10 Midterm Races for Federal Employees to Watch

Sen. Claire McCaskill, D-Mo., talks to the media after a debate with opponent Josh Hawley. McCaskill is the top-ranking Democrat on the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee. Sen. Claire McCaskill, D-Mo., talks to the media after a debate with opponent Josh Hawley. McCaskill is the top-ranking Democrat on the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee. Charlie Riedel/AP

The midterm elections are just one week away and candidates are making their closing arguments to win over voters. 

Federal employees have a lot on the line in the election, most significantly who will control the 116th Congress and chair the oversight of the executive branch. Nonpartisan forecasters give Democrats a higher likelihood of taking the House, while Republicans are the favorites to hold onto the Senate. A few key races could determine who is leading the legislative branch's watchdog efforts of the Trump administration, and who has a final say on a number of civil service reforms and compensation issues sure to come up in the next two years. 

In some of those races, candidates have a long track record on public sector workforce issues. Here is a look at 10 races feds will want to track as results start coming in on Election Day, in reverse order of their potential impact: 

10) Wisconsin’s 1st Congressional District

If Democrat Randy Bryce pulls off the upset to take over retiring House Speaker Paul Ryan’s seat, expect a new advocate for federal employee unions. Bryce gained national attention by touting his background as a union leader for ironworkers and boasts of his organizing work aimed at blocking the efforts of Republican Gov. Scott Walker to strip the state’s public sector employees from maintaining collective bargaining rights. His opponent, Bryan Steil, is a former aide to Ryan and a slight favorite in the race.

9) Wisconsin Governor

Speaking of Walker, while federal issues are not immediately at play in this race, the two-term governor is the poster boy for taking on public-sector unions. His signature victory reduced collective bargaining rights for most of the state’s employees, which led to a recall election that Walker ultimately survived. If he is able to win a third term, he could feel emboldened to take another shot at the presidency. He fizzled quickly in 2016, but not before he proposed taking his union reforms to the federal sector. Walker is in a toss-up race against Democrat Tony Evers, Wisconsin superintendent of public instruction, who has promised to treat the state’s public employees “with respect and compassion” and opposes Walker’s reforms.

8) Florida’s 27th Congressional District

Democratic candidate Donna Shalala perhaps has the most federal executive experience of anyone running for Congress this year, as the former and longest-serving head of the Health and Human Services Department for eight years under President Clinton. Her Republican opponent is television journalist Maria Elvira Salazar. The district is home to more than 25,000 federal employees and retirees, according to the American Federation of Government Employees, which endorsed Shalala.

“I have an enormous respect for people in government, and I had the opportunity to work with some of the best who spent their careers there,” Shalala told The Washington Post in 2010. “But when I talk about the best, I'm not just talking about the [Senior Executive Service]. I'm talking about people at every level of the government.”

7) Arizona Senate

Reps. Kyrsten Sinema, D, and Martha McSally, R, are battling for the seat made open by the retirement of Republican Sen. Jeff Flake. McSally’s efforts related to the federal workforce have focused on border personnel, as she chairs the House Homeland Security Committee’s panel on the issue. She pressed Customs and Border Protection to improve its hiring capacity and has written legislation to expedite the process. Sinema, however, won AFGE’s endorsement and vowed “to ensure fair pay and good benefits for the over 30,000 federal employees in Arizona.” The seat is a rare pickup opportunity for Democrats this year.

6) Florida Senate

Gov. Rick Scott, R, is looking to move from state into federal politics by unseating Democratic Sen. Bill Nelson. Scott presided over trimming Florida's state workforce (not counting university, courts/justice and legislative staff) by 12 percent since first taking office and has consistently boasted of having the lowest ratio of state employees to citizens of any state in the country. Scott signed just two pay raises into law for Florida employees in his eight years in office, one of which was negated by higher contributions to retirement pensions that resulted in a net 3 percent cut. Scott also signed a law that defaults new Florida state employees into a Thrift Savings Plan-like retirement system, unless they affirmatively act within their first nine months to opt into the old pension system. A Scott spokesman recently told the Tallahassee Democrat that the governor appreciates state employees and recognizes "their achievements every day."

