Recess Report: Political Issues Driving Key Senate Races - Part 2

Erin Carson, Lead Analyst Monday October 20th 2014

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.  Part 1 of this series addressed these top-tier issues.

However, in addition to the key issues voters are concerned about on a national scale, a second group of policy issues is growing increasingly relevant to a handful of significant competitive Senate races. This report addresses these issues that are front and center in key battleground states: energy and the environment; education; oversight of the Obama administration, including its efforts to address ISIS and the Ebola outbreak; military and veterans’ affairs; and state funding concerns.

Energy and Environment

Overview - Energy issues such as hydraulic fracturing, coal regulations, offshore drilling, and ending dependence on foreign oil are surfacing in a number of critical Senate midterm debates. While national polls show that energy is lower on the list of key priorities for voters, a Cook Political Report shows that energy issues are among three messages in Senate advertising campaigns, and says that 2014 has been “the biggest cycle of energy/environment-related advertising, ever.”

Key races – The predominance of energy in the 2014 midterms is largely due to its criticality in key, competitive Senate races, making energy a local, instead of national issue among voters.  For example, in Louisiana, the race between Rep. Bill Cassidy (R) and Sen. Mary Landrieu (D) has focused on the oil and gas industry, including offshore drilling to increase state revenues from oil in the Gulf of Mexico. In the Colorado race, several ballot initiatives that would have placed greater restrictions on hydraulic fracturing have been removed from the November ballot after Governor John Hickenlooper (D) brokered a deal with environmental groups to form a commission that will make recommendations to the Colorado legislature. The deal means that Sen. Mark Udall (D) will no longer have to choose sides between environmentalists and the oil and gas industry in his Senate campaign, where Republican candidate Cory Gardner has been attacking his stance.  Hydraulic fracturing is also a critical issue in the pivotal races in Alaska, Arkansas, Kentucky, West Virginia, and Virginia.

Legislation – Republicans in the House repeatedly passed bills that would facilitate the pipeline's approval or eliminate the need for a presidential permit altogether. In September, House Republicans also passed H.R. 6 - the Domestic Prosperity and Global Freedom Act, an omnibus energy bill that included provisions to facilitate offshore drilling and decrease energy and gas regulations. None of the bills were taken seriously by the Senate, where they sat in committee. However, if Republicans win Senate control in 2015, a number of the House-passed bills will likely find new footing in the upper chamber, particularly since the issue has support from some congressional Democrats as well. The 113th Congress introduced the following bills to approve the Keystone Pipeline, almost all of which will be reintroduced or repackaged by the 114th:

H.R. 3 – the Northern Route Approval Act – declares a presidential permit unnecessary for the Keystone XL Pipeline. It also states that a State Department Issue Statement from 2011 was satisfactory to meet environmental reporting requirements, and asserts that, according to the Interior Department, the project would not jeopardize an endangered species of beetle whose habitat environmentalists say would suffer under the pipeline’s route.

H.R. 2674—the Job Creation Act of 2013, and H.R. 1881 – the Energy Production and Project Delivery Act of 2012 would also declare a presidential permit unnecessary.

 S. 167 – the Strategic Petroleum Supplies Act – would prohibit the administration from selling petroleum products from the Strategic Petroleum Reserve (except for those required under international energy programs) until all of the Keystone Pipeline permits are issued. H.R. 334 – Keystone for a Secure Tomorrow Act – would approve a specified permit for energy-related facilities and land transportation crossings on the international boundaries of the United States for the Keystone XL pipeline project. Only H.R. 3 has been taken up for votes -- the bill passed the House on May 22 but has not yet been considered in the Senate.


Overview - According to a recent Time magazine article, the largest teacher union in the country, National Education Association (NEA) will spend between $40 million and $60 million on the mid-term elections, addressing issues such as cuts to public schools and common core standards. On the Republican side, Republicans support school choice through charter schools and both sides are advocating higher education reform.

Key races – Education has become a key issue in the North Carolina race, where Sen. Kay Hagan has run a series of ads attacking State Rep. Thom Tillis (R) on his record supporting legislative cuts to teachers. According to a recent Politico analysis, the focus on education could also help Hagan win North Carolina women voters.

