Physicist Loses House Seat in Republican Wave

A 2.5-year adventure in the U.S. Congress has come to an end for physicist Bill Foster (D–IL). Foster has conceded to his opponent in his bid for reelection to his congressional seat outside Chicago. Businessman Randy Hultgren, Foster's Republican opponent, will represent the district.

For Foster, 55, the loss marks the end of a string of political good fortune and hard work. His first taste of politics came in 2006 as a volunteer in the successful campaign by Democrat Patrick Murphy to win a House of Representatives seat in suburban Philadelphia. Six months later, Foster decided to seek the Illinois seat being vacated by the early retirement of former House Speaker Dennis Hastert. He defeated several more experienced candidates for the Democratic nomination and in March 2008 claimed the traditionally Republican seat by taking advantage of a candidate who was considered weak. In November he won a full term, defeating the same opponent by a larger margin.

Foster has received hundreds of thousands of dollars in campaign contributions from scientists in his district for both elections. But money wasn't enough to turn the tide in 2010: He lost today despite pouring nearly $650,000 of his own money into the race and outspending his opponent by a margin of nearly three to one.

Foster is the apparent victim of a wave election swamping many Democrats who won competitive seats in the last two elections. As in many districts, the race focused on economic issues. Hultgren ran several ads that criticized Foster for, as one of them puts it, "lost jobs … [and] massive spending." Foster, who sat on the House Financial Services Committee, painted himself as a moderate, touting endorsements of his centrist record. But while the district had supported Barack Obama by 10 points in his presidential campaign, conservatives in the district were riled up, said Hultgren supporter Lee Lueking, a physicist at Fermilab whose self-described "conservative" views put him at odds with his congressman. "Foster worked along party lines," he said.

Foster campaigned on the benefits to his district from the massive 2009 stimulus package, which the White House estimated created 9400 jobs in the district. One of the biggest recipients in the state was Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory in Batavia, which received roughly $35 million. (Argonne National Laboratory, just outside his district, got about $13 million.) In turn, scientists continued to support him, including $75,050 from Fermilab scientists. (In 2008, researchers around the country gave him about $160,000).

Foster's ads called him a "scientist and businessman" and showed him speaking with factory workers and other scientists. (In one ad, the congressman appeared alongside the periodic table of elements.)

Fermi physicist Mark Fischler, who supported Foster, thought his nerdy persona cut both ways. In a Republican district, says Fischler, Foster "needed to distinguish himself." But "people don't like to vote for the guy being the egghead," he adds. Fermi electrical engineer Jim Zagel, who campaigned for him, suspects that Foster's professional background may have turned off religiously oriented constituents. One voter, for example, asked Zagel: "If Bill Foster is a scientist, how can he not know when life begins?"

"We [always knew] it would be a tough seat for a Democrat to hold," said Fermi physicist James Volk. "We're not going to elect him single-handedly out of Fermi."