Recess Report: Political Issues Driving Key Senate Races - Part 1

Erin Carson, Lead Analyst Wednesday October 15th 2014

The race for control of the next Congress is coming down to a handful of Senate seats that have become political toss ups.  According to analysis from both the Cook Political Report and the Rothenberg Political Report, there are five seats that remain pure toss ups – Alaska, Colorado, Iowa, Kansas, and Louisiana; three seats that are undecided but leaning Democrat – North Carolina, Michigan, and New Hampshire; and two seats that are undecided but leaning Republican – Arkansas and Kentucky.

Within these races, a handful of issues have become  significant deciding points in how voters will cast their votes on November 4. Respondents to a Washington Post poll in early September, an  AP-GfK poll conducted September 25-29, and a a CBS poll conducted October 3-6 consistently reported that they are most concerned with 1) the economy, 2) healthcare reform, 3) immigration, 4) the threat of terrorism/international issues, and, to a somewhat lesser degree, 5) social issues, including abortion, contraception, same-sex marriage, and gun rights. In addition to these top tier-issues, a second group of common issues are increasingly significant in specific races with regional or niche industry concerns. These issues include energy and the environment, agriculture, state concerns, education, oversight of the Obama Administration, and military and veterans’ affairs.

The following two-part series provides an in-depth looks at these issues. Since control of the next Congress hinges on control of the Senate, the reports focus on issue significance to pivotal Senate mid-term elections, including the Republican and Democrat response to the issues and pertinent legislation introduced during the 113th Congress.  Part 1 covers the top-tier issues of the economy, health care, social, immigration, and terrorism/international concerns; and Part 2, coming October 20, will address energy and the environment, agriculture, state concerns, education, oversight of the Obama Administration, and military and veterans’ affairs.

Undecided 2014 Senate Midterm Races

Alaska:  Health care; energy and oil production​

Sen. Mark Begich (D)

Vic Kohring (Alaskan Independence);

Ted Gianoutsos (I); Sidney Hill (I);

Thom Walker (L)

Dan Sullivan (R)

Arkansas: Health care; seniors; federal spending; disaster aid​

Sen. Mark Pryor (D)

Nathan LaFrance (L)

Mark Swaney (Green)

Rep. Tom Cotton (R)

Colorado: Social issues; energy and hydraulic fracturing, immigration; abortion, contraception, gun rights​

Sen. Mark Udall (D)

Stephen H. Shogan (I)

Gaylon Kent (L)

Bill Hammons (Unity Party)

Rep. Cory Garner (R)

Iowa: Health care; social issues; minimum wage; agriculture​

Rep. Bruce Braley (D)

Main third party candidate died in recent plane crash.

State Sen. Joni Ernst (R)

Kansas: Agriculture; reforms to health insurance; immigration; gun control; social issues

Greg Orman (D)

Sen. Pat Roberts (R)

Kentucky: Energy and coal production; jobs; environment; health care; immigration; pay equity; women’s issues​

KY Secretary of State Alison Lundergan Grimes (D)

David Patterson (L)

Sen. Mitch McConnell (R)

Louisiana: Health care; energy development, including oil and natural gas

Sen. Mary Landrieu (D)

Brannon McMorris (L)

Rep. Bill Cassidy (R)

Michigan: Social issues; economy; health care​

Rep. Gary Peters (D)

Chris Wahmhoff (I)

Robert James Fulner (L)

Paul Marineau (I)

Jeff Jones (I)

Terri Lynn Land (R)

New Hampshire: Women’s issues; economy; health care

Sen. Jeanne Shaheen (D)

Gardner Goldsmith (L)

Scott Brown (R)

North Carolina: Health care, higher education affordability; energy issues

Sen. Kay Hagan (D)

Sean Haugh (L)

State Rep. Thom Tillis (R)

Top-Tier Issues in the Mid-Term Elections

Economy and Jobs

Overview - Unemployment, jobs and the state of the economy are consistently the top national concern for voters. In September, the national unemployment rate fell by 0.2 percent to 5.9 percent, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. Total nonfarm payroll employment increased by 248,000 last month and the number of unemployed people decreased by 329,000 to 9.3 million.  

