Texas' 21st Congressional District Race Is More Competitive Than It's Been In Decades

There are six competitive House races in Texas in the November midterms, including one in the state's 21st Congressional District, which includes a large portion of Austin and areas north of San Antonio.

Here & Now's Jeremy Hobson looks at who is running to replace Republican Rep. Lamar Smith, who's retiring after three decades in the seat, and what voters are saying.

This segment aired on August 21, 2018. 

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Fedscoop: One organization’s movement to get more techies in Congress


Congress has developed a reputation for its general lack of tech experience, but a new political action committee wants to fix that by starting at the top.

The group, 314 Action, plans to put money behind candidates who can keep up with complex technology issues at a time when they inevitably land on the mainstream legislative agenda.

Congress continues to make the need for more STEM expertise apparent as members’ questioning in hearings on tech issues falls short, says Shaughnessy Naughton, president of 314 Action, which brands itself as a Democratic PAC focused on electing “more leaders to the U.S. Senate, House, State Executive and Legislative offices who come from STEM backgrounds.” Even though some congressional offices might have tech-savvy staffers, 314 Action’s goal is more focused on bringing in new elected officials with that knowledge.

Naughton pointed in particular to questions asked of Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg during multiple hearings on Capitol Hill earlier this year amid the Cambridge Analytica data scandal.

“When you watch those Facebook hearings, that was just, you know, beyond embarrassment,” she told FedScoop. “It’s really reckless that so many of our legislators really don’t understand fundamental aspects of our modern economy.”

Naughton, an entrepreneur with a degree in chemistry, has made two unsuccessful bids for Congress. But she has used that experience from running in founding 314 Action, which has endorsed several candidates with technology backgrounds in their runs for House seats in 2018.

314 Action’s original focus was more on science and medicine, given Naughton’s background. But she said the organization is “really encouraged” to see technologists and engineers step up.

“Whether it comes to privacy or automation or technology, I think having people that understand how we can benefit but also how we have to prepare for technology and the changes that it brings” is important, Naughton said.

So far the PAC has donated $162,000 directly to about three dozen Democratic candidates in 2018, according to the Center for Responsive Politics. Most of those donations were $5,000 or $10,000.

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Science Alert: This Rocket Scientist Knows How to Talk With Conservative Voters About Science


When it comes to discussing evidence-based policy with voters, Congressional candidate, combat veteran and rocket scientist Joseph Kopser knows just what to do.

"We have more in common than that which separates us," he told us at Science AF.

"We want quality jobs with meaningful wages, education that prepares us for the 21st century workforce, and a focus on our children's futures."

Kopser's desire to reach across the aisle has come under fire from some Democrats for being too "centrist." But in a Republican stronghold like Texas' 21st Congressional District, getting past the political tribalism and into the nitty gritty of the issues has worked in Kopser's favor.

Even though more scientists are running for office in the US than ever before, halfway through 2018, Kopser is one of the only science candidates to win his Congressional primary.

This means that Kopser is now one step closer to replacing Republican Representative Lamar Smith, one of the most notorious science deniers in government and, naturally, the current chairman of the Congressional Committee on Science, Space, and Technology.

This year, Lamar is finally stepping down after several decades on the job, and if Kopser wins his seat in November, the rocket scientist could flip the district blue for the first time since 1979, becoming one of the only scientists in Congress.

As a first-time candidate with an unusual and unique background not often seen in politics, this would be an impressive feat, and the Democratic party is giving him their full support.

"Joseph Kopser will fight for working families," said Elizabeth Warren in a statement shortly after Kopser's victory.


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The Texas Tribute: STEM professionals in Texas run for office


Across the country, hundreds of candidates with academic or professional experience in science, technology, engineering and mathematics have left their businesses and laboratories to compete in state legislative contests, congressional elections and even governor’s races.

Allison Lami Sawyer’s path to the 2018 Texas midterms started at Space Camp.

As a child growing up in small-town Alabama, Sawyer spent five consecutive summers at the U.S. Space & Rocket Center in Huntsville, where she built model rockets and began to envision herself as a scientist. Sawyer went on to earn degrees in engineering and nanotechnology before starting a Houston company called Rebellion Photonics, which develops high-tech cameras to detect gas leaks in oil installations.

Since she moved to Houston in 2008, that scientific background has attuned Sawyer, 33, to what she sees as a decline in “evidence-based decisions” in Texas politics, starting with the Tea Party’s rise to power in 2010 and exacerbated by Donald Trump’s election six years later.

