as a strong example of a VRL candidate.
A May 1 Wall Street Journal article noted, "Wood’s vote share could offer a snapshot of Republican sentiments about Trump, with no other GOP candidate agreeing with Wood that the 2020 election was conducted fairly and accurately." The article stated that the district was "the only one where the margin between Trump and Biden was in single digits."
The removal of House minority leader Rep. Liz Cheney (R-Wyoming), on May 12 is the latest—and most significant—evidence of the divide between Republicans who continue to support the former president and those who do not. Cheney authored a May 12 Washington Post Opinion piece in which she echoed the VRL mission. In it, she says, "The Republican Party is at a turning point, and Republicans must decide whether we are going to choose truth and fidelity to the Constitution."
Currently, VRL still has an active closed group on Facebook. The organization has one paid full-time employee—a deputy director of operations—and relies on volunteers, including Barkhuff, who serves as president, a vice president, and an executive director. The group’s goal going forward is to finance and hire a professional team dedicated to such efforts as fundraising and advertising.
The group’s methods for “moving the needle” mirror Barkhuff’s approach as a physician. “You’re trying to appeal to what people view as right and fair—whether it’s with patients or colleagues,” he says. “It’s important to be a good person and be trustworthy.”
Read a December 18, 2020 New Yorker article featuring VRL and Barkhuff here.