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Midterms Guide: 13 defense races to watch

BY: CONNOR O’BRIEN | 11/06/2022 08:00 AM EDT

Capitol Hill is headed for a shakeup in the midterm elections Tuesday with significant implications for how Congress will oversee national security issues and spending for the next two years.

Republicans are favored to take over the House and possibly the Senate as they gain momentum in tight races across the country on concerns over the economy and President Joe Biden’s low job approval. But the road to the majority also goes through the top defense committees in Congress.

Several of the most vulnerable Democratic incumbents sit on the House Armed Services and Foreign Affairs panels. Republicans may be able to win back the evenly divided Senate by knocking off Arizona Democrat Mark Kelly, a member of the Armed Services Committee.

GOP control of either or both chambers would give defense hawks more leverage to increase defense spending well beyond Biden’s designs. It also would mean harsher oversight of the administration, including investigating the chaotic withdrawal from Afghanistan and taking aim at efforts to combat climate change, promote diversity and root out extremism in the ranks. A Republican Senate also would mean a potentially tougher crowd for Biden’s Pentagon nominees.

A Republican sweep also raises questions about whether generous military and economic aid to Ukraine will continue. Many top GOP members have pledged to keep the assistance coming while providing much-needed oversight of the money, but many Trump-aligned conservatives who are set to join the ranks next year oppose further bankrolling Kyiv.

Here’s a look at some of the major incumbents on defense and foreign policy committees who are in the hot seat on Tuesday.

House Armed Services

Rep. Elissa Slotkin (D-Mich.): The reelection bid by Slotkin, a former CIA analyst and Pentagon official, is one of the most competitive races in the country.

She faces state senator Tom Barrett in a competitive southern Michigan district that went from favoring former President Donald Trump by just under 1 point in 2020 to leaning toward Biden by the same margin in redistricting.

Slotkin has been the beneficiary of some bipartisan support late in the race. Rep. Liz Cheney (R-Wyo.), a fellow Armed Services member who has clashed with Republicans and backed Trump’s impeachment in the wake of the Jan. 6 Capitol insurrection, endorsed Slotkin for a third term and appeared with her at a Nov. 1 campaign rally in East Lansing.

Slotkin supports increasing aid to Ukraine, and was part of a bipartisan Armed Services delegation to Kyiv in July. She also criticized Democratic leaders for not acting quickly enough to pass China competitiveness legislation that subsidizes domestic semiconductor production, a bill she’s argued will aid manufacturing in her district.

Slotkin co-chaired a bipartisan Armed Services task force that studied vulnerabilities to the defense supply chain. She also chairs the House Homeland Security Committee’s Intelligence and Counterterrorism panel.

POLITICO’s Forecast 2022, which analyzes and handicaps elections, rates the races as a toss-up.

Elaine Luria (D-Va.): Luria faces Republican Jen Kiggans, a state senator and former Navy helicopter pilot, in a Norfolk-based district that’s even more competitive. It went from backing Biden by 5 percentage points to just a 3-point cushion.

A retired Navy commander, Luria stands out as one of the most hawkish Democrats in the House and is an advocate for a bigger Navy. It’s a selling point in her military and industry-heavy district.

She criticized the Biden administration’s defense plans as anemic, particularly Navy shipbuilding plans that don’t grow the fleet fast enough, and has endorsed growing the Pentagon budget to 5 percent of GDP, or roughly $1 trillion.

Luria and fellow Democrat Jared Golden pushed through an amendment to annual defense legislation to add $37 billion to Biden’s $802 billion budget request, which was opposed by most Democrats. That proposal authorized an extra $3.6 billion for the Navy to build five more ships this year and forces the service to keep five littoral combat ships it had planned to retire to save money.

The second-term lawmaker also favors scrapping the U.S. policy of “strategic ambiguity” toward Taiwan and sending Biden a preemptive authorization to use military force to respond to China invading the island.

