House GOP’s new challengers: Scientists mulling campaigns

House GOP’s new challengers: Scientists mulling campaigns
© Greg Nash

Jason Westin works in Texas at one of the country’s top cancer hospitals, but on Wednesday he’ll ditch his lab for the campaign trail and an upstart congressional bid.

Westin, who designs clinical trials for cancer treatments, isn’t the only candidate this cycle looking to make the switch from science to politics in the era of President Trump. He’s working with 314 Action, a nonprofit that is fashioning itself as the EMILY’s List for scientists and those with backgrounds in science, technology, engineering or math (STEM).

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“After 2016, we need to have more scientists and STEM folks elected to office at all levels,” said Joshua Morrow, executive director of 314 Action.

314 Action — named after the first three digits of pi — is recruiting and training prospective candidates and looking to help many first-time political seekers build a credible campaign. In January, the group set up an online form for those interested in running, and nearly 5,000 people signed up for in-person or online training.

“There’s nobody who’s recruiting, training and providing the EMILY’s List-like support for the scientists and technical folks running for Congress,” Morrow said, referring to the political action committee that recruits pro-abortion rights women to run for office. “There’s really no organization that is harnessing the power of this community.”

314 Action founder Shaughnessy Naughton started the group after her two unsuccessful congressional runs in Pennsylvania. During that time, the chemist realized she wasn’t getting help from traditional donors. Naughton tapped into her network of scientists and has kept building on that base to help other scientists run for office.

Naughton said that the mentality is typically that “science is above politics,” but she noted that not getting involved only hurts her field. And Morrow described their group of candidates as “nontraditional.”

Morrow said that 314 Action has spoken by phone with everyone who wants to run. The group has made several trips to meet with candidates and has nearly 40 state coordinators.

Once candidates commit to running, the organization helps with campaign messaging and structure, pairing them with consultants “tailored” to the candidate. 314 Action also connects them to its network, which Morrow says is made up of about 150,000 people. He said the group will help candidates raise money and will also be making contributions.

It is also introducing candidates to the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee and EMILY’s List, groups that do their own recruiting for House races.

314 Action is primarily looking to target members on the House Committee on Science, Space and Technology, which includes Reps. Dana Rohrabacher (R-Calif.), Steve Knight (R-Calif.) and Chairman Lamar Smith (R-Texas).

Smith represents a safe seat, but the group will target a number of swing seats — including Rohrabacher’s and Knight’s — that will be critical for Democrats to flip if they want to take back the House majority in 2018.

“It’s no longer really a war on science; it’s a war on facts,” Morrow said. “Facts are now opinions with these guys.”

Both Morrow and Naughton noted the lack of scientists in Congress: Rep. Bill FosterGeorge (Bill) William FosterPelosi agrees to term limits vote; insurgency collapses Tim Ryan backs term limits deal with Pelosi Pelosi, Dem rebels near deal on term limits for party leaders MORE (D-Ill.) is the only Ph.D. scientist. Rep. Jerry McNerney (D-Calif.) has a Ph.D. in mathematics, while some other members have science degrees or are doctors. But since Trump’s election, there has been an uptick in engagement from those involved in science.

314 Action’s candidate push comes amid new energy from Democrats on science issues.

Trump’s first budget proposal included a major cut to the Environmental Protection Agency, and he signed an executive order to begin rolling back former President Obama’s climate change agenda. Trump has previously called climate change a “hoax.”

Thousands of people protested in D.C. and nationwide to challenge Trump’s agenda two weeks in a row at the March for Science and the People’s Climate March, which coincided with his first 100 days in office.

“It’s a real testament to the Trump administration that he got tens of thousands of introverts out of their labs and into the streets,” Naughton said.

Westin, a cancer research doctor at Houston’s renowned MD Anderson Cancer Center, is launching his campaign Wednesday against Rep. John Culberson (R-Texas). Culberson is the chairman of the Appropriations subcommittee on Commerce, Justice and Science that oversees NASA and the National Science Foundation.

Culberson was easily reelected to the seat he’s represented since 2001, but Democratic presidential nominee Hillary ClintonHillary Diane Rodham ClintonRoger Stone fundraising off promise not to testify against Trump Rivaling chants of 'USA,' 'lock him up' greet Flynn after sentencing hearing The Hill's 12:30 Report — Flynn awaits sentencing | White House signals it wants to avoid shutdown MORE carried his district by more than 1 point last year.

Westin said he reached out to 314 Action through the online form and that the group has given him advice on campaign staffing.

“They helped me to decide to actually do this,” Westin said. “I was leaning towards doing it, but wasn’t sure that I’d be able to make a serious run.”

Westin said his splash into politics has been a big sacrifice. The father of three young children said he’ll need to give up his role leading the research team to focus on his congressional bid.

“I think the U.S. House is where I feel I can make my greatest impact on things like healthcare, science funding,” Westin said.

Patrick Madden, a computer scientist who does cellphone research, plans to launch his campaign in the next two weeks against freshman Rep. Claudia Tenney (R-N.Y.).

Madden said he also connected with 314 Action online and was motivated to wade into politics based on people’s eroding trust of the government.

“My hope in running is to bring a scientific and engineering skill set to the government and legislation,” Madden said. “I’m fact-based — I’m not ideologically driven. My job is to look for solutions.”

There are already a number of challengers looking to unseat Science Committee members.

Volcanologist Jess Phoenix is running in California against Knight, a top Democratic target representing a district Clinton carried by nearly 7 points. But Phoenix will first have to compete in a crowded Democratic primary.

There will be a 314 Action-recruited candidate running against Rohrabacher, although the candidate hasn’t announced yet. And aerospace engineer Joseph Kopser is considering running against Smith for the safe Texas seat that Trump won by 10 points.

Other names in the mix who attended 314 Action’s training include physicist Elaine DiMasi, who is interested in challenging Rep. Lee Zeldin (R-N.Y.), and biomedical researcher Molly Sheehan, who is running for Rep. Patrick Meehan’s (R-Pa.) seat.

Phil Janowicz, a former chemistry professor who attended the training, is challenging Rep. Ed Royce (R-Calif.). But another candidate with ties to the group is expected to launch a campaign soon for the seat, which Clinton carried by nearly 9 points.

While many of these candidates received support from 314 Action, the group hasn’t issued formal endorsements. Morrow said it will make endorsements once the campaigns get off the ground, with plans to back 10 candidates.

314 Action is also looking beyond congressional races toward promoting scientists at every level of government. Last week, Morrow said it had 150 people show interest in running for school board positions.

“We’re building a pipeline of candidates,” he said. “And just getting them engaged at whatever level.”