Legislation – Education – and in particular higher education affordability – has gained particular momentum leading up to the 2014 midterm elections. Both Democrats and Republicans issued a number of bills aiming to make college more affordable during the last two years. Democrats want the Department of Education to allow borrowers lower interest rates or refinancing options on loans taken out in the 2000s. Republicans have opposed these proposals, particularly the Murphy-Warren College Affordability and Innovation Act of 2014, because the financing would come from higher taxes on capital gains from high-earning Americans. While the bill will gain no traction from Republicans as it currently stands, a modified version in the 114th Congress that uses an alternative source of revenue could find traction from both parties. On the other side, House Republicans have passed a number of bills that focus on financial aid counseling and innovation and reform in higher education programs themselves, such as H.R. 3136 - the Advancing Competency-based Education Demonstration Project Act Of 2013, which the House passed in July.

Republicans in the 113th introduced a number of school choice and higher education bills, including:

H.R. 10 – Success and Opportunity through Quality Charter Schools Act (Rep. John Kline, R-MN), which would reauthorize the Charter School Program to promote state efforts to expand charter schools, and encourage charter schools to reach out to “special populations,” including low-income students and students with disabilities.

H.R. 4366 – Strengthening Education through Research Act (Rep. Todd Rokita, R-IN), which would provide support for federal education research through funding for the Institute of Education Sciences.

H.R. 5 – The Student Success Act (Rep. John Kline, R-MN), which would expand school choice options by supporting options to enroll children in local magnet and charter schools, and to continue to facilitate parental engagement. The bill is waiting for Senate consideration.

S. 88 21st Century Charter School Act (Sen. David Vitter, R-LA), introduced January 23, 2014 would amend the Charter School program of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act to make public and private nonprofit entities eligible for program grants.

H.R. 3136 - the Advancing Competency-based Education Demonstration Project Act Of 2013, sponsored by Rep. Matt Salmon (R-AZ), would require the Department of Education to fund trial competency-based education programs at a number of higher education institutions.

Democrat-sponsored bills to make college more affordable include:

S. 1969 - the College Affordability and Innovation Act of 2014, sponsored by Sen. Christopher Murphy (D-CT), and the Senate companion bill,S. 2292, sponsored by Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-MA) would require the Department of Education to award five-year grants to up to 15 institutions of higher education (IHEs) to carry out  programs designed to graduate students with certificates or degrees at significantly lower student costs and within shorter time periods than traditional programs

 H.R. 4582 - the Bank on Student Emergency Loan Refinancing Act of 2014, sponsored by Rep. John Tierney (D-MA), would require the Department of Education to refinance unpaid principal, accrued unpaid interest, and late charges on both Federal Direct Loans and Federal Family Education Loans that meet certain criteria.

S. 1873 - Protect Student Borrowers Act of 2013,  sponsored by Sen. Dick Durbin (D-IL) – would require institutions of higher education (IHEs) to assume some of the risk of a student loan default. Colleges where more than 15 percent of students default on their student loans would be fined from 5 to 20 percent of the borrowed amount, with the money going back to the Department of Education to help fund Pell Grants and other programs.

 S. 1874 – Partnerships for Affordability and Student Success Act,  sponsored by Sen. Jack Reed (D-RI) – would address the federal-state student loan partnership by providing grants to states that focus on need-based aid, improving student outcomes, reducing tuition costs, and providing public accountability.

H.R. 3959 – Pay It Forward College Affordability Act of 2014,  sponsored by Rep. Suzanne Bonamici (D-OR), and its companion bill S. 1884 – Pay It Forward College Affordability Act, sponsored by Sen. Jeff Merkley (D-OR) –  would investigate a “Pay It Forward Model” for higher education. The Pay It Forward Model requires the federal government, state government, or IHE to pay for all of the students’ needs to borrow, in exchange for an agreement that the student would contribute a percentage of their income after graduating to fund the program. A similar model is being considered at the state level in Michigan.

 S. 1884 – Pay It Forward College Affordability Act,  sponsored by Sen. Jeff Merkley (D-OR) –  would investigate a “Pay It Forward Model” for higher education. The Pay It Forward Model requires the federal government, state government, or IHE to pay for all of the students’ needs to borrow, in exchange for an agreement that the student would contribute a percentage of their income after graduating to fund the program. A similar model is being considered at the state level in Michigan.