Luria was also appointed by Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) to serve on the select committee investigating the Jan. 6 insurrection.

POLITICO rates this race as a toss-up.

Jared Golden (D-Maine): Golden is facing a rematch with former Rep. Bruce Poliquin, whom he ousted in 2018 in the rural northern Maine district.

The former Marine has cut a moderate profile in two terms. On House Armed Services, he sponsored a $37 billion defense budget boost with Luria and supports producing more Navy destroyers, which are built in Maine at General Dynamics’ Bath Iron Works shipyard. Off the committee, Golden opposed legislation this summer to ban assault weapons and was the only Democrat to vote against a $1.9 trillion pandemic relief plan last year.

Golden has held his own so far, winning reelection by 6 percentage points in a rural district that Trump won by 8 points in 2020. But the significant headwinds for Democrats could swing the race, which is rated a toss-up.

Steven Horsford (D-Nev.): Horsford joined the Armed Services Committee in 2021, and his district includes Creech Air Force Base north of Las Vegas.

The district has gotten more Democratic, favoring Biden by more than 8 percentage points in 2020. But all three of the swing state’s Democratic House incumbents are facing headwinds with high inflation, a potential recession and Biden’s sagging approval ratings.

POLITICO’s analysis moved the race from lean Democratic to toss-up this week as Horsford faces a tough challenge from Republican Sam Peters.

Pat Ryan (D-N.Y.): Ryan, a West Point graduate and former Army intelligence officer, pulled off an upset win in a special election in New York’s Hudson Valley in August on the heels of the Supreme Court’s decision allowing states to ban abortions. Following the unexpected win, Democrats gave Ryan a seat on House Armed Services.

Ryan is running for a full term in a reconfigured district that includes West Point and that would have favored Biden by nearly 9 percentage points in 2020. But the political climate has swung against Democrats as Republicans gain momentum around the country in the closing weeks of the election.

Ryan faces Republican Colin Schmitt, a member of the New York State Assembly, in a race POLITICO rates as leaning Democratic.

Don Bacon (R-Neb.): Bacon has won three terms in a competitive Omaha-based district that Biden won by nearly 7 points. He’ll need to dispatch Tony Vargas, a Democratic state senator, to win a fourth term.

Bacon is a retired Air Force brigadier general. On Armed Services, he teamed up with Maryland Democrat Anthony Brown to draft a proposal to force the Pentagon to rename military bases that honor Confederate figures. He also joined with Rep. Ruben Gallego (D-Ariz.) to add language to annual defense legislation blocking Trump administration plans to reduce the number of troops in Germany, and Europe more broadly.

POLITICO’s 2022 election analysis rates the race as a tossup, noting that the district is trending Democratic and that Vargas is a stronger opponent than Democrats have fielded against Bacon in previous elections.

Retirements: Even if all the incumbents return, House Armed Services is still set for considerable turnover. A half dozen Democrats are retiring, including three subcommittee heads: Cybersecurity Chair Jim Langevin (D-R.I.), Strategic Forces Chair Jim Cooper (D-Tenn.) and Military Personnel Chair Jackie Speier (D-Calif.). Three more Democrats — Brown of Maryland, Kai Kahele of Hawaii and Stephanie Murphy of Florida — won’t be back.

On the GOP side, Rep. Vicky Hartzler of Missouri, the ranking member on the Tactical Air and Land Forces panel, and Rep. Mo Brooks of Alabama are leaving Congress after unsuccessful Senate bids. Cheney is also out after losing her primary in Wyoming.

Senate Armed Services

Mark Kelly (D-Ariz.): The former naval aviator and astronaut is locked in a dead heat with Republican opponent Blake Masters in his reelection bid. Kelly arrived in the Senate after winning a 2020 special election.

