Control of Congress hangs in the balance as several races of key importance to feds are among the tightest in the country.
Democrats and Republicans are in a tight battle for control of the 118th Congress, with dozens of key races across the country expected to be decided by razor thin margins.
Federal employees will be watching closely to see whether Democrats retain majorities in both chambers or if voters will usher in a new era of Republican oversight of the executive branch. Republicans are favorites to take control of at least the House, while the Senate could tip in either direction. A few key races could determine who is leading the legislative branch's watchdog efforts of the Biden administration, as well as how fights over government spending and civil service reforms will play out over the next two years.
In a recent Market Connections/Government Executive poll, federal workers said by a 46% to 35% margin they planned to vote for the Democratic nominee in their local House race. The margin tightened for Senate races: just 37% of feds are planning to vote for a Democrat in those races, compared to 33% for a Republican.
In some of those races, candidates have a long track record on public sector workforce and agency management 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) California’s 47th Congressional District
Rep. Katie Porter, D, has made a name for herself by grilling federal officials when they come before the House Oversight and Reform Committee, including through the use of her trademark whiteboard. She has been critical of Postmaster General Louis DeJoy and has introduced legislation to task agencies with providing better services and to reform how they fill vacancies for top positions. She faces Republican party official and businessman Scott Baugh in a tight race that Cook Political Report has identified as a tossup. Baugh has spoken frequently of the need to reduce federal spending and has promised to end “bloated government programs that have outlived their usefulness.”
9) Colorado Senate
Joe O’Dea, the Republican challenger and a construction company owner, has based much of his campaign around cutting federal spending. He called for “the entire federal bureaucracy to be trimmed” and said funding for new hiring at the Internal Revenue Service should be diverted to Border Patrol and local law enforcement agencies. The incumbent Democrat, Sen. Michael Bennet, has taken the opposite approach, proposing, for example, to create a federal “health force” made up of hundreds of thousands of medical workers to support understaffed facilities around the country. During his run for president in 2020, he also pitched a new federal agency called the Foreign Interference Threat Center. Bennet is a favorite to win reelection, so a Republican pickup for the seat would likely signify a larger-than-expected red wave.
8) Iowa’s Third Congressional District
Republican candidates across the country have hammered Democrats for passing legislation that will allow the Internal Revenue Service to hire tens of thousands of new employees. The race between Rep. Cindy Axne, D, and her Republican opponent, state Sen. Zach Nunn, is perhaps ground zero in that battle. Axne, considered one of the most vulnerable incumbents in the country, has heralded the Inflation Reduction Act both for its investments in the Agriculture Department to provide additional aid for farmers and for its IRS funding. At the Iowa State Fair earlier this year, Axne told attendees the hiring would "help all of you with our schools and with our roads and with our healthcare," according to the Des Moines Register, "because we don't actually have enough IRS auditors to actually address the issues that we're facing." Republican groups, meanwhile, have targeted Axne for her support of the bill, saying in ads that new IRS hires “will come after you.” House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., who would likely become speaker if Republicans take control of the chamber, has said repealing the new IRS funding would be his first priority in the new Congress. The results from this race could show how well those attacks resonated with voters.
7) Alaska Senate
Due to Alaska’s new, non-partisan primary in which the top four candidates advanced to the general election, the two likeliest winners are both Republican. The challenger, Kelly Tshibaka, is a long-time federal employee who has work in various inspectors general offices, including the Justice Department, the Office of the Director of National Intelligence and, most recently, the U.S. Postal Service. She said she helped draft legislation to create an Intelligence Community IG and told the Anchorage Daily News she spent her career “holding government insiders accountable.” Tshibaka is the more conservative choice in the race and called President Biden’s mandate that federal employees get vaccinated “the worst thing the government did” during the COVID-19 pandemic. The incumbent Republican, Sen. Lisa Murkowski, is seeking her fourth full term. She is consistently among the most moderate members of her caucus and has occasionally broken ranks with her colleagues to support Biden’s nominees and larger pay raises for federal workers. Due to her committee assignments, Murkowski has played a key role in spending and oversight at agencies like the Interior Department and the Environmental Protection Agency.
Murkowksi and Tshibaka are locked in a tight race and due to the ranked-choice voting system, it could take weeks until a winner is declared.
