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A Workhorse and a Hard Charger Aim for Transportation Top Spot

Sam Graves and Jeff Denham mostly align on policy, but couldn’t vary more in style

An airplane takes off from Ronald Reagan Washington National Airport at sunrise on Monday, Aug. 27, 2018. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)
An airplane takes off from Ronald Reagan Washington National Airport at sunrise on Monday, Aug. 27, 2018. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)

The personalities of the two candidates angling to be the next top Republican on the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee may be the starkest difference between them.

As Steering Committee members decide committee leadership posts later this year, they’ll have to choose between behind-the-scenes operator Sam Graves of Missouri and Jeff Denham, a hard-charging Californian best known for nearly forcing House leadership’s hand on immigration votes by advancing a discharge petition earlier this year. 

Though similar in policy positions, the two could hardly be more different in style.

The soft-spoken Graves, 54, seems in his element discussing transportation policy. In an interview this month, he highlighted work on past surface transportation bills, noting most of his contributions were made outside the spotlight.

“I’m a workhorse,” Graves said in an interview. “I’m not a show pony.”

Denham, 51, is larger physically than Graves and his deep voice easily fills a room. He’s been in Congress for 10 fewer years than Graves, but he’s never been content to wait his turn. He makes no apologies for his ambition or style, which he said would be a benefit for the committee.

“I don’t want to see other committees steal jurisdiction because we’re moving slow, nor do I want the American public to suffer because we couldn’t pass an infrastructure bill,” Denham said. “Look, I’ll take the criticism from some of my colleagues. The same thing could be said of our immigration debate: We weren’t going to have one, and I was willing to put it all out on the line and force a vote on it.” 

In action

One of the few pilots in Congress, Graves is closely tied to the general aviation industry, which includes all civil aviation other than large airlines. Though inclined to fall in line with leadership, he was one of only two Republicans who opposed an FAA bill in 2016, authored by outgoing Chairman Bill Shuster, R-Pa., which would have removed air traffic control from the agency, because he thought the measure had insufficient protections for general aviation. 

The next year, he cosponsored a similar Shuster bill that incorporated his recommendations to make the bill more acceptable to general aviation. That bill was still opposed by general aviation groups, whose members are spread throughout the country and generally enjoy outsized influence. 

When Shuster pushed Republicans to support the bill, the general aviation industry pushed back on many provisions. Graves responded, calling about 30 Republican members and their general aviation constituents — including a call with Mike D. Rogers, R-Ala., while Graves was flying — who had concerns about the bill.

“It’s in my blood,” Graves said of transportation policy. “It’s just everything about me.” 

Denham led a much more public — and combative — effort that increased his exposure in the House: a discharge petition to force a vote on immigration policy.

The effort may hurt him in a race for chairman, which party leadership has considerable power to shape. Denham attempted to deflect any lasting damage in relationships with leadership by keeping Speaker Paul D. Ryan, Leader Kevin McCarthy and Whip Steve Scalise in the loop. 

Further, he said, the episode helped build relationships with members while also burnishing his reputation as an energetic lawmaker. Rather than waiting for votes to come up, Denham is not shy in forcing the issue. 

“I worked with members to move a major issue forward,” he said. “And I think, if anything, it’s going to help me because people realize that I can move members, I can move issues.”


The two also have much in common. Both chair two high-profile subcommittees: Graves on Highways and Transit and Denham on Railroads, Pipelines and Hazardous Materials. Both say keeping the House majority — and, in Denham’s case, winning a competitive re-election bid — is their top priority.

On the major policy issues in the committee’s jurisdiction, little separates them. Neither supports an increase in federal fuel taxes and both are eager to switch to a system that includes more revenue from electric vehicles, hybrids and others that pay little or nothing in the fuel taxes that are the major sources of revenue for the ailing Highway Trust Fund. 

By most traditional measures, Graves appears to have the advantage in the race for chairman. In addition to seniority, he’s led a committee as both chairman and ranking member of House Small Business. 

Denham has an edge in fundraising. As of the latest campaign finance filings, the Californian’s leadership PAC had sent more than $225,000 to other Republican campaign committees this cycle. Graves’ PAC gave about $160,000. The filings go through end of August for Denham and July 18 for Graves.

Steering Committee members may have different views depending on whether the House remains in Republican hands. 

Even if they retain the majority, most campaign watchers expect Republicans to start next Congress with fewer members. And with moderate members from swing districts most likely to lose re-election, not to mention several that have already retired, the membership of the GOP conference in the 116th Congress is likely to be even more conservative than the current version.

Especially if Republicans are relegated to the House minority, Denham’s style may be an advantage, said Mark Harkins, a senior fellow at the Government Affairs Institute at Georgetown University. But his work as a moderating force on immigration may hurt him in a party that’s likely to be more conservative.

“You want somebody who is more aggressive and is going to challenge,” Harkins said. “The more difficult news is that the part of the party that’s really going to appreciate that is the very conservative side. And I think that the discharge petition is a problem for Denham. And that great energy he has … is then mitigated by the issues that he has decided to use that energy on in the past.”

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