Molly Sheehan on the campaign trail before last week’s primary.

THE MOLLY SHEEHAN CAMPAIGN

Defeated but unbowed: Two Pennsylvania scientists regroup after primary loss

Two young scientists are picking up the pieces after Pennsylvania voters shattered their dreams of winning a seat in the U.S. House of Representatives. But neither is planning to walk away from politics.

On 15 May, biophysicist Molly Sheehan and epidemiologist Eric Ding fell short in their first bids for elective office. Sheehan, 32, finished fourth in a 10-person free-for-all in the fifth congressional district in the western suburbs of Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. Ding, 35, placed third in a four-person race in the 10th congressional district in and around Harrisburg, the state capital.

It’s too early for a proper postmortem. “We’re still poring over the election data,” Ding says. But each candidate was willing to talk about the process of going from being a scientist to a public figure—and what lies ahead.

Looking downballot

At nearly every campaign appearance, Sheehan would tell voters how the election of President Donald Trump had spurred her into reassessing her contribution to a more civil society. Her work designing new cancer drugs wasn’t going to help people, she would explain, if they couldn’t afford the treatment.

The passion that drove her to run for Congress hasn’t died, she told ScienceInsider last week, just 36 hours after Delaware County voters ended her bid. But after campaigning nonstop since April 2017, she decided to take some time off to recharge and reconnect with her family. In July she’ll return to her position as a postdoctoral researcher in Brian Chow’s lab at the University of Pennsylvania. “I want to finish a project, and he’s eager to have me back,” she says. “Beyond that, it’s too soon to know.”

Regardless of how her research turns out, she’ll probably have more control over the results than over the forces that shaped her campaign. The biggest wild card was a remapping of the state’s 18 congressional districts after a court threw out a version drawn by the Republican-led state legislature. The February realignment meant Sheehan had to abandon months of building support in one district—the old seventh—and start fresh in the new fifth district. For a novice candidate without the backing of party regulars, a 12-week campaign proved to be an insurmountable challenge.

“We were always running against the establishment, so we knew it would be an uphill struggle,” she explains. “But a short campaign made it even harder to do the type of grassroots effort that we were counting on.”

Her opponents also held a lopsided advantage in fundraising, allowing them to run more TV advertisements aimed at connecting with voters. But Sheehan thinks that their access to the levers of political power was an even bigger factor. “In the end,” she says, “I think it came down to who had the most support and endorsements from the local [Democratic] committees, because they follow the money. And we were at a big disadvantage.”

Sheehan received about 10% of the 60,000 votes cast. Attorney Mary Gay Scanlon, who runs the pro bono program at one of the city’s biggest law firms, swept to victory with 28%, nearly twice the votes won by Ashley Lunkenheimer, a former federal prosecutor running for the first time, and Rich Lazer, a career politician from South Philadelphia.

Sheehan was one of six women running in the crowded field, negating any gender edge in what could become a banner year for female candidates. Although Sheehan congratulated Scanlon after her victory last week, she doesn’t expect to be spending much time this fall helping Scanlon take on attorney Pearl Kim, who ran unopposed in the Republican primary.

“I don’t think it’s a priority for the losing candidates to support her,” says Sheehan, citing the fact that the district voted heavily for Hillary Clinton in the 2016 presidential race. Instead, Sheehan plans to focus on helping a slew of Democratic candidates running for state legislature against Republican incumbents. “That’s who really needs our support.”

Sheehan also hopes to rejuvenate a civic participation website she created before deciding to run for Congress. Its purpose is to connect candidates, at all levels, with citizens who have skills that could be valuable to their campaigns. She hopes scientists will take advantage of the opportunity to volunteer their services, whether it’s synthesizing data on a knotty policy issue, hosting a fundraising, or knocking on doors.

“The most important thing is to get involved early and often,” she says. “Scientists need to play a bigger role in campaigns if they hope to have an impact on the outcome.”

Continuing the fight

Eric Ding’s message of public health advocacy didn’t sway enough voters.

COMMITTEE TO ELECT ERIC DING

Ding thinks the voters he met admired his record of advocacy on a range of public health issues. “People admired me not just because I was a scientist but because I was a fighter,” he says about his efforts to expose the harmful side effects of a new pain medication and to help people get the information they need to live healthier lives.

His activism, he says, sets him apart from “the traditional academic scientist” who might be content to present their latest research at conferences and publish papers. Pursuing his public health career may also force him to leave the central Pennsylvania district he hoped to represent.

“I’m exploring lots of things,” he explains as he packed up his belongings last week. “I’m looking for public policy jobs, and I’m open to people who can offer me unique opportunities. So the short answer is, I don’t know what’s next.”

Ding’s was a whirlwind campaign launched in late February after the Pennsylvania Supreme Court voided the current boundaries for the state’s 18 congressional districts and substituted its own map. Sensing an opportunity, Ding had already moved back to Pennsylvania from Paris, where he and his wife, a health economist, had been living with their 4-year-old son. And after the new districts were drawn, Ding threw his hat into the ring to represent a district that now encompassed where he had grown up.  

“I think that this year is definitely the year of the scientist,” he says, citing a survey by a liberal polling group in which a majority of both Democrats and Republicans said they were “more likely to vote for a candidate who has a scientific background.” What he saw on the campaign trail, he says, is that people “are looking for a scientist who has pizzazz and who will fight for truth. And the more people we touched, the more we saw that attitude.”

Ding says the short campaign he waged prevented him from connecting with enough potential voters. “If we had more time, we could have knocked on more doors, held more events, done more fundraising.” He would have also liked to gather more information on what voters were thinking.

“As a scientist you’re always looking for more data,” he says. “You want to be driven by the evidence. But polls cost a lot of money—a good poll costs $25,000. And when time is short and money is tight, you can’t always do them.”

Ding finished behind George Scott, a retired military intelligence officer turned minister who narrowly defeated Shavonnia Corbin-Johnson, a community activist. Together they captured 71% of the total, with Ding snaring just 18% of the 38,000 votes cast.

Ding, who was born in China and came to the United States when he was 5 years old, thinks being a minority candidate was an obstacle for him and Corbin-Johnson, who is black. “The district is very old, and it’s 85% or more white,” he says. “There’s nothing racist about that, it’s just reality.”

Ding has endorsed Scott in his bid to upset the Republican incumbent, Scott Perry. Trump would have won the district handily, and Ding says “we need all Democrats to line up to beat Scott Perry.” But he’s not clear about his own role in the fall campaign.

“I’ll help other candidates here and there,” he says. “But I also have to focus on my family, and finding the right job.”