This year, ScienceInsider is following a number of candidates with science, technology, engineering, and math backgrounds as they run for seats in the U.S. House of Representatives. In a few districts, science candidates have ended up competing against each other for the right to represent their party in the general election on 6 November.
That’s what happened in the 21st congressional district of Texas, where Joseph Kopser, who has an engineering background, won a 22 May Democratic primary that also included Mary Wilson, a minister and former mathematician.
Today, in the first piece of a two-part series, we look at how Kopser plans to build on his win. Tomorrow, Wilson discusses her defeat and her experience running for office.
Kopser captured last week’s Democratic nomination for a congressional seat in central Texas by convincing his party’s voters that he stands the best chance of winning the November general election in the solidly Republican district. But the clean energy entrepreneur and West Point, New York–trained engineer is walking a fine line: He is appealing to “disillusioned” Republicans and independents at the same time he criticizes the “chaotic” and “undisciplined” policies of President Donald Trump and worries about the “numbing” effect his policies are having on the electorate.
“Right now, the voters who are most likely to go to the polls in November are mad that so many things they have been working on have been put at risk or are going backwards because of what the president has done,” says Kopser, who defeated Mary Wilson, a former community college math professor, 58% to 42%, in last week’s primary runoff. “Those actions make it that much harder to do things like move to a clean-energy economy, or improve our health care system, or pass a budget, or talk about immigration reform.”
The uncertainty over a summit with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un is just the latest example, Kopser said last week. Trump’s “decision [to walk away from the planned 12 June meeting] was code for the fact that the summit was never really on,” he says. “Hell, he hasn’t even nominated an ambassador to South Korea. He does these things because he loves seeing his name in print. And it’s not good for governance.”
Seeking common ground
Wilson and Kopser squared off on 22 May because neither received a majority of the vote in the 6 March primary, which featured four candidates. Wilson won that first round, receiving 31% of the vote; Kopser got 29%. Although neither emphasized their scientific training during the campaign, it was unusual to have two candidates with technical backgrounds on the same ballot. And Kopser was endorsed by 314 Action, a nonprofit that helps scientists and engineers who want to run for office.
“We’re ecstatic [about] Joseph’s victory,” says Joshua Morrow, executive director of the Philadelphia, Pennsylvania–based organization, which has worked with Kopser for more than a year. “He’s a serious candidate and we’re very excited about the fall campaign.”
Morrow defends Kopser’s big-tent strategy by noting that “you have to appeal to a lot of different voters” to win a general election. Last week, Kopser told supporters “we can win in November if we focus on what we all have in common,” and on the stump he repeatedly tells his audience that “there is more that unites us than separates us.”
That approach makes sense in a district where Democrats have been powerless for decades. But some Democrats have questioned whether his progressive stances on a range of issues—from health care and education to the economy, immigration, and the environment—are genuine. Instead, they worry that he is a Democratic in name only, someone who belatedly joined the Democratic Party because it seemed like the easiest path to a seat in Congress.
Kopser has acknowledged that he admired former President Ronald Reagan when he was a teenager, and says he avoided voting in primary elections during his 20-year military career to maintain a nonpartisan stance. For him, being a Democrat means holding liberal values yet recognizing that there may be multiple paths to implementing them. His advocacy for renewable energy is a good example of how he has had to defend his record within his own party, even as he seeks to broaden his base of support.
Kopser started a ride-optimization company after leaving the military and has worked with Texas officials to promote green technologies in both the civilian and military sectors. So he’s comfortable with his track record on the issue. Yet he’s sensitive to accusations that he would side with business interests if he comes under pressure to make a choice.
“Climate change is real, and it’s caused by humans,” he tells ScienceInsider. “And the only way to avoid the negative consequences is to move toward 100% renewables. I mentioned that in my victory speech because, during the campaign, boy did I get beat up by people who didn’t think I was pure enough, or whatever the right word is. So many people in the Democratic Party are passionate about that issue, and I wanted to make sure they knew my commitment.”
Asked how he would move toward an economy based on renewable energy, he says he’d want to make sure that every sector got something it valued during the transition. “The first thing that’s politically viable is to take advantage of the abundance of wind and solar power in this state,” he begins. “We also need to bring together industry and labor to take advantage of the job training programs that exist, to make sure we have enough qualified people to do the work. Another obvious step is more grant money to universities to accelerate research on battery storage. And then we have to convince our Republican friends that there’s a strong economic reason to justify moving to a renewable energy economy.”
Kopser enjoyed a 25-to-1 fundraising advantage over Wilson during the primary and runoff, bringing in $1 million in April alone. At one point this year, he claimed to have raised more money than any other Texas politician outside of the heated race for U.S. Senate between incumbent Republican Ted Cruz and Democratic Representative Beto O’Rourke.
Kopser has no plans to ease up for the general election, and anticipates that he’ll need every dollar to defeat Republican Chip Roy, who spent 3 years as Cruz’s chief of staff before going to work for the state’s attorney general. Roy squeezed past his runoff opponent, despite a large financial advantage that included support from the conservative Club for Growth.
When asked how much money it might take to win, Kopser demurs. “There’s no telling how much. But I know it will take a lot.”
At the same time, Kopser is confident that his message of inclusion will help him meet the challenge. “Whether or not you voted for us tonight,” he said on the night of the runoff, “and wherever you are on the political spectrum, we want to hear your concerns. We want to make a place for you, and we want to bring this district together.”