Democrats are looking to economic policies such as increasing the minimum wage to foster economic growth. President Obama has repeatedly called for Congress to increase the minimum wage to $10.10, and a number of Democrat-sponsored bills have proposed the same. Republicans say that the 40 percent increase would negatively affect some industries, such as the restaurant industry, and would reduce employment opportunities. While some Democrats are stalwart in their support of the President’s proposal, other, more vulnerable Democrats and Republicans introduced compromise initiatives at either a lower dollar amount or a staggered timeline to the increase.

On the Republican side, fiscal conservatives are calling for deep cuts in spending and almost all Republicans are advocating reduced regulations to open growth in the private sector.

Key races -  If the economy were doing worse overall, it would probably be more of a deciding factor in some close Senate races. Still, economy and jobs are at the heart of important political debates in almost every state. Political analysts, such as those at the  political forecasting site 538, have recently noted that economic performance as a single variable will not directly influence the outcome of the 2014 midterm elections. Still, all of the candidates are addressing and debating job creation through the vehicle of another issue area, such as controversial coal development and regulations in the West Virginia and Kentucky races; hydraulic fracturing in Colorado; and the impact of crop-insurance policies in Kansas.

Legislation - House and Senate lawmakers introduced and/or passed a slew of bills during the 113th Congress that deal with protecting jobs and bolstering the economy -- both nationally and regionally. Within the initiatives, there have been instances of bipartisan success. For example,  Congress passed and the President signed H.R. 803, the Workforce Innovation and Opportunity Act in July 2014.  Another bipartisan coalition introduced S.2223 the Minimum Wage Fairness Act, which would have increased the minimum wage incrementally to $10.10 over a three-year process, but the bill died in a Senate cloture vote.  Still, these examples are outliers, as the majority of proposals to address the U.S. economy have centered on partisan approaches.

Both Democrats and Republicans took up a series of “messaging bills” at the end of the September session that focused on each party’s work to bolster wages and the economy. These messaging bills underscored the policy differences between the two parties in addressing the economy, with, on the one side Democrats focusing on wage fairness, and on the other side Republicans emphasizing decreased regulations to foster growth.The Senate again took up S. 2199 - the Paycheck Fairness Act, which aimed to close the pay gap between men and women. As expected, and perhaps intended, Republicans blocked the measure and the bill failed a cloture vote in the Senate. At the same time, House Republicans issued a series of bills designed to bolster jobs – and to remind voters of all the previous work Republicans have done in attempt to create jobs and enhance the economy. These bills include the omnibus packages H.R. 6 - the Domestic Prosperity and Global Freedom Act and H.R. 4. - the Jobs for America Act.

In addition, the following jobs-related bills were sponsored by sitting lawmakers running for re-election or election to the Senate:

H.R. 5077 – Coal Jobs Protection Act of 2014 - introduced by Rep. Shelley Moore Capito (R-W.Va.) in July.  Capito is running for the Senate seat of retiring Democratic Sen. Jay Rockefeller, introduced this bill in July and it’s now on the House calendar after the Transportation and Infrastructure Committee passed it on late September. The legislation seeks to curtail the authority of the Environmental Protection Agency in the coal permitting process.

S. 2907 – 21st Century Energy Workforce Development Jobs Initiative Act of 2014 - introduced by Sen. Mary Landrieu (D-LA) in September (link is to House companion bill.) Landrieu is in a tough re-election campaign against Republican challenger Rep. Bill Cassidy. The bill would require the Department of Energy to establish and execute a comprehensive program to improve education and training for energy-related jobs.

S. 2681 – Keeping Jobs in America Act - introduced by Sen. Mark Pryor (D-AR) in July. Pryor is running against Republican Rep. Tom Cotton. The bill would direct the Department of Commerce to create a grants program for states recruiting for valuable and higher-paying jobs, such as manufacturing, software publishing and computer design. It also would amend the tax code to give businesses that relocated their operations outside the U.S. into the country a tax credit. The legislation would also require an increase in the business’ employment of full-time employees in the United States in order to claim the tax credit for insourcing expenses.

