Phil Janowicz on the campaign trail earlier this year

Matt Gush

A house too far: Two scientists abandon their bids for Congress

When Phil Janowicz and Kristopher Larsen began their campaigns for a seat in the U.S. House of Representatives, they joined what appears to be a record number of Ph.D. scientists running for national office this year. But in March, after spending months on the campaign trail, the two Democrats—an organic chemistry professor from southern California and a space physics researcher from Colorado, respectively—decided to drop out before a single ballot had been cast in their states.

As scientists, they had learned to listen to their data. And the numbers they were seeing didn’t add up.

Janowicz had spent nearly a year running at full tilt in California’s 39th congressional district. National Democrats are hoping to flip the seat from Republican control as part of a so-called blue wave in November that would give them control of the House. But his polling showed that, under California’s unusual election rules, a crowded field could split the Democrat vote and allow a Republican to retain the seat.

For Larsen, who had spent 5 months actively campaigning in an ultraliberal district while holding onto his day job and a part-time gig as a small-town mayor, the local Democratic Party’s early endorsement of another candidate made it hard for his campaign to gain traction. And he knew he couldn’t raise the money needed to get his message out to the voters of Colorado’s second congressional district.

Despite falling short of their goals, each man received a graduate education in running for Congress. Here are their stories—including some lessons for others who may want to follow in their footsteps.

Phil Janowicz: taking one for the team

Janowicz was an undergraduate at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Cambridge when he decided to be a college chemistry teacher. That’s why, after earning his Ph.D. in 2010 in organic chemistry from the University of Illinois (U of I) in Urbana, he immediately took a job at California State University (CSU) in Fullerton.

“I love teaching, I love working with students,” he says. “At [CSU], I was still able to continue to do chemical education research, but the primary focus was teaching.”

At U of I, he and his mentor, Jeffrey Moore, developed a new approach to teaching organic chemistry that emphasized conceptual learning over memorization. Janowicz continued that work at CSU, winning a grant from the National Science Foundation and developing a curriculum that would eventually spread to more than a dozen CSU campuses.

Janowicz had always regarded teaching as a form of public service. But after earning tenure in 2016, he decided he could reach more students by leaving academia and broadening an existing collaboration with publisher McGraw-Hill. A few months later, after watching the national election returns, he decided to take his public service to the next level.

“The next morning [9 November 2016], I left McGraw-Hill and started the process of learning how to run a campaign,” he recalled earlier this year. Republican Representative Ed Royce has “been my congressman for many years and I’ve disagreed with him on quite a bit for many years, so I assumed I would be running against him. We had the launch at Fullerton on April 25, and I’ve been running ever since.”

Janowicz was the first Democrat to declare. But the field quickly expanded as national Democrats began talking about flipping the seat. Their optimism was based on the results of the 2016 election: The district voted for Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton over Donald Trump, and seemed primed to oust Royce, a 13-term incumbent.

Janowicz threw himself into the challenge. He placed himself on a round-the-clock regime of making phone calls to raise money, attending political gatherings in hopes of garnering endorsements, and knocking on doors to introduce himself to would-be constituents. Running as a progressive scientist, he felt his hard work was beginning to pay off. He says internal polls showed him running ahead of pediatrician Mai Khanh Tran, another early entrant on the Democrat side who has been endorsed by the science advocacy group 314 Action, and two multimillionaires who were largely self-funding their campaigns.

But Janowicz’s grassroots strategy became outdated after Royce announced in January that he would not seek re-election. An open seat is normally good news for candidates from the opposing party. But not for Janowicz. Four strong Republican candidates jumped into the fray and the boisterous, unruly Democratic field turned into a potential liability.

The problem was California’s unusual primary rules. In most states, candidates from each major party square off in a primary, with the top vote-getter from each party advancing to the general election. But in California, the candidates all compete in a single primary and the top two vote-getters—regardless of party—move on. That means two Republicans, or two Democrats, could end up vying for the seat.

After Royce decided not to run again, Democrats faced the real risk that, with so many candidates on the primary ballot, none would attract enough votes to finish first or second. Janowicz says his internal polling highlighted that concern: His single-digit tally led the Democratic field, but he trailed at least two Republican candidates. So, on the morning of 14 March, the deadline for filing signature petitions that would put him on the 5 June primary ballot, Janowicz made a gut-wrenching decision.

“I’m a Ph.D. scientist and I understand the math,” he says. “And the math did not look good not just for me, but for any Democrat to finish in the top two. So as a team player and community Democrat through and through, I knew that taking one for the team was the best option for helping to get a Democrat, whoever that might be, through the primary.”

