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October 17, 2018 1:30 PM, EDT

Midterms 2018: Key Transportation Democrats in Tough Election Contests

Bill Nelson Sen. Bill Nelson is on the midterm ballot in Florida. (Wilfredo Lee/AP)

Earlier this month, the leaders of the Committee on Commerce, Science and Transportation demonstrated a rare moment of collegiality as the Republican-led U.S. Senate prepared to vote on the nomination of Justice Brett Kavanaugh after a high-energy partisan debate.

Sen. Bill Nelson, the committee ranking member and a Florida Democrat, praised the panel’s Republican chairman for his contributions in finalizing a multiyear aviation policy bill.

“I’d like to congratulate you on a significant achievement. Today we will pass the [Federal Aviation Administration] bill. I will have the privilege of speaking just before the vote. Congratulations to your leadership,” Nelson said Oct. 3, before kicking off a hearing about automatic brake systems for passenger and freight trains.

RELATED: Midterms 2018: A Look at Top Republican Transportation Policymakers

Chairman John Thune (R-S.D.) responded: “Congratulations to you and your staff and members on both sides for getting this FAA bill across the finish line today. … It required terrific bipartisan cooperation. And, so thank you to you and your team. And our teams for getting that done.”

Elected in 2000, Nelson’s penchant for collaborating with colleagues across the political divide on transportation affairs has helped him amass key legislative contributions. Besides the recent long-term FAA law, the senator pushed for safety provisions in the last multiyear highway bills, has pressed for the automatic braking technology several railroads have yet to fully install, and he touts efforts that led to funding aimed at expanding high-speed internet, airports, seaports, roads, bridges and transit systems. Besides transportation, the senator promotes environmental safeguards and resilience in infrastructure.

Rick Scott

Scott

His senatorial tenure notwithstanding, this fall Nelson has found himself fighting for his political life. His opponent, Republican Gov. Rick Scott, received relatively favorable television exposure for his reaction to Hurricane Michael. Scott is campaigning with the endorsement of the commander in chief. And President Donald Trump indicated congressionally backed recovery aid for Florida is quite possible. The president won the state in 2016, and the Republicans’ stance on gun control and family values traditionally have benefited the party.

Debating Nelson on Oct. 2, Scott highlighted his record during his two terms: “When you continue to grow jobs, here’s what happens: You have record funding for K-12 education, record funding for higher education, record funding for the environment, record funding for transportation.” His campaign website indicates that, if elected to the U.S. Senate, Scott will “continue to support smart investments in Florida’s infrastructure and transportation systems, and will fight for Florida’s fair share of federal funding for transportation projects.”

Despite the candidates’ record on transportation, the American Society of Civil Engineers in 2016 issued a C grade to Florida’s overall infrastructure. “The report includes an evaluation of the state’s aviation, bridges, coastal areas, drinking water, energy, ports, roads, schools, stormwater, transit and wastewater,” the group of engineers said.

Scott has raised about $54 million to Nelson’s nearly $25 million, according to data through Sept. 30 compiled by the Center for Responsive Politics. The Cook Political Report identifies the contest as a true “toss-up.”

Beto O'Rourke and Ted Cruz

Rep. Beto O'Rourke (left) and Sen. Ted Cruz. (Tom Reel/San Antonio Express-News via AP/pool)

In another high-profile faceoff, Rep. Beto O’Rourke (D-Texas) is riding the momentum of a massive grassroots campaign in his bid to unseat incumbent Republican Sen. Ted Cruz. Elected in 2012, the congressman has called for enhancing freight connectivity statewide. He also has noted the potential benefits associated with increasing public transportation in El Paso, a city in his district with significant truck traffic.

Cruz, a member of the Commerce Committee, was Trump’s leading challenger during the 2016 presidential primary. The senator has noted the concerns certain truck drivers have raised regarding electronic logging devices. He also dedicated considerable time this year to leading hearings about commercial space travel. ASCE in 2017 gave Texas a C- grade, citing, “rural highways in Texas have exceeded their design life and most do not meet current design standards according to the Texas Department of Transportation.”

O’Rourke saw a boost in fundraising, with more than $38 million from July through September, the Center for Responsive Politics reported. Cruz had nearly $35 million as of Sept. 30. The Cook Political Report lists the contest as a true “toss-up.”

Carper

Other notable contests featuring prominent Democrats include Delaware’s senate race. The Environment and Public Works Committee’s ranking member, Sen. Tom Carper, is among the few on Capitol Hill in favor of raising fuel taxes to achieve long-term funding for infrastructure programs. He also has promoted highway safety and pushed back on Trump’s infrastructure pitch that sought private sector funds. Challenging Carper is Republican Robert Arlett. The Cook Political Report lists the contest as “solid” for Democrats.

Jon Tester

Tester

Montana Sen. Jon Tester (D), an appropriator, is being challenged by Republican Matt Rosendale and Libertarian Rick Breckenridge. The incumbent has backed provisions related to truckers’ hours of service. The ASCE issued a C- grade for the Big Sky State in 2014. The Cook Political Report lists the contest as a true “toss-up.”

DeFazio

DeFazio

In Oregon, Rep. Peter DeFazio (D) faces a challenge from Republican Art Robinson. Elected in 1986, the incumbent is in solid blue terrain. He is the likely successor of outgoing Transportation and Infrastructure Committee Chairman Bill Shuster (R-Pa.) if Democrats win control of the U.S. House after the midterm elections. Like Carper, DeFazio has endorsed higher fuel taxes that would be designed to back long-term funding for infrastructure projects. He also has earned praise from Republican colleagues. Two subcommittee chairmen, Sam Graves (R-Mo.) and Jeff Denham (R-Calif.), recently spoke highly of DeFazio in separate interviews with Transport Topics.