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October 30, 2018 3:30 PM, EDT

Transportation Candidates Tout Infrastructure Bona Fides in Midterm Bids

Beto O'Rourke and Ted Cruz O'Rourke (left) and Cruz share the stage Oct. 16 for a debate in San Antonio. (Tom Reel/San Antonio Express-News via AP, Pool)

The national political arena this fall has been dominated by two themes: Republicans drawing attention to immigration and Democrats focused mostly on health care.

On the rare occasion transportation policy is discussed, candidates with seats on key freight committees have reminded constituents of the potential benefits associated with enhancing connectivity at commercial ports as well as boosting investments in extreme-weather resilient infrastructure.

Rick Scott

Scott

Several of these candidates are fighting for their political lives, and the outcome of their high-profile contests are likely to help decide how much energy would be devoted to an infrastructure funding initiative that President Donald Trump is expected to promote next year.

Among those fighting the hardest to stay in Washington is incumbent Sen. Bill Nelson (D-Fla.), the ranking member on the Commerce Committee, a panel with jurisdiction over trucking policy. Known as a bipartisan dealmaker, Nelson has an expansive legislative record that includes multiyear highway laws, water infrastructure measures and a new long-term aviation policy law. He consistently champions safety at hearings with agency chiefs.

Bill Nelson

Nelson

With a career in the Senate dating to 2000, Nelson’s win would help Democrats’ hopes of taking back control of the chamber. That won’t be easy, however, since the incumbent is up against a formidable challenge mounted by Florida Republican Gov. Rick Scott. Campaigning in territory Trump won in 2016, Scott is pledging to improve multimodal transportation services for every part of the state.

The governor is campaigning with Trump’s endorsement, and he gained valuable exposure during his response to Hurricane Michael. The governor maintained a solid fundraising edge over the senator, an analysis of federal election data by the Center for Responsive Politics found. As of Oct. 17, Scott had $68.6 million. Nelson raised $27.9 million. The Cook Political Report has rated the contest a “toss-up.”

Another Commerce Committee member struggling this cycle is Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas), who can’t seem to shake off a challenge from Democratic Rep. Beto O’Rourke. Like Scott in Florida, Cruz is consistent in his pledge to boost dollars for transportation and commercial projects. The incumbent, elected in 2012, highlights his senior roles on panels, such as his chairmanship of the Space, Science and Competitiveness Subcommittee. There, he led hearings on commercial space travel this year. Cruz also sits on the powerful Judiciary and Armed Services committees. On a few occasions, Cruz has shared concerns raised by certain aspects of the trucking sector over electronic logging devices. Trump recently offered his support for Cruz. In 2016, the two politicos had insulted each other during the Republican presidential primary.

Menendez

O’Rourke, also elected in 2012, is riding the momentum of a massive grassroots campaign. While his profile is relatively smaller than Cruz’s in Washington, the congressman has expounded on the potential benefits associated with public transportation and enhancing freight connectivity at ports. A “toss-up” was the rating from the Cook Political Report. According to the Center for Responsive Politics, as of Oct. 17 the incumbent had raised $40.1 million, and O’Rourke raised $69 million.

Not since the early 1970s has New Jersey sent a Republican to the U.S. Senate. People’s attitude toward Democratic incumbent Sen. Robert Menendez’s well-documented run-ins with corruption allegations might change that. The senator had landed in the national spotlight amid bribery charges. In 2017, his federal corruption trial ended in a mistrial.

Bob Hugin

Hugin

His Republican opponent, political newcomer Bob Hugin, a former pharmaceutical executive self-funding his campaign, has seized on the senator’s court cases in television attack ads. Menendez, the ranking Democrat on the subcommittee on Housing, Transportation and Community Development, which has jurisdiction over transit systems, returns the favor.

In television ads, the senator’s campaign depicts Hugin as a wealthy capitalist out of touch with voters and linked with Trump. The Cook Political Report updated its rating for the Garden State from a “lean” Democratic to a “toss-up.” As of Oct. 17, the senator had raised $11.4 million, and his opponent raised $30.2 million, the Center for Responsive Politics determined.

Bob Casey

Casey

In Pennsylvania, Sen. Bob Casey (D) is holding onto a slight edge over his challenger, Republican Rep. Lou Barletta, chairman of the Economic Development, Public Buildings and Emergency Management Subcommittee.

Barletta

Barletta

The four-term congressman is an advocate of resilience in infrastructure and reforms to safety scoring systems for commercial drivers. Casey, a reliable vote for Democrats, has a seat on the influential Finance Committee, which has jurisdiction over the Highway Trust Fund, of which its authority expires in 2020. The fund is used to assist states with infrastructure projects. The Cook Political Report has classified the contest as “likely Democrat.” As of Oct. 17, Casey had raised $20.8 million and Barletta had $6.7 million, according to the Center for Responsive Politics.

Other races to watch include Republican Sen. Dean Heller against Rep. Jacky Rosen in Nevada, and Republican Rep. Jeff Denham versus Democratic challenger Josh Harder in California.