No, Not All Politics Are Local

A Guide to the U.S. Midterms for Foreign-Policy Wonks.

By Robbie Gramer and Jefcoate O’Donnell
October 30, 2018

As with most U.S. elections, the congressional midterms next week—widely seen as a referendum on President Donald Trump’s first two years in office—are largely being fought over domestic issues, including the economy and health care. But fret not, foreign-policy wonks, there’s something for you as well. From Kentucky to New Jersey, former diplomats, spies, and military officers who have engaged with international issues for decades are now running for office in droves. In addition, several key races will determine who holds important posts on Capitol Hill that drive Washington’s foreign-policy machine. With that in mind, here are some of the candidates to watch.

Texas, 13th Congressional District
Mac Thornberry (R) Incumbent | Greg Sagan (D): As the chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, Rep. Mac Thornberry is the highest-ranking Republican congressman dealing with national defense. The Texas Republican has consistently tried to moderate Trump’s impulses and support Secretary of Defense James Mattis, even as rumors swirled that Trump was looking to oust him. Thornberry has also signaled a commitment to bipartisanship at a time when reaching across the aisle is both unusual and politically risky. Thornberry is running in Texas’s 13th District, which is so Republican-leaning that the political analysis site FiveThirtyEight has given him a more than 99.9 percent chance of defeating Greg Sagan, a consultant and U.S. Navy veteran.

Texas, 10th Congressional District
Michael McCaul (R) Incumbent | Mike Siegel (D): If the Republicans maintain their majority in the House, Rep. Michael McCaul is widely expected to become the new chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee. Currently the chair of the homeland security committee, McCaul echoes the positions of the Trump administration on most foreign-policy issues, including staying tough on China, maintaining pressure on Iran and North Korea, and supporting NATO while pushing allies to shoulder more of the burden. McCaul, representing Texas’s 10th District, is expected to win easily against Democratic challenger Mike Siegel, according to the polls.

Texas, Senate
Ted Cruz (R) Incumbent | Beto O’Rourke (D): In Texas, Sen. Ted Cruz is fighting a fierce, expensive re-election campaign against Democrat Beto O’Rourke, who opposes Trump’s border wall and criticizes Cruz and Trump for their rhetoric against immigrants. The winner in this race could help shape immigration policy—particularly if the Senate remains almost evenly divided between Democrats and Republicans. In red-state Texas, Cruz is favored to win, although O’Rourke has raised a record-breaking $38 million in the third quarter alone and, according to recent polling, closed the gap between the two candidates to just 5 percentage points.

Washington, 9th Congressional District
Adam Smith (D) Incumbent | Sarah Smith (D): Rep. Adam Smith is favored to lead the powerful House Armed Services Committee if the Democratic Party wins a majority in the House of Representatives. As the top ranking Democrat on the committee, Smith has been sharply critical of Trump’s approach to immigration and military spending, and he has made a consistent case for increasing oversight of the military in far-flung locations, from Yemen to Niger. Smith’s race for re-election is unique: His only challenger is a fellow Democrat—and a fellow Smith. Sarah Smith, an activist and member of the Democratic Socialists of America, has challenged Adam Smith over his acceptance of corporate money. She was recruited to run by Brand New Congress, the same organization that recruited Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, the democratic socialist candidate for New York’s 14th District, who gained national prominence after her surprise win in the Democratic primaries. But Smith the incumbent has an overwhelming lead at the polls.

New York, 16th Congressional District
Eliot Engel (D) Incumbent: Rep. Eliot Engel is running uncontested—one of just 17 members of Congress across the country to have such a luxury. As the ranking Democrat on the House Foreign Affairs Committee, Engel has been one of the House’s most outspoken critics of the Trump administration’s managing of U.S. foreign policy, including its proposed cuts in foreign aid and its politically motivated reprisals against State Department employees. If the Democrats take control of the House, he is expected to become chairman of the committee, giving him far-reaching investigative and subpoena powers.

Michigan, 8th Congressional District
Mike Bishop (R) Incumbent | Elissa Slotkin (D): Elissa Slotkin, a former senior U.S. Defense Department official and CIA analyst, left the world of foreign policy to run for Congress in her home state of Michigan against Republican incumbent Mike Bishop. She told Foreign Policy in an interview earlier this year that the “tenor and tone” of U.S. politics since Trump’s election and concerns over Republicans’ health care policies motivated her to run. She is one of more than a dozen former diplomats, spies, or foreign-policy experts who have left Washington to run for Congress as Democrats in the midterms.