 H.R. 3538 – Affordable College Textbook Act,  sponsored by Rep. Ruben Hinojosa (D-TX), and its companion bill, S. 1704 – Affordable College Textbook Act, sponsored by Sen. Dick Durbin (D-IL) – would make competitive grants to colleges to expand the use of “open textbooks” – textbooks that can be made available online, with free access for students. According to Durbin, the bill can help make the cost of attending college more affordable by saving students from buying books that become quickly outdated and buying used copies.

 S. 1704 – Affordable College Textbook Act, sponsored by Sen. Dick Durbin (D-IL) – would make competitive grants to colleges to expand the use of “open textbooks” – textbooks that can be made available online, with free access for students. According to Durbin, the bill can help make the cost of attending college more affordable by saving students from buying books that become quickly outdated and buying used copies.

 H.R. 3437 – College Affordability Act of 2013, sponsored by Rep. Allyson Schwartz (D-PA) – would amend the tax code to replace the Hope Scholarship and Lifetime Learning tax credits with a tax credit to allow a 100 percent income tax credit up to $2,500 a year of tuition and expenses, and a life-time credit amount of up to $10,000.

Oversight of the Obama Administration: 

Overview - Oversight of the Obama administration and management of federal agencies have dominated congressional hearings and news coverage during the past few years. Most recently, the administration's handling of the Ebola outbreak in West Africa  and whether the government is doing enough to prevent the spread of the disease in the United States has come under fire and emerged as an issue in several campaigns. Questions have been raised regarding leadership at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and whether the National Institutes of Health has received sufficient funding over the years. Some Republicans and Democrats have urged the administration to ban travelers from West Africa from coming into the United States, especially after two nurses became infected with the disease here. Several agencies are involved in addressing the crisis here and abroad, including the CDC, U.S. Agency for International Development, NIH, Customs and Border Protection, and the Defense Department.

Other investigations of the Obama administration have become extremely partisan, including probes into the 2012 terrorist attacks that killed four Americans, including an ambassador, at the U.S. Embassy in Libya, and the management controversy at the Internal Revenue Service involving alleged targeting of politically conservative groups seeking tax-exempt status. House Oversight and Government Reform Committee Chairman Darrell Issa (R-Calif.) has been a particularly active and aggressive chairman, making liberal use of the panel’s subpoena power, He held former IRS senior executive Lois Lerner in contempt of Congress for not talking to lawmakers. He did the same to Attorney General Eric Holder, the first sitting attorney general in history to be held in criminal contempt, for not providing information in the so-called Fast and Furious controversy related to the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives.

More recently, Republicans and Democrats have been united in their criticism of the Secret Service after a series of security breaches – culminating in an armed intruder running through the White House in September – came to light. The widespread mismanagement at the Veterans Affairs Department involving delays in scheduling and seeing patients and fraud at some facilities resulted in the resignation of former VA secretary Eric Shinseki and passage of legislation to overhaul management of the department. That bill, H.R. 3230, the Veterans Access, Choice and Accountability Act of 2014, was a bipartisan effort forged by Rep. Jeff Miller, R-Fla., and Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt. Among other things, the legislation authorizes the VA to fire or demote senior executives for poor performance or misconduct. The House this summer passed H.R. 5169, the Senior Executive Service Accountability Act, which would make it easier to discipline and fire senior executives across the federal government.

In addition, there has been criticism of the administration’s actions against the Islamic State terrorist organization, also known as the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) or the Islamic in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL). The White House position is that the prior authorization on the use of force against Al-Quaida and its offshoots sufficiently covers current actions against ISIL. However, some in Congress believe that the current military actions against ISIL require an authorization of the use of military force (AUMF) from Congress. Senate Democrats are eager to vote on the authorization of the use of military force (AUMF) as a way to limit the administration's actions by removing a "boots on the ground" and "blank check" policy. However, Senate Republicans are split between those, like Sens. John McCain (R-AZ) and Lindsey Graham (R-SC), that are more eager to press forward in the fight against ISIS, and those like Sens. Rand Paul (R-KY) and Mitch McConnell (R-KY) that emphasize authorization from Congress specific to this military action is required by the Constitution.