A spot on the Armed Services Committee has become a significant perch for Kelly, who filled the Senate seat once held by late SASC Chair John McCain. In the 50-50 Democratic-led chamber, Kelly chairs the committee’s Emerging Threats panel. Kelly supported adding tens of billion to Biden’s Pentagon budgets in consecutive years. He’s also backed spending on aircraft flown at Arizona bases, such as the F-35, A-10 and EC-130H.

Retirements: Though he was just reelected in 2020, ranking Senate Armed Services Republican Jim Inhofe of Oklahoma plans to resign at the end of the session. The Senate version of the NDAA is named for Inhofe in commemoration of his retirement. GOP Rep. Markwayne Mullin is favored to replace Inhofe in a special election that coincides with the midterms.

House Defense Appropriations

Marcy Kaptur (D-Ohio): Republicans saw Kaptur’s seat as a top pickup opportunity after state legislators drew the 20-term incumbent into a district Trump would have narrowly won in 2020. But despite being one of the most vulnerable incumbents in the country, Kaptur is favored to hang on against her scandal-plagued far-right challenger J.R. Majewski.

The House GOP campaign arm cut bait on Majewski in September, slashing a nearly $1 million media purchase after reports that he misrepresented his military service. Kaptur and Democrats have also hammered Majewski for being at the Capitol on Jan. 6.

Kaptur is the fourth most senior member of the House, and the most senior Democrat on the Appropriations Committee, though she lost a bid for the gavel to Chair Rosa DeLauro (D-Conn.). Still, Kaptur chairs the Energy and Water Appropriations panel, which controls nuclear weapons development programs under the Energy Department.

From her perch on the defense spending panel and as a co-chair of the Congressional Ukrainian Caucus, she’s pushed for more military aid to Kyiv. Kaptur most recently spearheaded a letter urging Pentagon chief Lloyd Austin to quickly decide whether to send Gray Eagle drones to Ukraine. She also backs “Buy American” protections in defense spending legislation to protect manufacturers in her northern Ohio district.

While initially rated a toss-up by POLITICO, the contest pivoted to a lean Democratic rating as her opponent weakened.

Ken Calvert (R-Calif.): Calvert is in a position to chair the Defense Appropriations Subcommittee in a GOP-led House, one of the most coveted gavels in Congress. He’s likely to win another term in a favorable year for Republicans, but it’s far from a lock. Redistricting made Calvert’s conservative Inland Empire-based district in Southern California into one Trump barely would have won in 2020.

Calvert is squaring off against Will Rollins, a former federal prosecutor. Amid the tough contest, lobbyists and executives from major defense contractors — including General Dynamics, AM General, Lockheed Martin, GE Aviation, Northrop Grumman and Anduril Industries — have recently cut checks to the top GOP defense appropriator.

POLITICO rates the race as lean Republican. Though Calvert is still the favorite to win, his reelection bid is much more competitive than in the spring, when it was rated a likely Republican seat.

Retirements: Democrat Tim Ryan decided to forego another term in order to run for an open Senate seat in Ohio. Two more Democrats on the defense spending panel, Cheri Bustos of Illinois and Ann Kirkpatrick of Arizona, are retiring from Congress.

Senate Defense Appropriations

Patty Murray (D-Wash.): Murray faces an unexpectedly tough challenge from Republican Tiffany Smiley in her bid for a sixth term. She’s poised to succeed retiring Senate Appropriations Chair Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.) as the top Democrat on the spending panel in the next Congress.

Retirements: Sen. Richard Shelby of Alabama, the top Republican on the Appropriations Committee and the Defense Subcommittee, opted not to seek another term. Shelby has been a major booster of his state’s defense sector, including providing ample funding for Navy shipbuilding efforts in Mobile and a burgeoning space and rocket industry in Huntsville.

Shelby and Leahy are pushing to clinch a government funding deal before their terms are up rather than punt spending talks into the new year. Shelby’s former chief of staff, Katie Britt, is heavily favored to win the election to succeed him.

