November 8, 2016 6:00 PM, EST

Video Preview: Congressional Races Relevant to Freight Transportation

Eugene Mulero, Kellie Mejdrich

The freight transportation policy outlook on Capitol Hill for next year remains murky, thanks to the uncertainty of key congressional contests this year.

Incumbent transportation leaders in the House and Senate are facing unexpectedly close contests. Defeats to the incumbents would shake up GOP leaders’ plan to advance a long-term highway funding fix next year. Highway funding, freight connectivity and truck safety reforms could help decide election contests.

ELECTION SCOREBOARD: Result of races of interest to trucking

A cadre of newcomers tackling complex transportation issues could alter the direction for highway policy. Transport Topics took a closer look at five races:

Shuster v. Halvorson

Rep. Bill Shuster (R-Pa.), chairman of the Transportation and Infrastructure Committee in the House, has promised to modernize freight corridors and preserve coal mining jobs if re-elected to a ninth term. Shuster argues that establishing a funding fix for highway programs would boost the region’s economy and provide financial security for the country’s freight and construction sector. His relationship with House Speaker Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) and his two terms as transportation chairman are assets he said his opponent lacks. Shuster’s challenger, tea party-backed Art Halvorson, told TT he favors reducing the federal government's influence over transportation matters. In Halvorson’s devolution principle to funding, state transportation agencies would be tasked with greater control over policy decisions. After losing to Shuster by less than a point in the primary, Halvorson is running as a Democrat despite being a Republican. Both candidates support Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump. Shuster has the fundraising advantage, having raised more than $3 million than Halvorson since Sept. 30, according to the Center for Responsive Politics.

Denham v. Eggman

Rep. Jeff Denham (R-Calif.), chairman of the railroads subcommittee in the House, has aggressively advanced proposals that would block states from enacting requirements related to meal and rest breaks for truckers, a highly important issue for American Trucking Associations. Denham has led fights to deny funding for California’s hopes for building a high-speed train and earned kudos from his party’s leaders for advancing freight rail safety reforms. The California seat is considered one of the most competitive in this cycle. Larry Sabato’s Crystal Ball out of the University of Virginia’s Center for Politics lists the contest a toss-up. Democratic challenger, Michael Eggman, a bee farmer, has promoted infrastructure projects that would assist farmers and small business owners. He also calls for simplifying the federal tax code and addressing the state’s drought. Eggman uncovered a way to connect with voters in the moderate 10th District: Link Denham to Trump’s views on immigration.

Mica v. Murphy

Longtime Republican attack dog John Mica, the Floridian who preceded Shuster in chairing the House transportation panel, found new purpose on Capitol Hill with the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee. His acerbic and sardonic line of questioning has confused and even embarrassed witnesses. Mica’s track record for mocking witnesses is long and earned the inside-the-Beltway moniker “being Mica’d.” For reference, in 2013 he ridiculed Amtrak’s leadership during a hearing and referred to the railroads’ reliance on federal dollars as a "Soviet-style" operation. He then questioned the qualifications and intelligence of Amtrak’s chief of operations. Mica’s contest with Democratic newcomer Stephanie Murphy has been classified as a toss-up by political observers. The Orlando 7th District seat is a coveted prize for Democrats looking to rid themselves of the longtime critic. Murphy was recently up in a poll the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee released. Her strategy has been to paint Mica as a Beltway creature out of touch with the district.

Jolly v. Crist

Freshman transportation appropriator David Jolly (R-Fla.) is in a tough fight against former Gov. Charlie Crist, Florida’s perennial candidate du jour. Jolly would have a say on trucking policy in a fiscal 2017 funding bill, and he also has a spot on Shuster’s transportation policy panel. There, he would be vital in advancing the Republicans’ long-term highway funding fix. The future does not look promising for Jolly. The trucking industry has given Jolly’s campaign committee $14,500 for his re-election, but the 13th District is leaning the Democrats’ way. For Crist, the Republican-turned-independent-turned-Democrat candidate, the race is a chance at redemption for a career tarnished by recent unsuccessful attempts at elected office. Boosting Crist’s chances is advertising from the League of Conservation Voters, and enviros who support his stance on climate change and opposition to drilling off Florida’s coast. 

Blunt v. Kander

In Sen. Roy Blunt (R-Mo.) , the freight transportation sector found a policymaker supportive of their regulatory concerns. The senior member of the Commerce Committee, a panel with jurisdiction over trucking matters, helped advance reforms to the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration in the five-year FAST Act highway law. Blunt’s campaign committee has received $101,600 from the trucking industry, and he’s been a keynote speaker at ATA events where he opposed the Obama administration’s hours-of-service rules for truckers. The Rothenberg & Gonzales Political Report lists the Show Me State contest a pure toss-up. While Democrat Jason Kander lacks experience on transportation affairs, the challenger has pledged to support infrastructure upgrades to assist farmers. The Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee is banking on a big victory for Kander to help win back the majority in the chamber.