Like the rest of the military, the Air Force periodically issues “Senior Leader Announcements,” tracking the promotions, transfers and retirements of unit commanders (at the O-6 level) flag officers and their civilian equivalents.

There was one shocker in the announcement published last Thursday. One of the service’s rising stars, Major General Jack Catton, Jr., is retiring from active duty, effective 1 January 2008. General Catton currently serves as Director of Requirements (A8), at Air Combat Command Headquarters, Langley AFB, VA. In that position, he is charged with managing the development and acquisition of aircraft and other combat systems for the tactical air force (TAF). It’s one of the most “promotable” jobs for Air Force generals; past holders of the A8 post have routinely earned their third star, and several have advanced to the rank of general (four stars).

No reason was given for General Catton’s retirement. Almost two years ago, he was embroiled in a brief controversy, after using an Air Force e-mail system to endorse Bentley Rayburn, a retired Air Force general who was running for Congress in Colorado. In an e-mail–sent to about 200 friends and former Air Force Academy classmates–General Catton voiced support for Rayburn, saying that “we are certainly in need of Christian men with integrity and military experience in Congress.”

A copy of Catton’s e-mail was provided to the Washington Post by another Academy grad, Albuquerque attorney “Mikey” Weinstein. We’ve written extensively about Mr. Weinstein and his crusade against Evangelical Christians at the AFA. Weinstein claims that his sons (who also attended “The Zoo”) were victims of proselytizing and anti-Semitic remarks from evangelicals among the cadet corps and staff. Weinstein’s complaints led to an “assessment” of the religious climate at the academy, the transfer of the Commandant of Cadets, and an investigation into Major General Catton’s e-mail endorsement of Bentley Rayburn.

Mr. Weinstein may claim Catton’s retirement as another “victory” in his secular battle, but we see another dynamic at work. The GOP has been quietly encouraging retired flag officers to run for Congress, particularly in districts with large military installations and/or retiree populations. Rayburn, a political novice, made a surprisingly strong showing in last year’s GOP primary in Colorado’s 5th District, and is considered a potential replacement for Senator Wayne Allard, who is retiring in 2008.

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In Georgia, retired Major General Rick Goddard has been recruited to run against Democratic Representative Jim Marshall in a district that is highly conservative and trending Republican. Goddard, who commanded the Air Force Logistics Center in Warner Robins before his retirement in 2000, is well-known and respected in central Georgia.

Could General Catton become the latest GOP recruit? His military resume–which includes two tours as a wing commander, a chestful of decorations and flight time in at least five types of combat aircraft–is very impressive, indeed. There’s no evidence that the e-mail episode harmed his career, and Air Force members who’ve worked with Catton describe him as exceptionally bright, charismatic, articulate and telegenic–important qualities in an age where elections are won or lost on TV. He certainly “fits” the model of retired (or soon-to-retire) general officers being wooed by the Republicans.

But would General Catton run, and more importantly, where would he run? His strong e-mail endorsement of General Rayburn suggests someone with more than a passing interest in politics and his planned retirement date gives Catton enough time to establish–or re-establish–residency in a district where he might run, and put together an organization. While his scheduled separation date (1 January) may seem late by political standards, General Catton –like most military retirees–will go on terminal leave well before the New Year begins, giving him more time to plan a possible foray into politics.

In terms of geography, General Catton might have several options. Virginia Congresswoman Jo Ann Davis represents the area around Langley AFB; she is suffering from breast cancer, and there is speculation in some GOP circles that she may be unable to run for reelection next year. If Davis bows out, Catton would be a strong contender in a solidly Republican district–with a huge military population–despite his lack of political experience.

On the other hand, Catton could return to Florida, where he served as a wing commander at Eglin AFB (near Fort Walton Beach) from June 2000-November 2001. Fort Walton Beach falls in the First District, which is currently represented by Republican Jeff Miller. There are no present indications that Mr. Miller plans to step aside, and Catton would face an uphill battle against the incumbent.

However, the neighboring Second District is represented by a Democrat (Allen Boyd), despite the region’s solid support for George Bush in 2004. While Mr. Boyd is one of the most conservative Democrats in the House, the GOP may view his as vulnerable against a potential opponent with strong military and security credentials–someone like General Catton. We’re told that Catton is currently a Florida resident, and his military experience would resonate well in the Second District, which includes Tydall AFB near Panama City. General Catton also has roots in Colorado (dating from his days at the Air Force Academy) and could emerge as a candidate in that state.

At this point, we must emphasize that General Catton has not announced any run for political office. But he would make a very attractive candidate for the GOP, and his pending retirement from the Air Force certainly presents potential political opportunities in 2008–and beyond.

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