This year, ScienceInsider is following a number of candidates with science, technology, engineering, and math backgrounds as they run for a seat in the U.S. House of Representatives. In some 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 second piece of a two-part series, Wilson discusses her defeat and her experience running for office. Yesterday, we looked at how Kopser plans to build on his win.
It’s too soon for Mary Wilson to be philosophical about her failed bid for Congress. “Like they say, losing sucks,” the former math professor said last week, after clean tech entrepreneur and engineer Joseph Kopser ended her year-long campaign.
Wilson is still coming to terms with how her narrow lead—31% to 29%—over Kopser in the 6 March primary turned into a resounding—58% to 42%—defeat in the 22 May runoff. She credits Kopser with holding onto his voters despite a 50% drop in turnout while acknowledging that she failed to get her progressive coalition to show up again. “That’s a pretty stellar performance,” she says about Kopser, a 20-year U.S. Army veteran who ran his campaign with military precision.
Yet Wilson, a 58-year-old minister from Austin, says she’s also frustrated and disillusioned by a process that she feels is tilted heavily against first-time candidates like herself who can’t raise massive amounts of money and don’t have the political connections that come with that fundraising prowess. “One of the outcomes of this election is that I feel a whole lot less loyalty to the Democratic Party,” she says. “From what I’ve seen, they seem to care more about power and money than I would have hoped. I guess that’s just politics. But it’s very disappointing.”
Too many obstacles
Wilson was the longest of long shots when she decided last spring to enter the Democratic primary to win the right to take on Representative Lamar Smith, who has represented his solidly Republican district since 1987. Three other Democrats announced similar plans, including Kopser. (Last fall Smith announced he wouldn’t seek re-election, creating an open seat that prompted an 18-candidate free-for-all in the Republican primary.)
With no paid staff and less than $30,000 in her campaign coffers, Wilson relied on word-of-mouth and nonstop travel across a district that stretches from Austin to San Antonio along Interstate 35 and includes the Hill Country to the west. She hoped her career spent serving people in need and listening to all points of view—she came out as a lesbian in the mid-1990s and her church has a well-deserved reputation for inclusivity—would resonate with a progressive Democratic audience newly energized by its opposition to the policies of President Donald Trump.
Although she had pursued a doctoral degree at the top-tier University of Texas mathematics department before she decided to focus on teaching rather than research, she failed to win the backing of 314 Action, an organization formed to help scientists and engineers seeking political office. The group instead supported Kopser, seeing his prodigious fundraising efforts and moderate message as offering the best chance to flip the seat from red to blue.
In March, Wilson stunned local politicos by finishing first in the four-person Democratic primary. But winning only a plurality meant there would be a runoff. Kopser continued with his relentless fundraising, piling up local endorsements, and winning the unofficial backing of the national Democratic Party. Wilson did raise her campaign a notch, raising $70,000 and bringing on three paid staffers to complement her “quiet army” of volunteers. But 6 March proved to be the high point of her campaign.
“When I look back [at the 10-week runoff], I realize that in many ways I never had a chance,” she says. “Even though the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee [DCCC] hadn’t officially endorsed Joseph, they were all over this race, stumping for him and supplying his campaign with money and people. It’s like they don’t even believe in democracy, and in letting people in the district decide who they want to represent them.”
“I’m proud of how well we did considering what we were up against,” she continues. “If you look at other races, both in Texas and around the country, I was the only candidate who went up against the DCCC candidate and got more than 40% of the vote. But it wasn’t nearly enough.”
An “insulting” poll
A few hours after the polls closed, Wilson conceded and called Kopser to congratulate him. She had to leave him a message, however, as Kopser was celebrating his victory at an Austin restaurant. By the time he called back a few hours later, Wilson wasn’t answering her phone.
Kopser left her “a gracious message,” she says. At the rally, he had told his supporters that Wilson had run an “amazing” campaign and that he expected her to “hold him accountable” for the campaign promises he had made. Two days later, Kopser told ScienceInsider that he hoped Wilson would campaign alongside him in the fall.
But Wilson says that’s not going to happen. Asked why, she cites a decision by his campaign to conduct what is known as a push poll, asking voters to state their preference after describing Kopser in glowing terms and denigrating the qualifications of Wilson.
“I have no intention of being involved in Joseph’s campaign,” she says. “You can’t run a push poll asking people whether they’d prefer him or a lesbian minister that can’t win in November, and then turn around and say, ‘Oh please, campaign with me.’ If you want somebody to be by your side, then you should treat them well.”
Kopser’s campaign told local media the purpose of the poll was to understand the extent to which the electorate finds her profile and message compelling.” But Wilson doesn’t see it that way.
“That poll was insulting,” she says. “You could say it’s just politics. But that’s not OK with me.”
Never too early
Long active in political causes, Wilson launched her campaign in April 2017 after Trump’s election the previous fall caused her to ask herself, “What more can I do?” But in retrospect, she says 13 months wasn’t nearly long enough to get the job done.
“You need to anticipate not 2 years in advance, but maybe 4 years in advance,” she explains. “That gives you 2 years to cultivate the support of party officials, both local and national. Those contacts can help you cultivate the support of high-end donors even before you declare.”
That support is crucial, she adds. “My advice to any scientists thinking about running for Congress is to raise at least $100,000 before you declare, and the more the better,” she says. “That money allows you to be seen as a viable candidate right out of the gate.”
“I don’t think that speaks particularly well of democracy. But it’s the political reality we live in.”