However, many members of Congress were not eager to debate the larger question of using, paying for, and expanding military force against ISIL before the mid-term elections. An amendment allowing the U.S. government to arm and train the Syrian rebels was included in the fiscal 2015 continuing resolution to fund federal agencies through December 11. House Speaker John Boehner (R-OH) has said he favors a vote on the issue next year when the new legislative session begins, but the issue will have to be revisited to some extent in debates about funding federal agencies beyond December 11. Further, military airstrikes have been able to reduce the number of ISIL fighters, their limitations include depending heavily on the training and skill level of local fighters, which has led many experts to predict that additional U.S. involvement will be required in order to degrade and destroy ISIL.

Key Races - Republicans in some Senate races, notably in New Hampshire, Arkansas and North Carolina, have tried to paint their Democratic opponents as being in lock-step with an administration that is simultaneously overreaching and inserting itself into too many issues through regulation, while also failing to properly manage what some have characterized as a federal bureaucracy run amok.

Legislation - Congress has passed some resolutions related to ISIL that express their concerns but do not trigger binding actions, including: 

H.Con. Res. 105, which prohibits the President from deploying or maintaining United States Armed Forces in a sustained combat role in Iraq without specific, subsequent statutory authorization was passed by the House on July 25, 2014.

S.Res. 538, expresses the condolences of the Senate to the families of James Foley and Steven Sotloff, and condemning the terrorist acts of ISIL, passed the Senate on September 9, 2014. 

Congress has also introduced a number of other measures concerning the use of military force against ISIL:

S. J. Res. 21, which would authorize military force in Syria under certain conditions but would prohibit ground combat operations, was introduced last year on September 6, 2013.

S.J. Res. 42, Authorization for the Use of Military Force Against ISIL, which authorizes the use of force against ISIL and to prevent attacks from ISIL against the US and our allies, while also prohibiting the use of rotational ground combatant military force, was introduced by Sen. Bill Nelson (D-FL) on September 8, 2014.

S.J. Res. 43, Authorization for the Use of Force Against the Organization called the Islamic State, was introduced by Sen. James Inhofe (R-OK) on September 8, 2014.

Veterans/National Defense

Overview - While the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq have nearly ended and there are very few combat soldiers currently deployed issues surrounding military spending, military pay and veteran care have recently received a lot of national press attention. Furthermore, the recent onset of the sequestration, and rumors of a new BRAC base realignment, has elevated the issue of support for military spending and pay in those districts across the country that have a significant military footprint. Incumbents in these districts must prove their support for increased military spending in recent budgets, as well as their support for pet projects such as the aircraft carrier port placement and saving the A-10 Warthog plane, to be competitive in the midterm elections. Even further, these incumbents must also explain their support for the bipartisan budget agreement which ended the fall 2013 government shutdown and included a reduction in the cost of living adjustment or COLA for working age veterans.  This 1 percent cut was later reversed.

The Department of the Veteran Affairs (VA) has also been a congressional focus this year. There have been reports of problems in the management of VA construction projects and reports of veteran mental health patients dying. Most recently, a whistleblower report that the VA health care system in Phoenix, AZ, made vets wait for up to a year for medical care. Currently a number of VA hospital systems are under investigation and Secretary of Veterans Affairs Eric Shinseki resigned in the wake of the scandal. The VA estimates that there are 22.6 million veterans of which nearly 10 million are enrolled in the VA health care system, meaning U.S. veterans rely heavily on good VA care. The good treatment of veterans is a highly bipartisan issue, and these scandals have made many members of Congress angry with the VA and its management. Therefore, it is not surprising that a number of bills are currently being considered to reform certain aspects of the VA. 

Key Races - In states with a significant military presence, military spending is discussed during every election. This year in the Virginia Senate race incumbent Democrat Mark Warner and Republican challenger Ed Gillespie have pledged they will protect the military ships currently housed at Virginia ports and do everything within their power to roll back sequestration funding cuts. Virginia is also home to one of the largest veteran population in the country making the VA and veteran services a very important issue.  Military and veteran issues are also very important in many federal elections in Florida, Texas, Arizona and California.