Last spring, with the midterms on the horizon, Sawyer, a Democrat, decided to give politics a try, launching a campaign to unseat state Rep. Sarah Davis, R-West University Place, in a purple district in the Houston area.

Sawyer is not alone. Across the country, hundreds of candidates with academic or professional experience in science, technology, engineering and mathematics have left their businesses and laboratories to compete in state legislative contests, congressional elections and even governor’s races. These scientists-turned-politicians constitute the largest wave of such candidates in modern U.S. history, according to 314 Action, an advocacy group that works to elect STEM professionals to public office.

Like the similar surge of women running for office this year, many of these first-time candidates entered the political arena in response to Trump’s election, frustrated with the United States’ withdrawal from the Paris climate accord and energized by the inaugural Marches for Science held on Earth Day in April 2017.

“Attacks on science didn’t start with the Trump administration,” said Shaughnessy Naughton, a former congressional candidate who founded 314 Action — named for the first three digits of pi — in 2014. “But they’ve taken what felt like a war on science and turned it into a war on facts, and that has been a catalyst for getting scientists involved.”

Over the course of the election cycle, more than 150 candidates with STEM credentials announced campaigns for Congress across the country, according to VoteSTEM, another organization that advocates for scientists to run for office. Eleven of those candidates were in Texas.

Ultimately, only two of the congressional hopefuls in Texas, both of them Democrats, survived the primaries — Joseph Kopser, an engineer running in District 21, which covers a portion of Austin, and Rick Kennedy, a computer scientist competing in District 17 in Central Texas. But around the state, candidates like Sawyer remain in contention for a range of local positions, including seats in the state Legislature and on the State Board of Education.

And although many of these candidates face long odds in November, the current political environment, in which officials invoke “alternative facts” to justify inaccurate claims, could prove favorable to politicians schooled in the scientific method, said Colin Strother, a longtime Democratic strategist in Texas.

Candidates who favor “making data-driven decisions based on evidence and facts” will have a good chance in the upcoming elections, Strother said. “That worldview is a winner.”

This year, the highest-profile Texas candidate with a STEM background is Kopser, an Army veteran, engineer and tech entrepreneur who’s running for the congressional seat that U.S. Rep. Lamar Smith, R-San Antonio, will vacate when he retires at the end of the term.

Smith, who chairs the science committee of the U.S. House of Representatives, has become something of a bête noire among scientists, who resent his well-publicized efforts to curb climate change research and block environmental regulations. On the campaign trail, Kopser has attacked Smith’s work on the committee, calling him out of touch with science. (A spokesman for the congressman did not respond to a request for comment.)

“This anti-science, anti-facts style of leading this committee leaves a taste in people’s mouth that science is not as cool as it really is,” Kopser said in an interview. “You’ve got Lamar Smith questioning, doubting and putting politics into science in such a way that I’m afraid that it’ll lead people who might want to go into STEM to stay out of it.”

In the primaries, Kopser was not the only candidate with STEM credentials who ran to replace Smith. Republican Sam Temple, a statistician for AT&T, finished a distant 12th in a crowded field of 18 candidates, after an oddball campaign in which he opined memorably on Stanley Milgram’s controversial social psychology experiments during a speech to the Bexar County Republican Women.

Temple, a centrist who plans to vote for Kopser over Republican Chip Roy in the general election, said he ran for Smith’s seat because he did not want to see another “fear-mongering, science-hating Republican” take office. In 2013, Temple was enraged when Smith drafted a bill that critics feared would undermine the peer-review process at the National Science Foundation.

“I remember sitting at my desk at work reading this news article and beating my head against the desk and saying, ‘What the heck is going on?’” Temple said.

Other Texas candidates with STEM backgrounds express similar frustrations at the status of scientific discourse in national politics. Carla Morton, a neuropsychologist running for the State Board of Education as a Democrat, said she remembers feeling dismayed when Trump posited a connection between vaccines and autism, a dubious claim backed by little scientific evidence. And Michelle Beckley, a Democrat with a bachelor’s degree in biomedical sciences who is running for a state House seat in Carrollton, said she wishes politicians would act on data showing the prevalence of gun violence across the country.

Over the course of her campaign, Beckley — whose knowledge of biology helps her prevent diseases from spreading in the bird shop she took over in 2003 — has applied lessons from her scientific training to her political strategy, as she looks to make inroads in a district where the incumbent, state Rep. Ron Simmons, R-Carrollton, cruised to re-election two years ago. Because she ran unopposed in the Democratic primary, Beckley treated that election as an experiment, sending different political mailers — one emblazoned with a donkey, for example, and another lacking equine imagery — to various precincts in her district to see which version generated greater turnout on Election Day.

