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Are political candidates in SC allowed to campaign in military gear, uniforms?

State - 5/7/2024

Political candidates in South Carolina, such as U.S. Sen. Lindsey Graham, have historically produced campaign materials featuring them in military uniform, relying on the adoration and appreciation many Americans display toward candidates who’ve served in the armed forces. But do such practices violate rules at the Department of Defense?

It depends. But in most cases, no.

This year Dean Widener, a Republican and U.S. Air Force veteran, who also served in the South Carolina Air National Guard, is challenging state Rep. Jay Kilmartin, R-Lexington, in House District 85. Widener has several photos of what appears to show him in full military uniform in his campaign materials, including on his website, campaign placards and billboards around Lexington County. It’s something Graham was called out for during his 2016 presidential bid when he displayed photos of himself in military attire, also from the Air Force.

In general, as long as non-active duty candidates disclose within their campaign materials that the U.S. Department of Defense does not endorse their candidacy, regulations allow most uses.

“From the Department of Defense standpoint, the pictures I have on my billboards are not in uniform,” Widener said. “What (people) fail to see is that I’m wearing jeans with an old flight jacket.” He added that even if he were in full uniform, the flight jacket, itself, lacked certain patches to render him as such, including his name tag.

Widener is, however, shown in full uniform on his campaign website, but said it doesn’t run afoul of DOD rules.

Specifically, DOD regulations provide that, “Members not on active duty who are nominees or candidates for office ... may, in their campaign literature (including web sites, videos, television, and conventional print advertisements), use or mention ... their military rank or grade and military service affiliation; but they must clearly indicate their retired or reserve status.”

In addition, federal rules say former military personnel “may include or permit the inclusion of their current or former specific military duty, title, or position, or photographs in military uniform, when displayed with other non-military biographical details. Any such military information must be accompanied by a prominent and clearly displayed disclaimer that neither the military information nor photographs imply endorsement by the Department of Defense.”

Where Widender’s campaign website shows him in his military uniform, the illustration is accompanied by a statement that he retired from the Air Force in 2016. Additionally, he added a disclaimer as a caption below a photo in full uniform that his candidacy was not endorsed by the DOD.

DOD regulations do prohibit candidates from featuring themselves in full uniform as a primary campaign image, but Widener said that rule doesn’t apply to him in wearing a flight jacket with jeans.

“I wish on the billboards that it would’ve showed me in my jeans, but it actually just happened to be an old flight jacket that I wear all the time in the wintertime and that’s where the pictures were taken. But I’ve got some other signs that are coming ... that shows me in that same jacket but in the blue jeans, so that might help people feel a little bit at ease there.”

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