As election day neared, Jason Westin thought he had a good shot at keeping his bid for a seat in the U.S. Congress alive.
Informal polling showed that Westin, a clinical oncologist at MD Anderson Cancer Center in Houston, Texas, was running second to attorney Lizzie Fletcher in a crowded race to choose a Democratic standard bearer for the seventh congressional district in Texas. Assuming the winner didn’t capture a majority of the vote, second place would have been good enough to get Westin into a May runoff for the chance to unseat Representative John Culberson, a nine-term Republican who chairs a spending panel that shapes the budgets of several federal research agencies.
But Westin, a first-time candidate, was about to learn a hard lesson, namely, that a candidate’s fate can be determined by events beyond his or her control. Twelve days before the 6 March primary, national Democratic Party leaders attacked one of his opponents, Laura Moser, saying she was too liberal to beat Culberson in the November general election.
In theory, the unusual move should have helped Westin by wounding a major rival. But many political observers think it backfired, allowing Moser to portray herself as a victim of outside interference and parlay the episode into a second-place showing behind Fletcher, who topped the seven-person field. Westin finished third, putting an abrupt end to his nascent bid for national office. And he can’t help thinking the incident played a role in his defeat.
“It’s hard to figure out what might have happened if they hadn’t done that,” Westin says, referring to the 22 February attack on Moser by the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, based in Washington, D.C. “But it seemed like it might have had an impact because [beforehand] we were not seeing a lot of people who were choosing between us and Ms. Moser at the last minute. It’s hard to be confident that it didn’t have an impact on the race. And I sure wish they hadn’t done it.”
Although he had hoped for a different result, Westin says he’s not bitter about his loss. He sees several positives outcomes from his yearlong quest to enter national politics, both personally and professionally.
“I think I grew to become a really proficient candidate, in terms of speaking in public on policy issues,” says the 40-year-old Florida native, who got his first taste of politics as a college intern for then U.S. Senator Bob Graham (D–FL) before opting for medical school and a career in cancer research. “My campaign showed not only that I could do this, but also that my message about the relevance of science in policymaking can resonate with voters.”
“I think there’s a role for that in American politics, to stand up for science. And that’s something we need more candidates to do in the future.”
More help, sooner
Westin is part of a wave of scientists, mostly Democrats, who saw the 2016 election as a mandate to get involved in politics. He received some initial help from 314 Action, an organization that encourages scientists to run for office and endorsed his candidacy. But he thinks that the group needs to do more to help rookies like himself run a successful campaign.
Fundraising is at the top of his list. 314 Action uses dollars raised as a yardstick to measure a candidate’s viability. Although Westin proved proficient at raising money—more than $575,000—his total only ranked fourth in the field. And he says most scientists who enter the fray will find it a daunting challenge.
“Using money as a metric makes sense for the type of people who typically run for office, like lawyers and business leaders,” he explains. “But if you’re trying to recruit more doctors and scientists to run, you have to help them raise the money. They need a more hands-on approach.”
“What 314 Action did for me and others was to help connect us with professionals,” he continues. “But they were basically saying, ‘Here are the professionals. Now, after you’ve raised a lot of money, let’s talk about how we can help you.’ And that’s a bit of a disconnect for someone who’s running for the first time. It’s like, ‘Uh, now how do I do that?’”
Westin sees political fundraising as a Catch-22. “Once you begin to be successful at raising money, you can hire more staff and do a better job of getting out your message,” he says. “It’s a rich-get-richer phenomenon. But the key is generating enough seed money to get the ball rolling.”
A warm feeling
Speaking with ScienceInsider less than 24 hours after the polls had closed, Westin was understandably vague about some aspects of the road ahead. “I will definitely support [the] candidate [who] wins the runoff because either Ms. Fletcher or Ms. Moser would be an upgrade over Culberson,” he says. “But I need to take a couple of days to think about an endorsement. My supporters will do their homework and make their own decisions. Even so, I don’t want them to become disillusioned and disengaged. They need to understand that they can still make a decision.”
He’s much clearer about his own future. “I’m going to go back to fighting cancer,” he says, referring to his decision last fall to spend only 1 day a week seeing patients and to remove himself from running any clinical trials. “That will be in the next few weeks.”
As for politics, he seems eager to return to the fray if the right opportunity presents itself. (The Houston Chronicle, which endorsed both him and Fletcher before the primary, ran an editorial after the vote urging him to run again.) “I’m not closing any doors,” he says. “Once you tip your toe in the [political] waters and you feel it’s kind of warm, it’s tempting to think about getting back in. So it’s possible this will have been an important first step in my new career.”