Randy Wadkins on election night

Sam DeLuca

A U.S. biochemistry professor takes his political shot—and misses by a lot

His bid for a seat in the U.S. Congress had just gone down in flames. But instead of rehashing his election night defeat, Randy Wadkins says he spent the next morning describing “oxidative phosphorylation electron transport in mitochondria” to a class of chemistry majors at The University of Mississippi in Oxford.

Wadkins’s lecture on the molecular cycle creating adenosine triphosphate highlighted his unique status among the 49 candidates with training in a science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) or medical field who ran this year for the U.S. House of Representatives. Not only was Wadkins the only academic researcher in the bunch, but he also kept working as a tenured professor of biochemistry during his 18-month campaign.

Wadkins, a progressive Democrat, lost to the conservative Republican incumbent, Representative Trent Kelly, by more than a two-to-one margin. (Only seven of the STEM candidates won seats.) A heavy underdog from the start, Wadkins couldn’t raise nearly enough money to get his message out to the conservative voters that dominate his rural district in northeastern Mississippi. But having to wear two hats certainly didn’t help.

“On the Sunday before the election, my campaign staff was angry at me because I wasn’t out canvassing or phone banking. Instead, I was home preparing for my next lecture,” Wadkins says a few days after the 6 November elections. “I was like, ‘This is what I’m paid to do. It has to take priority.’” Carrying out his regular academic duties—teaching, doing research, and attending faculty meetings—“helped keep me sane and grounded,” he says. But it was also stressful. “My attention was always divided,” he admits, “worrying about getting a paper published at the same time I should be out canvassing in Horn Lake.”

A big dollar deficit

Why wasn’t able to raise more money? Wadkins thinks it was a combination of geography, party affiliation, and occupation.

“First of all, it’s Mississippi, which is the poorest state in the nation,” he says about the place where he grew up and earned his doctoral degree, and then returned a dozen years later after establishing his academic career as an independent investigator. “And right off the bat, there is no money for a Democrat here.”

His campaign brought in about $160,000. That’s less than half of the $400,000 he estimates he would have needed to run TV and radio ads and hire enough staff to have a visible presence in the district, which spans 22 counties. In contrast, Kelly raised and spent nearly $900,000.

Wadkins confesses that he didn’t devote as much time to fundraising as campaign professionals, including elected officials with scientific backgrounds, told him was necessary to run a viable campaign. “Representative Bill Foster [D–IL] called us early on and said, ‘The part that you’re going to hate is the fundraising,’” Wadkins recalls about a conversation with the only research physicist in Congress. “He told me everybody hates that, but he said that’s part of the job, and you have to do it whether you like it or not.”

Wadkins also learned that raising money attracts more money. Groups otherwise sympathetic to a candidate tend to withhold their financial support unless that candidate has already proved to be a successful fundraiser. “So, we weren’t able to attract any [political action committee] or national attention, financially,” he says.

His campaign had an arms-length relationship with 314 Action, a group formed to help STEM professionals run for office. “They said, ‘Go get ‘em,’” he says about a conversation with the group before his June primary, “but that they had limited resources and were looking at races that they expected to be more competitive.”

(The Philadelphia, Pennsylvania–based organization endorsed 16 House candidates—all Democrats—during the primary season, six of whom won their party’s nomination. 314 Action had a better record in the general election, with seven of its 11 endorsed House candidates winning seats.)

The national Democratic party took a similarly hard-headed approach, declining to offer any help. Wadkins says he understands its reasons, but thinks it further penalized long shots like him. “Those of us who were running in red seats were left out in the cold, crying in the wilderness.”

Some candidates who can’t tap into outside contributions can self-fund their campaign. But that was never an option for Wadkins. “I’m a college professor, and we’re not exactly rolling in the dough,” he says. His economic situation was also the reason he retained his tenured position. “If I had taken a leave, it would have been without pay,” he says. “And I couldn’t afford that.”

An indifferent audience

Apart from being starved for money, Wadkins says his campaign was hindered by the lack of voter interest in the race. “There were never any debates,” he says with frustration. “Town hall meetings were filled with Democrats who were already going to vote for me. It was preaching to the choir.”

“We never had any public forums in which you might be able to sway voters,” he continues. “When people heard the message, they were convinced. But we weren’t able to get enough people to hear the message.”

Voters showed Kelly a similar indifference, Wadkins says. But that didn’t pose a problem for the incumbent, who was defending a seat he first won in a special election in 2015, after the death of Republican Alan Nunnelee.

“[Kelly] had no yard signs, no rallies, nothing,” Wadkins says. “His assumption was that he would win, and he was right.

“I’d bet that if you asked voters, 90% wouldn’t know who their member of Congress is,” he asserts. “But in this part of the world, the default mode is Republican. So, when folks in rural districts show up at the polls, they just vote Republican.”

Although young voters were a mainstay for many insurgent Democratic candidates, and Wadkins teaches at a school with 20,000 students, he says he had to tread carefully because he is a state employee. He made sure his academic duties didn’t overlap in any way with his political activities, to the point that he turned down a request from a major newspaper doing a story on his candidacy to send a photographer to his lab. “I didn’t want to violate a policy that, essentially, says the university can’t be a resource for my campaign.”

Keeping a barrier between himself and his students turned out to be surprisingly easy. The morning after his election defeat, nobody in his upper-level chemistry class asked him about the results, he says. “To be honest, it wouldn’t surprise me if they were all oblivious to the election.”

Their disregard could be tied to federal rules on student aid that might penalize them if they registered to vote in Oxford, he says. In addition, he says, roughly half the students hail from outside of Mississippi and thus, have only tenuous ties to local politics.

A dream deferred

Wadkins spent the 2015–16 academic year in Washington. D.C., as a science policy fellow for Representative Steve Cohen (D–TN), and in idle moments during the campaign he saw himself returning to the nation’s capital along with David Baria, a Democratic state senator who was challenging incumbent Senator Roger Wicker (R).

“I had this vision of, man, if David would win the Senate seat and I could win the House, we could do so much for the state. But ‘twas not to be.” Baria lost by margin of 59% to 39%. “We both knew that this would be a Don Quixote thing, in which you just shut out that part of your brain that’s saying you’re going to lose and try to win.”

Despite his resounding defeat, Wadkins says people have urged him to run again. Although he has not ruled out the possibility, he sees a formidable hurdle in his path.

“We need to solve the [campaign financing] problem first,” he says. “And I don’t see it fixing itself. So, for me—and for any readers of Science thinking of running for Congress—the question is: ‘Can you raise at least $1 million, and probably a lot more?’ If the answer is no, it’s going to be very hard to be elected.”

In the meantime, Wadkins has already reallocated the time he spent on the campaign trail. It was a smooth transition because he never stopped being an academic scientist.

“After lunch, I’m going to review a [Journal of the American Chemical Society] paper that I got at the end of the campaign and that is almost overdue,” he said. “The only reason I agreed to review it is because it’s actually a very interesting paper in my field. It’s pretty good, although there are some things that need to be fixed.”