6) New Hampshire’s First Congressional District
Democratic Rep. Chris Papas has for years played a key role in overseeing one of the largest workforces in the federal government as chairman of the House Veterans Affairs Committee’s panel on Oversight and Investigations. He has led the charge to reform VA’s Office of Accountability and Whistleblower Protection, which has been mired in controversy since it came into existence under President Trump. He has come to champion whistleblowers and the VA workforce writ large, including by pushing the department to boost diversity within its ranks. His opponent, Karoline Leavitt, is a former Trump White House staffer who worked under Press Secretary Kayleigh McEnany. She has utilized the “MAGA” message in her campaign, such as through promises to “build the wall” and “drain the swamp.” Cook has labeled the race a tossup and polling is remarkably tight, so look to this race early for indications of how the rest of the night (and subsequent weeks, as votes are tallied) will go.
5) Pennsylvania’s First Congressional District
Rep. Brian Fitzpatrick, R, has frequently crossed party lines during his four years in office to stand up for federal workers and in the past was a rare Republican to win an endorsement from the American Federation of Government Employees. Fitzpatrick—himself a former federal employee as an FBI veteran—has been a consistent advocate for federal employee unions and a non-partisan civil service. He has introduced legislation to block efforts to strip away union rights and to convert thousands of federal roles to at-will positions. He has also pushed for pay raise parity between civilian federal workers and military members, and criticized Trump when he proposed pay freezes for feds. Fitzpatrick is a slight favorite to win the race, meaning his Democratic opponent Ashley Ehasz would have to pull off a significant upset to win. If the margin is tight, however, it could portend well for Democrats running for statewide office and, perhaps, the party’s chances of retaining control of the Senate.
4) New Hampshire Senate
The debate over U.S. border policy generally focuses on the southwestern state, but Sen. Maggie Hassan, D, has cited her state’s border with Canada in spearheading related efforts. In a recent debate with her Republican opponent, Don Bolduc, Hassan said Customs and Border Protection needs funding for more staff. She has also led efforts to end government shutdowns forever, putting forward bipartisan legislation to automatically institute stopgap funding bills—with various incentives to pass more permanent spending bills—whenever appropriations lapse. Bolduc is a retired Army Special Forces brigadier general who has also made upping resources to Border Patrol a key factor in his platform. Cook has rated the race “lean Democrat,” but polls have tightened in recent weeks. Republicans will feel good about their chances of taking the Senate if Buldoc pulls out the victory.
3) Virginia’s Seventh Congressional District
Democratic Rep. Abigail Spanberger’s district covers a large swath of central Virginia, including a large concentration of federal employees at its northern edge. Spanberger, a former CIA employee, in 2019 used her first address from the House floor to highlight the plight of federal employees during the government shutdown. Her first bill was to ensure back pay for federal workers. She has called for reforms to make members of Congress have more restrictions on their stock trades and has led efforts to end the reductions some federal employees’ face in their Social Security benefits. She has criticized her Republican opponent, Yesli Vega, for saying in an interview she would support shutting down the government—for months, if necessary—to stop the Biden administration from enforcing its priorities. Vega, a member of the Prince William County Board of Supervisors, and Spanberger are in one of the tightest races in the country.
2) Virginia’s Tenth Congressional District
Rep. Jennifer Wexton, D, represents among the most federal employees of any district in the country, with about 35,000 calling the northern Virginia area home. She helped usher paid parental leave for feds into law and calls herself “a leader in fighting for pay raises for our tireless federal workers.” She has pushed for more oversight of agency relocations, for increased telework and for increased child care benefits. Republican Hung Cao, a retired Navy captain, is considered an underdog in his challenge. Virginia closes its polls at 7 p.m. on Tuesday, so watch this race carefully for early indications of how the midterms will go. An upset, or even a tighter race than expected, would likely signal a larger-than-expected wave for Republicans—and could leave feds’ without one of their biggest advocates in Congress.
1) Wisconsin Senate
Sen. Ron Johnson, R, spent six years as chair of the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee, the panel with primary oversight of the federal workforce. Johnson has positioned himself as a fiscal hawk constantly looking to slash federal spending and has pushed to cut federal employees' paid administrative leave and bonuses. He has used his perch on HSGAC to criticize the federal response to the COVID-19 pandemic, calling much of the actions unnecessary and falsely labeling the vaccines as unsafe. He has called to shift Medicare and Social Security from the mandatory to the discretionary part of the federal budget, which could have major ramifications not just for those programs but also for spending at agencies throughout government. Mandela Barnes, the Democratic lieutenant governor in Wisconsin, has trailed in most polls and Cook considers the race “lean Republican.” If Barnes can pull off the upset, Democrats will likely remain in control of the Senate. If Johnson hangs on, he will remain a key voice in federal oversight issues.