“There’s no randomness in my campaign,” Beckley said. “I look at the data, so I know what works and what doesn’t work.”

A victory for Morton, Beckley, Sawyer, Kopser or Kennedy would not be the first time that someone with scientific bona fides has broken into Texas politics. Longtime Republican state Sen. Steve Ogden worked as an engineer on nuclear submarines during his career in the Navy. And Ron Paul, the two-time presidential candidate and former Texas congressman, was a doctor who cited his medical experience when he spoke out against abortion.

At the moment, however, only 16 of the Texas Legislature’s 181 members have STEM backgrounds, according to 314 Action. State Rep. Jason Isaac, R-Dripping Springs, a businessman who serves on the House Energy Resources committee, said it "couldn't hurt" to have more scientists in the Legislature. But he maintained that politicians with backgrounds in business and law also offer important perspectives on environmental issues.

"If someone just comes in and says 'we've got to get rid of fossil fuels 100 percent,' I completely disagree with that just because of the economic impact that that would have on the state of Texas," said Isaac, who unsuccessfully ran for Smith's seat in Congress this year, finishing fourth in the Republican primary. "But their science is certainly going to be welcome."

Many scientists avoid politics because they don’t want their research to become politicized, said Naughton, the founder of 314 Action.

“That is a legitimate concern,” she said. “But that is happening already, and it’s not going to change by pretending that because it’s ill-conceived, it will go away.”

Since its founding four years ago, 314 Action has provided financial support and political advice to STEM professionals interested in running for office. The organization teaches potential candidates how to create fundraising plans and convert their impressive CVs into political narratives suitable for the campaign trail.

One of the candidates 314 Action has worked with this election cycle is Sawyer, the engineer running for a state House seat in Houston.

Sawyer has always enjoyed doing math problems. She finds it calming, she said, “almost like meditation.” Someday, she said, she hopes to send her son, now 8 months old, to a local space camp.

“I just think it’s amazing that this crazy old world can be structured and defined by numbers,” she said.

As Election Day approaches, Sawyer hopes to take that appreciation for analytical thinking to a broader audience and defend scientific inquiry against what she calls “a war on the truth.”

“I never went to war for my country,” she said. “This is my — safe — version of that.”

Original Article

Spectrum News: "Candidate Conversation: Joseph Kopser"

By Karina Kling

AUSTIN, Texas -- The Democratic candidate in the race to replace longtime Republican Congressman Lamar Smith has called immigration "one of the defining issues of our time."

"Responding to news that the U.S. House will vote on competing for immigration bills next week, Joseph Kopser said real immigration reform is needed quickly."

“Let's make a path to legalization and then citizenship so that we can not only do what's right by families and the American people, but let's add new workers to the American workforce because as I travel around the ten counties of this district, there are help wanted signs that are fading in the sun and we need more people in this country to do that," Kopser said.

Original Article

BuzzFeed News: "Combat Veterans Are Running On A Gun Control Message — But Can They Win?"

By Paul McLeod

"An ad from Pat Ryan, an Iraq War veteran and one of the Democratic candidates running in a Republican district in upstate New York, cuts from footage of US soldiers in combat to shots of children dressing in combat armor to attend class"

“If our children are going up against this,” says Ryan, holding a long-arm rifle, “they should have the same protection we give our soldiers. Or we could just get rid of assault rifles. What makes more sense to you?”

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Medium: "We Must Take Action to Keep Families Together"

"Right now in Texas and along the U.S./Mexico border, children are being intentionally separated from their families, incarcerated in detention centers, and subjected to harmful conditions through no fault of their own. There is no better evidence that our immigration system is broken and the values we share are being abandoned."

"On Thursday, I joined with Congressman Joaquin Castro, the Texas House’s Mexican American Legislative Caucus, and a broad coalition of San Antonians to protest the forced separation of families. The next day, we rallied with candidates at the state and federal level, along with local Austin activists, to protest the lack of leadership that has allowed the President to pursue these policies unchecked."

"I’m proud to join these other candidates, activists, elected officials, and community leaders to protest the Trump Administration’s inhumane policy of ripping families apart at the border."

Original Article

CrowdPac: "Joseph Kopser wins Texas runoff!"

"On Tuesday, veteran, and entrepreneur Joseph Kopser took home a victory in the primary runoff for Texas’ 21st Congressional District. It was a decisive win for Kopser — winning by 16 percentage points — and now he’s going to make most of this opportunity to flip this deeply red seat blue in November."

But he wasn’t always sure that running for office was for him.

