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Taking the Hill

Taking the Hill

National security issues generally don’t play a big role in congressional races. But Pentagon spending represents billions of dollars — and that translates to jobs. In states like Virginia and Maine, that means that defense is a local economic issue that can drive voters and affect the outcome of contests. And even if candidates themselves don’t address national security, the departure of the politician they are vying to replace can have repercussions on Capitol Hill.  Changes to the make-up of the Senate and House armed services committees could frame the way the Hill grapples with sequester, war planning, and the speed at which the United States leaves Afghanistan. Just as the elections will shake up foreign policy no matter who wins, they’re likely to do the same for defense. Here are 8 races to watch:

Virginia, Senate: Tim Kaine (D) vs. George Allen (R)
No race is as intermeshed with defense issues as the fight for Virginia’s Senate seat between Democrat Tim Kaine, who supports cuts to the Pentagon budget, and Republican George Allen, who opposes them. The commonwealth is a major military hub, housing the Atlantic Fleet and other commands in the Norfolk region. The Pentagon also employs hundreds of thousands of federal workers and civilian contractors in Northern Virginia. So nearly every Virginia ad that mentions defense has just one thing in mind: jobs. The proposed cuts in defense spending growth, as well as the automatic cuts looming in January, have led Allen’s campaign to warn voters that 200,000 Virginia jobs could be lost if Kaine is elected and President Obama is returned to the White House. The numbers have been criticized as a scare tactic, but it’s a real concern for voters — more than national security, at least. Of course, the top military brass helped craft Obama’s defense proposal and Republicans and Democrats in Congress put the cuts into law themselves. That means that, ads aside, it won’t be easy for Allen to increase defense spending unless there’s also a change in the White House.

What the polls say: Kaine is up 1.8 percent over Allen, according to the Real Clear Politics average.

Connecticut, Senate: Chris Murphy (D) vs. Linda McMahon (R)
Joe Lieberman’s seat in Connecticut — the center of U.S. submarine-building — is a hot commodity. The state loses a powerful advocate in Lieberman, who holds key defense-related posts in the Senate. He is the second-ranking Democrat on the Armed Services Committee, behind Chairman Carl Levin, of Michigan. Lieberman also chairs the Air Land Subcommittee and is chairman of the full Homeland Security Committee. Now, those posts are up for grabs. The next junior senator from Connecticut will have to fight for the same key defense interests, though, including the submarine base in New London, from a backbench spot. Submarines were one of the few big-ticket weapons the Obama administration put on hold to save taxpayer money, by delaying construction on one of the two submarines being built each year. Mitt Romney has pledged to reverse that decision — but he would need help from Republicans in the Senate to do it. Connecticut’s seat would help.

What the polls say: Murphy is up by 5 points according to the RCP average.

Massachusetts, Senate: Scott Brown (R) vs. Elizabeth Warren (D)
In a recent candidate questionnaire, Republican Sen. Scott Brown and Democratic challenger Elizabeth Warren were asked if they supported continuing combat operations in Afghanistan. Brown said yes. Warren said no. There are few liberal Democrats in Congress who outright oppose the war in Afghanistan, and fewer still in the Senate. A Warren victory, which polls before Tuesday show is more likely, would remove Brown from his seat on the Armed Services Committee and as the ranking member of the Air Land subcommittee. It’s unclear if Warren would seek or receive an Armed Services post, but the message from New England would be clear: If Obama can win a second term, his heretofore quiet liberal base that wants out of the war may finally start to give him an earful. Either way, Massachusetts houses roughly 115,000 defense-related jobs and is one of the top recipients of Pentagon dollars, so the commonwealth is nervously watching the budget fight. From that perspective, the difference between a Warren and Brown vote on the Senate floor come next Congress could not be more stark. A Warren win flips one more key vote in the divided chamber into Obama’s column, and for taming defense spending.

What the polls say: Warren is up 3.5 percent according to the RCP average.

Florida, House, 22nd district: Allen West (R) vs. Patrick Murphy (D)

Rep. Allen West ranks 4th from the bottom on the House Armed Services Committee, but he has cast himself as a defense guru in his race against Democratic challenger Patrick Murphy, and the Army veteran could have an impact in the budget battles to come. "He’s a good representative of ‘defense Keynesiasm,’" said Laura Peterson, of Taxpayers for Common Sense. West, she said, is a "fiscally conservative tea-partier but also a vet who supports defense spending as a job creator." West is the embodiment of the predicament facing the House Republican caucus: make a budget deal and alienate tea-partiers, or make a deal that alienates the military rank-and-file and veterans. It’s hard to see how both of those constituencies end up on the same winning side, when Senate Democrats and the White House refuse to take defense spending off the negotiating table. But West is seen as increasingly influential in the House. "If he sticks around, he’s likely to get louder on HASC," Peterson said, "and it shows that brand of conservatism might have more legs generally."