“The whole reason I started this was to switch our district from red to blue,” he continues. “And if I’m going to be part of the problem, then I’m not part of the solution.”

Kristopher Larsen: mission aborted

Unlike Janowicz, Larsen had already tasted electoral victory—he’s the mayor of the small town of Nederland in the foothills of the Colorado Rockies—when he decided to throw his hat into the ring. He knew his grassroots campaign might take a while to catch fire. But at least he didn’t have to worry about what was going on with the other party. “This district is so gerrymandered that whoever wins the Democratic primary will win in November,” Larsen says, referring to the practice of drawing district lines so they favor one of the major political parties.

Growing up in Boulder, Larsen says his political activism came from his parents—“old school hippies from the 1960s and 1970s”—and resurfaced after the 2001 terrorist attacks and the U.S. invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq. However, protesting the wars as a graduate student at Washington University in Saint Louis, Missouri, “was a pretty lonely business,” he says. Besides, his research didn’t leave him much time for anything else.

Kristopher Larsen

Timothy Larsen

But Larsen rekindled his passion for politics after returning to Boulder for a job as a research scientist at the University of Colorado’s Laboratory for Atmospheric and Space Physics (LASP). “I started volunteering on boards to learn how government works,” he recalls, and was twice elected as a town trustee before becoming mayor in 2016. He also spent 2 years as coordinator for advocacy and science education in the Washington, D.C., office of the American Physical Society. The society wanted to create a grassroots network of members who could respond quickly to political developments—contacting their representative or senator to urge support for pending legislation, for example—and Larsen saw it as another way to hone his political skills.

Larsen knew that Nederland’s tiny population of 1500 wasn’t the ideal launching pad for a seat in Congress. But when Democratic Representative Jared Polis announced in June 2017 that he was leaving Congress after five terms to run for governor, Larsen decided the opportunity was too good to pass up.

“My hope was that, after a few terms for mayor, there might be an opportunity for county commissioner, or as a state legislator,” he says. “So, the timing wasn’t ideal. But I also thought, 'It’s an open seat. If I don’t go now, will I be kicking myself 5 years from now for not trying?'”

He had already made changes in his work life to make room for politics. At LASP, Larsen manages operations and data systems for several NASA missions, both large and small. “I help build tools that scientists can actually use, and make sure that the instruments are returning all the data we expect.” Before that, however, he was a project scientist on the Mars Atmosphere and Volatile Evolution Mission and the Cassini mission to Saturn. “I moved away from the research side, the soft money side because I needed more stability to do politics,” he says.

But even that adjustment didn’t free him from the stress that comes with running for Congress while retaining your day job. “During my exploratory period, I sat down every night, looking at the savings I have and trying to figure out how much of it I really want to burn through and how much I needed to pay the mortgage and take care of other responsibilities,” he recalls. “It’s a real issue for someone trying to [run for office] if it’s not their career.”

By the time Larsen was ready to jump in, state party leaders had already anointed another candidate, someone who was well-known in local political circles. A third candidate had the backing of the progressive movement that had embraced Senator Bernie Sanders’s (I–VT) failed 2016 presidential bid.

Larsen felt that his views were equally progressive and that his experience as an elected official gave him an edge over the other two candidates, neither of whom had ever been accountable to voters. However, his bare-bones, grassroots campaign hadn’t taken off as he had hoped. And last month he forced himself to evaluate his campaign as he would a NASA mission.

“We have key decision points, in which we put ego aside and look at the data,” he explains. “In this case, that means looking at the fundraising, at the endorsements, at the volunteer support we have, and the turnouts for the events we’ve been holding.”

The bottom line, he adds, was simple: “Does it make sense to continue? Is there a path to victory?” And when the answer was no, he pulled the plug.

Bitten by the bug

Although they have abandoned their bids for Congress, neither man is leaving the political arena. Larsen has dusted off his original plan, which could mean running next year for a countywide post or the state legislature. Janowicz is helping a state legislator who’s fighting a recall petition and is assisting several candidates running in local races.

Despite his increased activism, Janowicz still makes time for teaching science. The morning after saying a teary goodbye to his campaign staff, he was in the classroom at 8 a.m. listening to CSU students debate the merits of the Keystone oil pipeline and of a cap-and-trade approach to reducing carbon emissions. The assignment is meant to hone the critical thinking skills of the nonchemistry majors taking his introductory course, he says. But it also reflects his growing appetite to engage with the world.

“My love of science and my love of public policy bleed over into all aspects of my life,” he says, confessing that his failed candidacy has probably set him on a new career path. “Once you get bit with the political bug, there’s no going back.”