S. 2414 – Protecting Jobs, Families, and the Economy From EPA Overreach Act - introduced by Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) in June. McConnell is running against Democrat Alison Lundergan Grimes. The bill would amend the Clean Air Act to prohibit the regulation of emissions of carbon dioxide from new or existing power plants under certain circumstances.

Health Care

Overview - Healthcare, Medicare and a candidate’s support or opposition to the Affordable Care Act has remained a dominant issue in nearly every election since its passage on March 23, 2010. There are currently more than 8 million ACA enrollees spread out across the country.  Attitudes towards the health care law have remained constant, negative, and divided by party affiliation.  According to an October survey from Gallup, public opinion towards the ACA remains rather constant:

“Even though the healthcare law appears to have lowered the U.S. uninsured rate, Americans' views toward the law overall and its effect on the U.S. healthcare situation in the long run continue to be more negative than positive. Views may change as more Americans gain insurance through the 2014 open enrollment period, which begins Nov. 15.”

This is disheartening news for Democrats across the country, but even worse for Senate Democrat incumbents who are seeking re-election for the first time since the law's enactment. In the south and the midwest incumbents will face opponents constantly reminding the electorate of the law’s unpopularity and the incumbent’s vote in support of the ACA. The unpopularity of the ACA is seen as the one of the main reasons that former President Clinton, rather than President Obama, is stumping for Senate Democrats in the final runup to the election.

Medicare is also a very important issue across the country, and while Congress hasn’t made significant changes to Medicaid in years, both chambers of the 113th Congress and the President have worked together to modernize the Sustainable Growth Rate Medicaid payback formula for doctors.

Key races - Health care, and especially the Affordable Care Act, is an important issue in many races, especially Senate races where a Democrat is the incumbent.  While the ACA has been gaining enrollees who say it is working for them, it is still a top attack issue for Republican challengers particularly in the south and midwest, with top targets in  North Carolina, Louisiana, and Arkansas. Health care is also a top mid-term issue in Alaska, with the highest national health care costs in the nation occuring in Fairbanks, Juneau, Kodiak, and Anchorage, according to the Anchorage Economic Development Corporation.

Legislation - The majority of Republican health care legislation has been aimed at repealing or revising the ACA. Due to recent large data breach problems experienced by major retailers like Target and the craft store Michaels, the House has also focused on passing ACA reforms to ensure the privacy of enrollees’ personal data.  House Republicans have also continued to pursue ACA exemptions for religious-affiliated groups that would allow those groups to avoid buying health insurance through the ACA if they cite a religious reason.   Repeal of any portion of the ACA and consideration of these House bills has been completely stopped by Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (NV), including a repeal of the medical device tax which is supported by many Democrats in the House and Senate.

H.R. 3362 Exchange Information Disclosure Act, sponsored by Rep. Terry Lee (R-NE), would require the Secretary of Health and Human Services to submit to Congress, and to make available to state governors, state insurance commissioners, and the public, weekly reports that describe public web usage of the healthcare.gov site and problems associated with the site.

H.R.1814 or the Equitable Access to Care and Health Act or the EACH Act, sponsored by Rep. Aaron Schock (R-IL), would provide an additional option to allow individuals to gain exemption from the Affordable Care Act (ACA) individual coverage mandate for religious reasons.

H.R.4414  Expatriate Health Coverage Clarification Act of 2014, sponsored by Rep. John Carney (D-DE) would aim to make it easier for Americans and their families living abroad to comply with the ACA.

While no agreement has been reached to reformulate the Medicaid payback to doctors during the 113th Congress, Congress did reach agreement on several pieces of legislation to change Medicaid post acute care and keep the current payback rate constant:

H.R. 4994, the IMPACT Act of 2014, sponsored by Rep. Dave Camp (R-MI), passed both chambers and was presented to the President on September 26, 2014. The bill would amend the Social Security Act to provide for a post-acute care (PAC) common assessment data tool, require standardized data across different states, improve hospital discharge plans, and use the data to reform PAC payment with neutral parties.  