H.R.4031 Department of Veterans Affairs Management Accountability Act of 2014 is a bill to give the Secretary of the VA the power to more easily fire high level VA civil servants. This legislation is likely to become more popular due to a new scandal that showed a VA health system was secretly making veterans wait months or even a year for treatment.  

 H.R.3593 VA Construction Assistance Act of 2013 is a bill to provide more oversight over major VA projects and was written in response to reports that the VA is behind and over budget on most of their major facility projects.

H.R.3230 the Access to Care through Choice, Accountability, and Transparency Act was signed into law by President Obama in late July 2014 after many months of negotiation between Republicans, Democrats within the Senate and the House. H.R.3230 is a large bill with many provisions to reform the Department of Veterans Affairs.  At its core H.R.3230 does two things: this legislation gives the Department of Veteran Affairs greater authority to fire or discipline senior executive employees and provides funding for the VA to use private medical centers to help meet health care service demand for veterans.This legislation also includes greater access to mental health care services. H.R.3230 is the result of a hard fought compromise between Senate Veterans’ Affairs Committee Chair, Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT), Sen. John McCain (R-AZ) and House Veterans’ Affairs Chair Rep. Jeff Miller (R-AZ).

S. 1581 Survivors of Military Sexual Assault and Domestic Abuse Act is a bill to combat military sexual assaults and abuse by giving the Secretary of Veterans Affairs (VA) power to treat and screen for abuse.  

H.R. 4870: Department of Defense Appropriations Act, 2015 appropriates $491 billion in discretionary spending and $79.4 billion in Overseas Contingency Operations for the ongoing war effort in fiscal 2015. The discretionary spending level is $4 billion more than the amount enacted in fiscal 2014, and $200 million above President Obama’s request. The bill covers policies for acquiring aircraft, ships, and ammunition; personnel issues such as sexual assault policies, pay and health care for service members, quality-of-life programs for personnel and their families, operations and maintenance, environmental restoration of Defense facilities, research, and military intelligence programs.

S. 1917: Victims Protection Act of 2014 is a bill to improve the military response to sexual assault. The bill would allow for senior trial counsel determinations to be included in the decision on whether to refer sexual assaults and serious crimes to trial by court-martial.

State funding

Overview - The policies of the Obama administration and the national Republican Party have figured prominently in some Senate races. To a lesser extent, lawmakers’ ability to bring home federal dollars to their states also has been featured in some close races.

Key Races - Democratic incumbents Sen. Kay Hagan of North Carolina and Mark Warner of Virginia have tried to distance themselves from Obama on policies unpopular in their respective states. For instance, during a recent debate with Republican challenger Thom Tillis, Hagan pointed out where she disagrees with Obama on issues including immigration and the Keystone XL pipeline. Further, Hagan went after Tillis – who is the leader in the N.C. state house – on the Republican-controlled legislature’s record on education. In response, Tillis said Hagan has been a rubber-stamp in the Senate for Obama’s policies. A similar dynamic has played out in Virginia between Warner and Republican challenger Ed Gillespie, where the race increasingly is turning into a referendum on Obama, who has a 50 percent disapproval rating in that state.   

In Kentucky, where the incumbent is Republican Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, the national versus local angle is especially sharp. McConnell, who has traditionally brought home millions in federal dollars to his state, is in the uncomfortable position of backing off the earmark system after having touted his ability for years to bring home the bacon. (In 2010, he supported a two-year ban on earmarks.) Meanwhile, the Democratic challenger, Secretary of State Alison Lundergan, Grimes repeatedly refused to answer a question from a reporter with a Kentucky newspaper about whether she had voted for President Obama. Grimes was a Kentucky delegate at the 2012 Democratic Convention.

Democratic Sen. Mark Begich of Alaska, who is in a tough race with Republican Dan Sullivan. Begich is a member of the Appropriations Committee and, like his fellow Alaska lawmakers, has consistently steered federal dollars to his state to bolster Alaska’s economy and infrastructure, help Native tribes in the state and increase public safety.