Original Article

Science Magazine: "The science candidate Kopser, builds big tent after win in Texas"

By Jeffrey Mervis

"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, NewYork-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.”

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Vice: "Texas Is Kicking Off the First Round of the Trump Midterms"

By: Robert Wheel

"The 21st contains the heavily Republican Hill Country, conservative-but-turning-purple San Antonio suburbs, and a deep blue slice of Austin. At the start of the decade, it was safely Republican, but only gave Trump 53 percent last year, and now that Rep. Lamar Smith is retiring, Democrats think they have a shot. So…

"Vote for Joe Kopser if you want to nominate the strongest general-election candidate. The veteran, scientist and businessman cuts the ideal profile for a Democrat running for a Republican-leaning seat."

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Washington Post: "2018 is the year of scientists running for Congress"

By: Ben Guarino and Laurie McGinley

"An aerospace engineer trained at the U.S. Military Academy, Kopser promises on his website not to pander to any special interest but to base his public positions on two things: constituent “input and verified scientific data.” Part of a nationwide wave of scientifically trained people running for office at every level of government this year, Kopser said he was motivated to run because he sees science being devalued in society — particularly by the Trump administration.

“'I absolutely feel that science is under attack,' Kopser said. 'It’s the opposite of when John F. Kennedy said he wanted to get us to the moon in less than 10 years. The way Trump is going, in 10 years, he’ll have us back in caves.'”

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Ozy: "This Army Vet and Tech Entrepreneur Wants to Fix Congress"

By: Daniel Malloy

"For national Democrats he’s a dream candidate: Army veteran, tech entrepreneur, compelling delivery on the stump, gobs of donations in his campaign bank account. It’s the recipe Democrats believe gives them a rare opportunity to win a seat that stretches from Austin to San Antonio, while jutting out into Hill Country. After Republican Rep. Lamar Smith announced he’s retiring after 30 years, his turf became a battleground for energized Democrats and a pack of 18 Republicans drawing blood on their side of the ballot. The Cook Political Report declares that Kopser 'could pull off an upset in a wave.'

"If enough voters stick with him through this ride, and Kopser pulls off a November upset, his victory could serve as a model for Democrats across a fast-changing state and launch talk about higher office. 'I don’t know how you hold that brother back,' Cummings says of Kopser. And if this political thing falls through, there’s always outer space."

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San Antonio Express News: "S.A. races reflect the fierce battle for control of Congress"

By: Bill Lambrecht

"Kopser... said he wants to appeal to people who might say: 'You know what, this Kopser guy, he might not be my perfect cup of tea. We might argue on some points, but my gosh, he gets stuff done.'

"He added: 'Do Democrats believe it’s most important to find the purest candidate and make a point? Or do they want to find the most viable candidate and make progress? That is what Tuesday is going to come down to.'”

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Science As Fact: "Meet The Rocket Scientist Running to Replace The Most Notorious Climate Denier in Congress"

By: Carly Cassella

"'I'll be at a bar talking about hard and complex problems, and people will look at me like, 'Well what are you? Some kind of rocket scientist?' And I just smile and say, 'Ah, I've dabbled.''

"Kopser is running for Congress in Texas' 21st District because he believes his scientific background makes him uniquely qualified for office.

"From serving in Iraq to starting and selling an award-winning business called Ride Scout, Kopser's application of the scientific method has come in handy on more than one occasion."

Original Article

Scientific American: "Lone Star Long Shot: Science Runs for Congress"

By: David S. Rauf

"Backed by the science community, Kopser says that at a time when scientists and researchers are increasingly under attack by the White House and some in Congress, the country needs politicians that believe in data and evidence-based policy-making, not ideology-driven policies.

"'To win this race, it’s going to take somebody who can not only win Democrats but can pull in some Republicans who are looking to find common ground and don’t like the hostility in Washington,' says Joe Trippi, a veteran national Democratic consultant advising the Kopser campaign and 314 Action."

Original Article

Science Magazine: "Aerospace engineer and ‘clean energy warrior’ eyes Texas congressional seat"

By: Jeffrey Mervis

"Most politicos expect the district, a classic gerrymander by the state legislature that stretches from Austin to San Antonio and includes parts of the deeply conservative hill country, to remain in Republican hands. But Kopser believes that his combination of military service, entrepreneurship, and civic engagement will appeal to enough mainstream Democrats, independents, and moderate Republicans to overturn that conventional wisdom. And when Joseph Kopser believes something, he acts on it.

“'I don’t wait for somebody to invite me,” he says. “When I see a problem, I go after it.'”

Original Article