Congress also passed and the President signed H.R. 4302: Protecting Access to Medicare Act of 2014, which will keep the Medicaid payback rate to doctors at it’s current level through March 2015.  

Social Issues – Abortion, Contraception, Gay Marriage, Gun Control

Overview - Social issues are very personal to voters, and as such they hold extreme sway in elections.  When analyzing social issues there are no real key races, rather key social issues in a particular race.  Whether it be abortion, gun control or marriage equality these social issues often bring voters to the polls to defend their personal beliefs.

According to the PEW Charitable Trust, Americans remain as divided as ever on key social issues dominating the news: a slim majority of Americans, 54%, support abortion and gay marriage; and Americans are equally divided in their support of both gun control and gun ownership.  While court rulings across the country are paving way to a national acceptance of gay marriage and gun control and ownership legislation would likely be filibustered by the opposing party, womens issues remain very divisive and unsettled Congressional issue.  The party controlling the Senate will have the potential to significantly shape the path of legislation related to women’s issues and possibly appoint Supreme Court Justices who will have judicial influence.  Democratic Senate candidates are campaigning heavily on this scenario hoping to draw women and those supportive of equal pay, abortion rights and access to family planning to the polls this November.

Key Races - The Colorado race between Colorado Democratic Senator Mark Udall and Republican challenger Representative Cory Gardner has made a strong point of soliciting women voters on both sides of controversial social issues. While most analysts had previously assumed that energy issues, such as hydraulic fracturing, would take center stage in Colorado, these issues have repeatedly come second to social issues in Colorado campaign ads and polls.  According to aDenver Post editorial  by Lynn Bartels, women’s issues have dominated the Colorado race. She writes: “If Colorado's U.S. Senate race were a movie, the set would be a gynecologist's office.... Personhood. Abortion. The pill.” Much of this is due to strong opposing positions from the candidates on the issues.  Rep. Garner is known for advocating a strong personhood measures that would give fetuses the same rights as all people from the moment of conception. Udall has slammed the position and dennounced a policy that would ban abortion and denounce certain forms of birth control. While Gardner recanted his views on personhood in March, Democrats are skeptical it was a political maneuver. Either way, control of the Colorado Senate seat could come down to how many women show up on voting day -- and which way those women will vote.

In addition, women’s issues are also a key topic in New Hampshire, North Carolina, Georgia and Louisiana, which all have Democratic women running against Republican men. In particular, the New Hampshire race between former Massachusetts Sen. Scott Brown (R)  and incumbent New Hampshire Sen. Jeanne Shaheen (D) has included ads attacking Sen. Brown’s stance on abortion in attempt to draw out women voters for Shaheen on election day.  

Women's issues and support for families are particularly king in races where a woman is challenging a male Republican incumbent. Perhaps no race better illustrates this than in Kentucky, where challenger to Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, Alison Lundergan Grimes, is focusing heavily to differentiate her work for women and families from that of McConnell’s. In a completely different senorio Democrat Iowa Senate candidate Rep. Bruce Braley (D-IA) is using his female opponent State Senator Joni Ernst's position on abortion and specifically support for state personhood legislation in Iowa to paint her as an extremist who is out of line with Iowa’s historically moderate views. Democrats rely heavily on winning women voters often by a double digit margin and in all of these races these candidates will be using gender to protect and increase their margin of victory in this key demographic.

Legislation - While social issues have dominated feelings and floor speeches made in the House and Senate, Congress has done very little on these issues this year.  With a divided Congress, only bills with strong bipartisan support have been enacted this year, disqualifying any legislation touching on abortion, gay marriage, or contraception. Still, both the Republican-dominated House and the Democrat-controlled Senate have been busy passing bills that appeal their base voters and blocking legislation that is contrary to their views during this election year.

House Republicans focused on issues important to conservative base voters, passing H.R.7, The No Taxpayer Funding for Abortion Act; and a number of appropriations bills that included measures such as sanctity of life provisions that would block agency money for abortions and related services.

