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An election worker in Pennsylvania prepares ballots for counting during yesterday’s elections.

AP Photo/Matt Slocum

U.S. elections bring wins and losses for research community

It’s not yet clear who will be the next U.S. president and which party will control the Senate. And although Democrats in the House of Representatives will remain in the majority in the next Congress, there was no blue wave. That last takeaway from yesterday’s elections—with many votes still to be counted—is not good news for several candidates and incumbents with science backgrounds and those holding influential positions on the House science committee.

Voters around the country also weighed in on more than 100 state ballot items, a few of which had drawn interest from the research community.

Among House races, Democrat Nancy Goroff, a Stony Brook University chemistry professor, is trailing badly in her bid to become the first female House member with a science Ph.D. Representative Lee Zeldin (R–NY) is leading the race with about 60% of the vote, although the tally doesn’t include tens of thousands of votes cast before 3 November. “We owe it to voters that every single one be counted,” Goroff’s campaign manager, Jacob Sarkozi, said early this morning about a process that could take weeks.

Democrat Kathleen Williams, a water resource management expert from Montana, has been defeated by Republican Matt Rosendale, now state auditor. It was her second attempt at the at-large seat, and her 12-point loss was much larger than in 2018.

Democrat Cameron Webb, a physician and health care advocate, lost to Republican Robert Good for an open seat in a rural Virginia district. But Democrat Hiral Tipirneni, an emergency room physician, was narrowly ahead of Representative David Schweikert (R–AZ) in a district outside of Phoenix, although the race was too close to call this morning. She lost her bid for a House seat in 2018.

Rookies stumble

Representative Joe Cunningham (D–SC), an environmental engineer who was a surprise victor in 2018, failed to retain his seat, losing to Republican challenger Nancy Mace. His campaign touted his ability to cross the aisle—and defy Democratic leaders at times—in a district that is strongly Republican.

Representative Lauren Underwood (D–IL) is narrowly trailing state Senator Jim Oberweis. A health policy analyst whose 2018 victory made her the youngest Black woman in Congress, Underwood has strongly criticized the Trump administration’s handling of the COVID-19 pandemic. She’s counting on the large number of ballots not yet counted to win a second term.

In contrast, a few rookie legislators with technical backgrounds will be returning. Representative Sean Casten (D–IL) defeated Republican Jeanne Ives by a five-point margin. A biochemical engineer, Casten has made sustainable energy a key element in his platform. Representative Elaine Luria (D–VA), a nuclear engineer, is leading a former House member, Scott Taylor, by a similar margin that is expected to widen once the count is completed. Representative Kim Schrier (D–WA), a pediatrician, also has a comfortable lead over Republican challenger Jesse Jensen.

Despite Democrats retaining control of the House, there is likely to be a reshuffling of leadership positions on the Committee on Science, Space, and Technology, which has the broadest mandate over the U.S. research enterprise. Representative Eddie Bernice Johnson (D–TX) will remain chairwoman after another easy victory, and Representative Frank Lucas (R–OK) is expected to continue as the top Republican. But freshman Representative Kendra Horn (D–OK), who chairs the space subcommittee, lost her bid for reelection. And Representative Haley Stevens (D–MI), who chairs the research panel, is trailing Republican challenger Eric Esshaki.

The only Ph.D. physicist in Congress, Representative Bill Foster (D–IL), has won a fifth 2-year term by a comfortable margin. He now chairs the panel’s investigations subcommittee. Two other subcommittee chairs, both first-time legislators, will also be returning. Representative Lizzie Fletcher (D–TX) now chairs the energy panel, and Representative Mikie Sherrill (D–NJ) leads the environmental panel.

In the Senate, a leading advocate for research has been toppled, while another is struggling to retain his seat. Senator Cory Gardner (R–CO) lost to Democrat John Hickenlooper, while Senator Gary Peters (D–MI) had a narrow lead this morning against Republican challenger John James. In 2017, as members of the Senate Commerce, Science, and Transportation Commmittee, Gardner and Peters led a successful bipartisan effort to reauthorize a slew of research programs across several federal agencies. That committee is chaired by Senator Roger Wicker (R–MS), who easily won reelection in 2018 for a third 6-year term.

In Wyoming, ecologist Merav Ben-David, a Democrat, lost her long-shot bid for a Senate seat. The state has not elected a Democrat to federal office since 1976. Former Representative Cynthia Lummis seized the Senate seat with 73% of the vote.

State initiatives

California voters appear to favor a proposition that would allow the state to sell $5.5 billion in bonds to provide a second round of funding for the California Institute for Regenerative Medicine, which conducts work with human embryonic stem cells. In partial returns, yes votes on Proposition 14 outweighed nos 51.1% to 48.9%. Proponents of the measure raised nearly $17 million, but editorials in several major newspapers argued the state shouldn’t take on new debt during a time of economic hardship.

In Colorado, the fate of a plan to allow the state to reintroduce gray wolves was unclear. With about 85% of ballots counted, supporters of Proposition 114 had a 50.2% to 49.8% lead.

Oregon voters appear to have approved Measure 109, which would legalize the clinical use of edible fungi that contain psilocybin, which causes people to experience euphoria and hallucinations. With more than 80% of ballots counted, supporters of the measure have a 55.8% to 44.2% lead. If that lead holds, Oregon will become the first state to allow the use of so-called magic mushrooms in clinical research settings. (Possession of the fungi, which is illegal under federal law, has already been decriminalized in several cities; Washington D.C., voted yesterday to make possession of such substances among the lowest law enforcement priorities.)

Nevada appears to have approved Question 6, which would require utilities to double, to 50%, the amount of energy they obtain from renewable sources by 2030. With nearly 80% of ballots counted, supporters led opponents by 56.4% to 43.6%. This is the second time Nevada voters have approved the constitutional mandate, which by statute must be approved in two even-numbered election years to become law. Many experts expect utilities to lean heavily on solar power to meet the mandate.