California, 48th Congressional District
Dana Rohrabacher (R) Incumbent | Harley Rouda (D): Rep. Dana Rohrabacher has set himself apart on the House Foreign Affairs Committee by openly praising Russian President Vladimir Putin and becoming ensnared in investigations into Moscow’s operations to tip the 2016 U.S. presidential elections in Trump’s favor. Rohrabacher’s election is one of the only races in the country where foreign policy is a leading campaign issue. His Democratic opponent, Harley Rouda, has made Rohrabacher’s pro-Russia positions a central element in the race, and polls show a slight edge on the incumbent.

California, 28th Congressional District
Adam Schiff (D) Incumbent | Johnny Nalbandian (R): As the top Democrat on the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence, Adam Schiff has been one of his party’s leading voices on the Trump-Russia investigation. If Democrats win a majority in the House and Schiff takes over as chairman of the intelligence committee, he has vowed to ramp up the probe and dig into ties between Trump’s businesses and Russian money laundering. FiveThirtyEight shows Schiff has a more than 99.9 percent chance of winning against his Republican challenger, Johnny Nalbandian.

Florida, 3rd Congressional District
Ted Yoho (R) Incumbent | Yvonne Hayes Hinson (D): When Ted Yoho came to Washington on a surge of Tea Party support, he was a skeptic regarding federal spending on foreign aid and diplomacy. But he surprised many diplomats and humanitarian aid organizations by becoming a supporter, and he has helped lead the charge for reform in U.S. foreign aid. His name has been floated as a possible chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee if the Republicans hold the House (though Texas’s McCaul is still the likely front-runner). Yoho is widely expected to win his race against Democratic hopeful Yvonne Hayes Hinson.

New Jersey, 7th Congressional District
Leonard Lance (R) Incumbent | Tom Malinowski (D): Tom Malinowski is a former diplomat campaigning under the slogan, “He stood up to dictators. He’ll stand up for you.” He is hoping to beat Republican incumbent Leonard Lance at the polls to take New Jersey’s 7th District for the Democrats. Malinowski served as the assistant secretary of state for democracy, human rights, and labor under former President Barack Obama. He was on the National Security Council during the Bill Clinton years and served as the Washington director for Human Rights Watch from 2001 to 2013. Malinowski knows the State Department in a way that very few members of Congress do, which could make him a forceful presence, at a time when the Trump administration has been criticized for sidelining diplomacy and seeking to cut funding to programs at the State Department and the U.S. Agency for International Development.

New Jersey, Senate
Bob Menendez (D) Incumbent | Bob Hugin (R): Firebrand New Jersey Sen. Bob Menendez, the ranking Democrat on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, has frequently fought the Trump administration on foreign-policy issues, including Russia and North Korea. He is one of Capitol Hill’s sharpest critics of the administration’s management of the State Department and other federal agencies that deal with foreign policy. But Menendez is facing a tight re-election race against Republican challenger and former pharmaceutical CEO Bob Hugin, who has made Menendez’s ethics violations probes a central campaign issue. The latest polls show Menendez holding a 3 to 5 percentage point lead over Hugin.

Kentucky, 6th Congressional District
Andy Barr (R) Incumbent | Amy McGrath (D): Amy McGrath, who is running to represent Kentucky’s 6th Congressional District, is a retired Marine lieutenant colonel who flew 89 combat missions during her 20-year career. She shot to political stardom with a campaign ad that described her concerns about Trump and her military experience. It has been viewed more than 1.8 million times on YouTube. McGrath set herself apart from other congressional hopefuls by presenting detailed positions on her foreign-policy views, from climate change to the fight against the Islamic State, and said many in Congress “haven’t a clue about the nature of the threats we face today.” She is running against incumbent Republican Andy Barr, who touts his experience overseeing the development of sanctions against North Korea. The latest polling suggests the two are locked in a tight race.

Virginia, 7th Congressional District
Dave Brat (R) Incumbent | Abigail Spanberger (D): A former CIA officer, Abigail Spanberger is running in Virginia’s 7th District as a Democrat. Spanberger joined the CIA following the 9/11 attacks and served in the agency until 2014. This summer, a Republican political action committee got a copy of her unredacted security clearance form, which showed that she’d worked as a substitute English teacher at a school in Saudi Arabia prior to joining the CIA. That detail in her biography has found its way into attack ads against Spanberger.

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