To tackle gun control issues, congressional Republican leaders tasked Rep. Tim Murphy (R-PA), who is also a psychologist, to draft a bill to overhaul the nation’s mental health care following the 2012 Sandy Hook Elementary shooting.  Republicans, who are unwilling to tighten gun laws to make purchasing and owning firearms more difficult have focused on mental health care reform to prevent future shootings. Rep. Murphy introduced H.R.3717, Helping Families in Mental Health Crisis Act of 2013, on December 12, 2013, it remains in Committee. Rep. Murphy’s effort will likely never make it past Committee consideration is it lack Congressional Republicans to support due to concerns about funding.  Personal privacy issues related to certain provisions within the legislation are dividing support  for the legislation within the mental health community. House Republicans also used their power to block consideration of laws to curb gun ownership and strengthen background checks.

The Senate has discussed many bills related to social issues, focusing heavily on womens issues, however the Senate has not passed any significant social issue legislation this year.  The Senate Judiciary committee held a hearings to discuss Sen. Richard Blumenthals’s (CT) S.1696 - Women’s Health Protection Act of 2013 and Sen. Patrick Leahy’s (VT) S. 1945 -  Voting Rights Amendment Act  2014.  S.1696 would invalidate any state or federal mandate that is found to significantly impede a “women’s health or safety of abortion services.”    While S.1945 works to address a recent Supreme Court ruling that invalidated portions of the voting rights act.  The Senate also considered legislation to protect women in the workplace, trying several times to pass  S.84 the Paycheck Fairness Actwhich would close the pay gap between men and women, however the bill was blocked by Republicans on the floor during a procedural vote.  The Senate also failed to pass S.2363 - Bipartisan Sportsmen's Act of 2014 when it became less of a bill about hunting on federal lands and more about gun control.  S.2363 was the first serious effort to address gun ownership and control since April 2013  when a bipartisan effort, S. 649: Safe Communities, Safe Schools Act of 2013, to strengthen background checks and place new restrictions on gun ownership failed a  similar procedural hurdle.    

Immigration

Overview - Earlier this year, a crisis at the Texas border with Mexico became the center of a humanitarian and immigration crisis when thousands of unaccompanied minors from Central America began crossing the border hoping for U.S. citizenship. The events re-ignited the debate over comprehensive immigration reform in the United States.

Americans generally agree that immigration reform is wanted and necessary but are sharply divided on how that reform should be achieved.  Some Americans, mostly Democrats, say that addressing immigration reform must involve a pathway to citizenship for those illegal immigrants already living in the United States.  Democrats also firmly believe that children and those serving in the military deserve a quick pathway to citizenship.  On the other side, many Republicans believe that America needs to tighten its borders and work to reduce the influx of illegal immigrants living in the United States through new legislative initiatives and stricter law enforcement.  Republicans heavily favor no pathway to citizenship or a pathway to legal residency.  Both sides do agree that any kind of pathway, beit to citizenship or permanent residency, will be both a lengthy and costly endeavor for illegal immigrants.

With little overlap between the sides, it is easy to see how comprehensive immigration reform has taken so long to develop in a partisan gridlocked Congress.  Adding to congressional problems are differences in legislative approach.  House leadership in the 113th has tended to favor tackling major issues with a series of small bills, while the Senate has hammered out significant comprehensive reform on a number of issues, including immigration reform. In general, the business community favors a piecemeal reform approach.  Business leaders care the most about reforming the H1B visa program. H1B visas are often used to give quick citizenship to high skilled workers, but these visas are highly valued and scarce.  The business community aggressively supports stand-alone legislation to address H1B visa shortages reform. However, Democrats are unlikely to support a standalone H1B visa bill without a full reform agreement.

Key races -  Immigration reform has been an important legislative topic for more than a decade and is an important topic in races near the border and in nearly every Senate race which has an incumbent.  Earlier this summer the President was expected to try and act unilaterally to extend the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals or the DACA program to many of the unaccompanied minors currently being held in detention centers near the border.  The threat of this presidential action has allowed Republicans challenging Democratic Senate incumbents to paint themselves as a necessary check on the President and his potential use of expanded Presidential powers.  

