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Scientists win and lose in Texas primary contests

Yesterday’s Texas primary was the first test for scientists seeking seats this year in the U.S. House of Representatives, and the results were mixed.

On the plus side, Mary Wilson, a former Austin Community College mathematics professor turned minister, has advanced to a Democratic runoff in the 21st congressional district after a surprising first-place finish over Joseph Kopser, a scientifically trained entrepreneur. They will run head-to-head in a May runoff. On the minus side, Jason Westin, a clinical oncologist seeking a chance to represent the seventh congressional district in Houston, Texas, was knocked out of the race, running third in a crowded Democratic field. Retired geologist Jon Powell lost badly in his attempt to win the Democratic nomination for the 36th congressional district in eastern Texas.

The 2016 election has energized many scientists and engineers to participate for the first time in electoral politics. Almost all Democrats, the scientists say uniformly that they are running against the policies of President Donald Trump and his administration and are seeking to add a scientific element to policy debates. However, as political novices they have been forced to learn on the job about running for national office.

Wilson moves on

The 58-year-old Wilson, making her first bid for office, was the unexpected winner of the Democratic primary in a district that stretches from Austin to San Antonio. Although Kopser, a 20-year Army veteran with an engineering degree, outspent her by a 20-to-1 margin, Wilson won 31% of the vote to Kopser’s 29% in a four-person field. Neither candidate achieved a majority, however, so they will face off in a 22 May runoff.

“It feels a little surreal right now,” Wilson says. Ever the mathematician, she adds, “People have been telling me for weeks that they thought I would do well, but it was all anecdotal. I didn’t have data.”

Wilson, who leads the Church of the Savior in Cedar Park, Texas, plans to beef up what so far has been a shoestring campaign. “I’ll need to add staff, starting with a volunteer coordinator to handle all the offers of help pouring in,” she says. She’s also planning to pick the brains of environmental activist Derrick Crowe, a former Capitol Hill staffer who placed third in the race and immediately endorsed her.

Mary Wilson with Beto O’Rourke, Democratic nominee for U.S. Senate, during a recent campaign stop in Austin.

Mary Wilson for Congress

“For almost a year, I have watched Mary Street Wilson run a tough tenacious campaign that defied all establishment expectation,” Crowe said. “She faced with grit both a deep fundraising disadvantage and a dismissive attitude from the establishment. Although I am disappointed to not make the runoff, it’s impossible not to be inspired by Mary’s campaign.”

Wilson says a two-person race will also mean a chance to flesh out positions on issues like immigration and energy policy. “With a large field, you only have time for soundbites,” she says. “In the runoff, instead of just saying we need to revamp immigration policy, I’ll want to provide specifics on what that would mean.”

Kopser soldiers ahead

In contrast, Kopser says his approach to campaigning won’t change now that he’s in a runoff. He applauds Wilson for running a “positive campaign based on an ethic of love.” But he says his track record of leadership in the military and in business gives voters a clear choice between “two people who love public service but who come to it through two very different backgrounds.”

Asked whether his huge money advantage suggests that dollars alone don’t sway voters, he defends his fundraising prowess as necessary to get out his message. “I had never served in public office before, I had never been part of the traditional party clubs and hadn’t gone to all the meetings,” he notes. “No one knew me at all. I also didn’t have the support of the Bernie [Sanders] revolution folks. This race proves that money and message together have a more powerful effect than money alone.”

Kopser, who has acknowledged growing up as a Republican before changing parties, says he’s pleased to have finished second, well ahead of two rivals who had openly attacked his credentials as a Democrat. And while he says he doesn’t know whether that issue will continue to come up, he seems happy to be judged on his ability to attract independent and Republican voters. “The runoff is a good opportunity for voters to decide who they think can beat a Republican in the general election,” he says. “And I maintain we have the stronger case.”

Republicans, who enjoy a large advantage in registered voters in the mixed urban and rural district, will also hold a runoff. The winners will vie in November for the chance to succeed Representative Lamar Smith, the Republican chairman of the House science committee who is retiring after 32 years in Congress.

Westin falls short

For Westin, last night’s results constitute the end of his campaign to represent the seventh congressional district. A faculty member at MD Anderson Cancer Center in Houston, Westin was endorsed by 314 Action, an organization that encourages and helps train scientists and engineers who want to run for office, and had made science and evidence-based policy a cornerstone of his first try for elective office. (314 Action has also endorsed Kopser.)

That message was resonating with voters, says environmental engineering professor Daniel Cohan at Rice University in Houston, who moderated a candidates’ forum on climate change in January. But Cohan thinks its impact was blunted by the publicity surrounding a rare attack on one of the candidates, Laura Moser, by the national Democrat party, which thinks she is too liberal to be elected in November.

The attack didn’t prevent Moser from running second to attorney Lizzie Fletcher, forcing a runoff in May. But Cohan says the resulting controversy “sucked all the oxygen out of the room” and distracted voters. “Given his background,” Cohan adds, “Jason would have been a leading voice on health care and adherence to evidence in debates over climate and energy policy.”

The winner of the May runoff will go up against Representative John Culberson (R–TX), the influential chairman of a panel that sets spending levels for NASA, the National Science Foundation, and several other science agencies. Culberson easily defeated one challenger last night, and is seeking his 10th 2-year term. However, the district voted narrowly for Hillary Clinton over Donald Trump in the 2016 presidential election, raising Democratic hopes of flipping the seat. 

*Updated 7 March, 6:41 p.m.: This story has been updated with comments from Joseph Kosper.