What the polls say: West is up 1 percent over Murphy according to the RCP average.

Maine, Senate: Charlie Summers (R) vs. Cynthia Dill (D) vs. Angus King (I)
There is a three-way fight to replace Olympia Snowe between former Maine secretary of state Charlie Summers, former state senator Cynthia Dill, and former governor Angus King. The race is one to watch, not only because Snowe is one of the few Republican moderates left in the Senate (she has said she is stepping down because of Washington’s increasingly toxic partisanship), but because the state is home to Bath Iron Works, owned by General Dynamics, and the 200-year-old Portsmouth Naval Shipyard. Since the 1980s, BIW has made DDG-51 Arleigh Burke-class destroyers for the Navy and is currently building two of the service’s three massive DDG-1000 Zumwalt-class destroyers, giving it enough work for decades. On the other hand, Portsmouth, which refurbishes nuclear attack submarines (one of which was recently set ablaze by a yard employee who apparently wanted to leave work early), barely survived a 2005 BRAC proposal to shutter the base. It remains to be seen how effective Snowe’s successor will be at keeping the old shipyard open. Adding another element of uncertainty, King, the likely winner, has refused to say which party he would caucus with. Conventional wisdom says he’ll side with the Democrats, but the closer the chamber’s Democratic-Republican split, the more power he will have.

What the polls say: King is up 17 points according to the RCP average.

Nebraska, Senate: Bob Kerrey (D) vs. Deb Fischer (R)

As a member of the powerful Appropriations and Armed Services committees, Democratic Sen. Ben Nelson has wielded significant clout on defense policy and spending. In particular, he has chaired the Armed Services strategic forces subcommittee, where he oversees all manner of nuclear weapons-related policy. His successor in the chairmanship will preside over the subcommittee at a time when the Air Force is looking at how to replace its 40-year old Minuteman III ICBMs and the Navy is aiming to replace its Ohio-class nuclear missile submarines — all while the Pentagon debates whether to cut a leg of the nuclear triad. While we don’t know who will get Nelson’s numerous committee assignments, we do know who is running to take over his Senate seat: Former Nebraska senator, governor, and Navy SEAL Bob Kerrey and state senator Deb Fischer. Kerrey spent most of the last decade far from Nebraska as president of The New School in Manhattan while Fischer made a name for herself in Nebraska by opposing bills that would ban smoking in restaurants and other public indoor spaces. If Kerrey wins, he will almost assuredly get a seat on SASC given his military background and former membership on the Senate Intelligence Committee and the 9/11 Commission. But, according to the polls, that’s not likely to happen.

What the polls say: Fischer is up 13 points according to the RCP average.

Missouri, Senate: Claire McCaskill (D) vs. Todd Akin (R)
The Missouri contest garnered national attention for Todd Akin’s "legitimate rape" comments. But from a defense perspective, the race is more interesting for the impact that a McCaskill loss would have on the Senate Armed Services Committee, where she has been outspoken on accountability and oversight, and on the Homeland Security Committee, where she chairs the subcommittee on contracting oversight. With the billions of dollars spent on defense contracting in war zones and beyond, McCaskill has raised a number of questions about how the money is spent, what it gets the American taxpayer, and how to fix fundamental problems with Pentagon monitoring of critical contracting failures that have helped the cost of war to skyrocket. There are of course plenty of other issues Missouri faces when it comes to defense — aviation manufacturing being the biggest. But McCaskill’s efforts to go after war-profiteering since she was elected in 2007 have been embraced by both Democrats and Republicans.

What the polls say: McCaskill is up 6.3 percent over Akin, according to the RCP average.

New Hampshire, House, 1st district: Carol Shea-Porter (D) vs. Frank Guinta (R)
Can defense issues resurrect a lefty candidate? After she was elected in 2006, Democrats put Shea-Porter on the House Armed Services Committee, thinking that Pentagon oversight and work on behalf of veterans might keep the ardently anti-war activist more in line with her district’s politics. It didn’t work. Guinta beat her in 2010. Now the two are at it again, and Shea-Porter is using her defense credentials to get her seat back. "I was honored to pass legislation to help active duty soldiers and veterans, families, working men and women, senior citizens, and students," she says on her campaign web site. And she’s using the issue to attack Guinta as a tea-partier who has voted for "billions in cuts to veterans programs," according to one ad that Politifact ruled later is "mostly false." Shea-Porter’s race could turn on a number of factors, but it’s going to come down to the wire: "The polls have been all over the place, which suggests the race really go could either way," according to an analysis on Real Clear Politics.

What the polls say: Nevertheless, Shea-Porter is up by 3 points, according to the RCP average.