Legislation - In the spring of 2013 a “gang of 8” Senators came together to negotiate and pass, with bipartisan support, the first comprehensive immigration reform bill to pass a Chamber of Congress since reform became a hot issue. S. 744: The "Gang of Eight" Bill negotiators called their bill, and support for it, a “break-through” however the House has not considered this legislation and is unlikely to do so this year where a Republican leadership shake up has once again shifted House legislative priorities.  The “gang of 8” consisted of Sen. Chuck Schumer (D-NY), Sen. John McCain (R-NY), Sen. Michael Bennet (D-CO), Sen. Dick Durbin (D-IL), Sen. Jeff Flake (R-AZ), Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-SC), Sen. Bob Menendez (D-NJ) and Sen. Marco Rubio (R-FL). This compromise bill consists of five major sections that address: border security, immigration visas, enforcement, youth jobs and a pathway to citizenship.  Incumbent Senators votes on this legislation will likely be a topic of discussion this election year.

While the House is not planning to move forward to consider immigration reform, many House members continue to introduce immigration reform legislation, and a number of these bills have made it past Committee consideration during this Congress. These bills include:

H.R. 2131: The "SKILLS Visa Act",

H.R. 1773: Agricultural Guestworker "AG" Act,

H.R. 1772: Legal Workforce Act

H.R. 5272: To prohibit certain actions with respect to deferred action for aliens not lawfully present in the United States, and for other purposes. Also known as the DACA Act.

None of these bills are expected to be considered by the full House. House Judiciary Committee also has several newly introduced immigration measures sitting in their docket, none of which gained even a hearing before the midterm election recess. Both the House and Senate have included funding provisions for addressing immigration in their Department of Homeland Security Appropriations bills.  

Threat of Terrorism/International Issues

Overview - In addition to ISIS, lawmakers have debated and held hearings during the 113th Congress on many important topics related to foreign policy, including Ukrainian sovereignty and Russia’s military and political opposition to it, human trafficking, the Ebola outbreak in West Africa, and the ongoing tension between Israel and Palestine which flared up this past summer when three Israeli teenagers were kidnapped and killed.

Key races - The issue of ISIS and how the U.S. will handle the terrorist group along with the rest of the world is one of the few foreign policy issues dominating many close Senate races. The beheadings of two American journalists this summer prompted widespread horror, and brought the terrorist group’s existence to the American public’s attention.

Candidates in a few close Senate races, including Arkansas, New Hampshire and North Carolina are facing attacks on this issue. In the N.C. race, Republican challenger Thom Tillis in a campaign ad criticized Sen. Kay Hagan for missing Armed Services Committee votes. Republican contender Scott Brown in New Hampshire has repeatedly brought up ISIS on the campaign trail. In general Republican challengers have accused Democratic incumbents of not seeing ISIS as an emerging threat or being aggressive enough to date in handling them.

As for the Ebola outbreak and U.S. response to it, that cropped up as an issue in late September in the Arkansas race between Pryor and Cotton, when Pryorreleased an ad that said Cotton voted against medical disaster aid.

Legislation - The most significant legislative action on foreign policy recently involved authorizing President Obama to arm and train Syrian rebels against the terrorist groups ISIS. That came in the form of an amendment to the latest continuing resolution, H.J. Res. 124, funding the government through Dec. 11.

But other than the CR and a number of committee hearings, legislatively little has been accomplished. Forty-six ambassadors still are awaiting confirmation in the Senate, for instance. When Congress returns after the mid-term elections, priority number one on the foreign policy front will be figuring out a legislative strategy for a vote on whether to go to war with ISIS. President Obama and U.S. allies already are carrying out air strikes in Iraq and Syria against ISIS; Obama is using the authority Congress granted the commander-in-chief in 2001 to go to war with Al-Qaeda as justification for the force. But many Republicans and Democrats believe the president must seek new authority to use force against the latest terrorist threat. Such a vote before the 114th Congress convenes in January is highly unlikely unless something dramatic happens; House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, has said he favors a vote next year when the new legislative session begins.