Senate Foreign Relations

Ron Johnson (R-Wis.): The two-term Republican is locked in a tight reelection fight with Democratic Lt. Gov. Mandela Barnes, with both attempting to paint each other as extreme and out of touch. POLITICO rates the race as a toss-up, and Johnson has had a slight edge in the polls.

On the Foreign Relations Committee, Johnson is the top Republican on the Europe and Regional Security Cooperation panel. In the wake of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, Johnson backed bids by Sweden and Finland to join NATO. His efforts to convince Trump to free up military aid to Ukraine were documented in the former president’s first impeachment trial. Johnson voted to acquit Trump, and later downplayed the holdup, saying it “would have been worked out quietly.”

He’s also an advocate of shipbuilding efforts at Fincantieri Marinette Marine and increased purchases of Army tactical vehicles built by Oshkosh Defense.

Retirements: Sen. Rob Portman (R-Ohio), a co-chair of the Senate Ukraine Caucus, has advocated for stepping up military aid to Kyiv in the run-up to Russia’s invasion. He is retiring after two terms in the Senate.

House Foreign Affairs

Abigail Spanberger (D-Va.): Spanberger, a former CIA officer, saw her district shift more Democratic by 5 percentage points as the outer reaches of the Capitol region, replete with government workers and contractors, were included in the new setup.

But in a new district where large swaths of territory don’t know her as an incumbent, Spanberger has been slammed by Republican challenger Yesli Vega as a lockstep Democrat. Spanberger has highlighted breaks with her party’s leadership, including not backing Pelosi for speaker and pushing a stock trading ban for lawmakers. The race is rated as a toss-up.

On House Foreign Affairs, she’s pushed to roll back decades-old presidential war powers that green-lit the Gulf and Iraq wars. Both measures were included in the House-passed National Defense Authorization Act, but must survive negotiations with the Senate. Spanberger also signed on to legislation in July with Republicans Young Kim and Mike McCaul, the panel’s ranking member, aimed at tracking and expediting weapons sales to Taiwan and other Indo-Pacific allies to push back on Chinese aggression in the region.

Tom Malinowski (D-N.J.): Malinowski faces an uphill battle in his bid for a third term. The election is a rematch with New Jersey Senate Republican Leader Tom Kean Jr., whom Malinowksi barely beat in 2020.

The situation hasn’t improved since the last election. While Biden carried the old district by nearly 11 percentage points, the redrawn district would have gone for the Democrat by only 4.5 points. New Jersey Democrats effectively sacrificed Malinowski’s prospects in order to shore up several other incumbents: Andy Kim, Josh Gottheimer and Mikie Sherrill all have more solidly Democratic districts.

Malinowski is a former assistant secretary of State for democracy, human rights and labor in the Obama administration. On Capitol Hill, he’s pushed for the U.S. to reassess its relationship with Saudi Arabia. He sponsored legislation following OPEC’s decision to cut oil production that would force the removal of troops and equipment from Saudi Arabia and the United Araban Emirates, including Patriot air and missile defense batteries. He’s also pushed for the State Department to withhold military aid to Egypt to force the country to address human rights abuses.

Malinowski needs everything to break in his favor to win another term in a race POLITICO rates as a lean Republican.

Retirements: The committee’s third most senior Democrat, Albio Sires of New Jersey, is retiring. Rep. Karen Bass of California is running for mayor of Los Angeles. Rep. Andy Levin of Michigan lost a primary to another incumbent, Haley Stevens. And Rep. Ted Deutch of Florida resigned from the House in September to become chief executive of the American Jewish Committee.

Several GOP lawmakers are retiring. Rep. Adam Kinzinger of Illinois, who has been critical of his fellow Republicans following Jan. 6 and voted to impeach Trump, is retiring. Rep. Lee Zeldin chose to run for governor of New York instead of seeking another term in the House. And Rep. Peter Meijer of Michigan, another of the 10 Republicans who backed Trump’s impeachment, lost his primary in a bid for a second term.

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