Nelson is seeking his fourth term and in a toss-up race against Scott. Last year, he helped craft a bipartisan compromise bill to ease the firing of misbehaving and poorly performing employees at the Veterans Affairs Department.

5) Montana Senate

Sen. Jon Tester, D, has helped pass many changes to civil service laws as they impact the Veterans Affairs Department. He serves as chairman of the Senate Veterans' Affairs committee and has co-authored bills to ease the firing of VA employees and increase the role of the private sector in providing veterans health care. He has pushed for increased hiring at the department and for CBP officers. He called on President Trump to rescind his executive orders aimed at weakening federal employee unions. Tester is a slight favorite against Matt Rosendale, the current auditor for Montana.

4) Texas’ 23rd Congressional District

Republican Rep. Will Hurd is the House’s point person for reforming the federal government’s information technology systems and cybersecurity protections. The former CIA employee chairs the IT panel on the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee and has helped shepherd multiple IT modernization bills through Congress. Nonpartisan forecasters consider Hurd a slight favorite against Gina Ortiz Jones, also a former federal employee who has worked at the Defense Department, Defense Intelligence Agency and for the U.S. Trade Representative. The district is home to more than 86,000 federal employees and retirees.

3) North Dakota Senate

Sen. Heidi Heitkamp is perhaps the most vulnerable Democrat up for reelection this year, facing off against Rep. Kevin Cramer, R-N.D. She is also one of the most influential advocates for federal employees in the chamber, serving on the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee’s panel on federal management. Heitkamp is now a slight underdog in the race, according to nonpartisan forecasters, but an upset victory could go a long way toward giving Democrats control of the Senate. While her subcommittee’s current chairman, Sen. James Lankford, R-Okla., has worked on a largely bipartisan basis, Heitkamp taking control of the panel would amplify her criticisms of the Trump administration’s approach to civil service reforms, including its proposal to reorganize the Office of Personnel Management.

2) Virginia 10th Congressional District

In this race, Rep. Barbara Comstock, R, and State Del. Jennifer Wexton, D, are in a battle over who will be one of the top voices for federal employees in the House in one of the chamber's most hotly contested, and expensive, races. Comstock, who took over the seat in 2015 from former Rep. Frank Wolf, R, after he served for 34 years as an advocate for feds, has broken ranks with her party and President Trump on issues like the federal employee pay raise, paid family leave for civilian workers and the White House’s federal workforce executive orders. In an interview with Government Executive, Comstock criticized Wexton for not making federal employee issues a priority in her campaign and said it was important for the heavily federal employee-populated district to have Republican representation, so feds in the area have a voice in the party to push back against Trump and party leaders looking to reduce the rights and compensation of civil servants. Wexton, however, who declined to be interviewed by Government Executive, is now a slight favorite in the race.

1) Missouri Senate

While nonpartisan forecasters have in recent weeks given Republicans an increased likelihood to hold onto the Senate, Sen. Claire McCaskill, D-Mo., is in a toss-up race with Republican Attorney General of Missouri Josh Hawley that could determine who controls the chamber. This race is particularly important to federal employees because McCaskill is the top Democrat on the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee. If she wins and other victories tip the Senate into Democratic control, she would be a likely candidate to take over as chairman of the committee, which has direct oversight of federal employees and agency management. McCaskill has generally been an advocate for the rights of federal employees and has butted heads with the committee’s current chairman, Sen. Ron Johnson, R-Wis., on oversight of the Trump administration. McCaskill, along with Heitkamp and Tester, have been vocal in their support of the U.S. Postal Service, and she has called it critical for her largely rural state. The type of federal workforce legislation that advances changes to civil service laws and the implementation of Trump’s proposed reorganization of government could all come down to the outcome of this race.  

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